Ordering Garden Seeds (and Getting a Jump on Spring!)

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Tips on ordering seeds, understanding catalog and plant terms, and more.

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Even in winter, gardening can brighten our days—with colorful, beautiful seed catalogs! Sit back in the armchair and let’s talk about how to order seeds, host a seed swap, or select seeds at a local nursery. 

After the holidays, garden seed companies and nurseries start introducing their plant inventories for the year and it can be exciting to see what’s new!

Where do we buy the highest-quality seeds and plants? We’ve posted some favorite garden seed catalogs here. Most are free or you can browse the Web site. 

But even if you prefer to go into a local shop to find seeds, they’re still very useful for inspiration and can help you learn more about plants and planning your own garden.

Seed Swapping

Another fun (and free!) way to pick up seeds is to do a “seed swap” with friends who are gardeners, especially if you have a community garden. It can be a great way to kick off spring!

Sometimes farmers’ markets or local libraries will help sponsor seed swaps (or, ask your library if you can lead one!). In a seed swap, everyone brings last year’s seeds or seeds they don’t want and “swaps” for some other seed varieties they’re more interested in. You can promote the event to gardening groups on social media or local garden societies in town!

How to Buy Seeds

  • Obtain catalogs from trusted national brand names who may work with local growers, but also consider some of the local growers. Some of the small regional seed sources carry heirlooms and special varieties best suited to your area.
  • Before you order, why not contact your local county cooperative extension service office and ask about varieties that are known to do well in your area. Discuss any specific problems you’ve had with pests or disease.
  • Make a list of what you’d like to grow, but check it twice before you order. A pause or two will give you a chance to change your mind. Remember that the garden is actually one-quarter the size you think it is.
  • Plan to buy enough seeds to sow them thickly. Inevitably, you’ll suffer some losses (bugs, birds, weather), and you can always thin later if you end up with an excess.
  • Look for disease-resistant varieties, especially if you’ve had problems in your garden previously. If you simply see the words, “disease-resistant” and no other information, that’s meaningless and probably marketing hype. Good catalogs will explain disease resistance specifics. For example, when purchasing tomato garden seeds, look for varieties labeled with a VFN designation after their name. This means the variety is resistant to several types of wilt and nematode damage.
  • Avoid discounted seeds sold at chain stores. They probably haven’t been stored under ideal conditions, and you may find germination to be spotty.

Garden Plant and Seed Terms

  • Days to Maturity: Pay careful attention to the number of “days to maturity” included in every catalog description. If your growing season has 85 predictable frost-free days, chances are you won’t harvest a watermelon that needs 120 days to ripen. The warmer the climate, the more frost-free days you’ll have. See our Frost Charts which will tell you your last spring frost, your first fall frost, and your growing season in days.
  • Days to Harvest: Also, if you’re a vegetable grower and seeding indoors, consider the “days to harvest” which is the number of days from when the plants are set out into the garden for that plant to bear the fruit.
  • Days to Bloom or Bloom Seasons: For flower lovers, it helps to know how long it will take a plant to flower and what month(s) you can expect flowers. Try to plan your flower planting so that you get continuous color with early, mid-, and late bloomers.
  • Determinate/Indeterminate: Growing tomatoes? Determinate tomato plants grow to a certain size, fruit all at once, and then stop growing. These are good choices for growing in containers. Indeterminate tomatoes are “vining “varieties” and continue to grow and fruit until frost and will need to be staked or caged.
  • Direct Sow: This describes seeds that can should directly into the ground when growing conditions are ready. Some crops or flowers are best planted as seeds and others are best bought as small plants from a nursery and then transplanted into the ground. See seed-starting preference by plant.

  • Heirloom versus Hybrid Seeds: “Heirloom” plants are the standard vegetables and flowers that folks grew for centuries before commercial hybrids came along in the 1950s through 1970s. Hybrids were created for for better shipping, durability, disease-resistance, and marketability; however, hybrids often lack the complex taste and character of heirlooms. You don’t need to pick all of one or all of another. Learn more about heirloom vegetables.

To avoid wasting seeds, you’ll want to first plan your garden out. Our Almanac Garden Planner will calculate the amount of space for each vegetable so you know how many seeds to buy.

More Tips on Choosing Seeds

  • Make sure you understand whether a plant requires an early start indoors or not. If are open to starting indoors, a grow light can be as simple as a fluorescent shop light hung over your seedlings. See our article on choosing a grow light.
  • Remember that fast-growing vegetables, such as lettuce, radish, spinach, and beans, can be planted several times throughout the spring and summer so it may be worth buying extra seeds.
  • Buy only what your family will eat. Don’t buy vegetables that no one likes.
  • Consider the size of your garden space. If it’s small, don’t choose space-hoggers such as pumpkin or sweet corn; select higher-yielding, more compact vegetables, such as salad greens, tomatoes, beans, and peppers.
  • Clean your garden pots and be sure to give your gardening tools some TLC and an annual sharpening.
  • Start thinking about seed supplies such as collecting containers for starting seeds indoors (if that’s the plan) and perhaps a heat map for germination or an inexpensive grow light if needed. Learn more about how to start your seeds!

Show me your garden and I will tell you what you are.
–Alfred Austin (1835–1913)

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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