10 Tips for Selecting Plant Seeds

Tips on Choosing Seeds From Catalogs and Web sites

January 12, 2021
2021 Catalogs

Here are the catalogs we have received in the mail so far…more to come!

Robin Sweetser

Winter has barely begun, but if you haven’t started planning next summer’s garden, now is a good time to start. Seed catalogs are already arriving in mailboxes. Here’s what to expect after last year’s chaotic spring—plus, tips on how to shop for garden seeds for 2021 gardening season.

The high numbers of first-time gardeners last year wiped out seed supplies. This year, seed companies have planned ahead, expecting 2 to 3 times the usual volume.

Rest assured that they will have plenty of seeds to sell, but COVID guidelines could still affect their ability to fill the orders quickly while keeping their employees safe. This could result in delays, especially if you wait until later in spring to place your order.

Have a Game Plan

Catalogs began to arrive in the mailbox early this year, but before you even look at their new offerings, take stock of what you’ve got to work with:

  • Do an inventory of the seeds you have on hand. Sort out what grew well in your garden and what didn’t. No sense getting all excited about new lettuce varieties if you still have six packets of lettuce from last year! With the exception of onion, most seeds last at least a couple years if stored in a cool, dry place. See my post on how long seeds last.
  • Set aside any seeds that you don’t plan to use this year to give to gardening friends or donate them to a seed swap. If you didn’t like something, don’t waste space growing it again.
  • Speaking of space, be realistic about how much good, sunny growing space you actually have. Make a map or use the Almanac Garden Planner to figure out just how many plants fit in the space.
  • How dedicated are you? Do you plan to start your own transplants indoors? Do you only need to purchase seeds that can be direct sown? Remember, the more you plant the more you have to take care of.
  • When planning, start with your must-haves then make a wish list for any leftover space.

Image: Heirloom tomatoes. Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds. 

Catalogs Are Pure Edutainment

Now that you have a game plan, you can dive in. Whether you prefer paper catalogs or shopping online, both make entertaining and educational reading for gardeners. 

(See the Almanac’s list of U.S. seed catalogs and Canadian seed catalogs.) When it comes to catalogs, the more, the merrier since they all have difference specialties.

The paper catalogs are often beautiful and it’s a joy to turn the pages while sipping a hot drink in front of the fire. Plus, who could deny the beauty of heirloom catalog art?

In addition, the catalogs are full of no-nonsense planting and growing advice—as well as information on new introductions and old reliables. 

  • Learn about types of seeds: F1 and F2 hybrids, heirlooms, which plants are open-pollinated (so you can save the seeds for next year), and what is patent protected.
  • Disease resistances are noted, so if late blight always takes out your tomato plants, look for resistant varieties.
  • Drought-tolerant varieties that stand up to summer heat are especially helpful to gardeners in warmer climates.
  • The number of days to maturity is important, especially for northern gardeners whose growing season may come to an abrupt halt before their plants start producing anything edible.
  • Make note of the number of seeds in a packet. If you are getting 100 broccoli seeds, maybe you can team up with your neighbors and pool your orders. Pinetree sells small packets, perfect for the home gardener, and some companies like Renee’s Garden offer collections and mixes, which allow you to grow a wider variety of plants without having to buy individual packets of each one.
  • Many regional seed companies, like Fedco and non-profits Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH, will let you know the back-story of their seeds, as well as where and how they were grown. Some companies, like Fedco, are co-operatives, which keeps prices low. Others, like Johnny’s Seeds, are employee-owned.
  • Consider seed companies that aren’t just corporations that buy and resell seed, but actually grow many of their own seed crops—such as High Mowing Seeds, Johnny’s Selected
    Seeds, and Sand Hill Preservation Center.
  • Each has its specialties. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers only heirlooms and interesting Asian varieties, while Totally Tomatoes offers—you guessed it—mainly tomatoes. Some, like High Mowing and Hudson Valley, offer only organic, open-pollinated seeds.
  • Many, like Johnny’s and Botanical Interests, are full of growing advice. There are many more great seed companies to choose from.

While perusing the catalogs and websites, try not to be “seeduced” by the lavish descriptions and glossy enhanced photos (we call it garden porn). Chances are your plants will never look like or produce as much as promised in the catalog. (See my previous post on reading between the lines in the seed catalogs.)

Start seed shopping soon and you’ll be transported to your ideal summer garden. The number of new gardeners out there has blossomed so order early.

The best advice I can give this year is not to overbuy. No hoarding! Unlike toilet paper, seeds don’t last forever!

Starting Seeds

Once you’ve got your seeds in hand, it’s time to get them started! Read all about how to start seeds indoors to get a jump on the growing season, or learn about direct-sowing seeds in the garden outdoors.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.