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Unlocking the Mysteries of the Seed Catalog

Ronnie Budge
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When we were invited by the public library to present a winter series of gardening classes, JCMGA’s Speakers Bureau agreed that “Choosing Seeds for Spring Planting” would be a perfect topic. In January, when it’s just too cold and wet to work outdoors, gardeners in the Rogue Valley decide what we’ll plant once the weather warms up. And January is when seed catalogs arrive in our mailboxes. Eagerly flipping through them, we gaze at the colorful photos, read the enticing descriptions, and place our orders.

My PowerPoint presentation began with some basic advice. I said that before making their choices, viewers should understand their gardening conditions: do they have lots of sun, shade, or some of both? Will they be planted in raised beds, in the ground, or in pots? How long is their growing season, from the last frost in spring to the first in fall? Next, what are their needs and preferences for flowers and vegetables: colors, heights, bloom times? Do they want vegetables for fresh eating or canning? Is flavor or long storage most important to them?

Only after answering these questions is it time to decide what to grow. One way is to browse the seed racks in garden centers, grocery stores, and the like. Seed packets have descriptions of each variety’s attributes, how long from sowing until first harvest, what month to plant, how deep and how far apart to place those seeds.

But seed racks usually offer only a few varieties of each kind of flower or vegetable. For much more to choose from, there are seed company catalogs (in print and online.) I don’t know how many seed companies there are in the U.S., but I counted more than a dozen.

And to explain how to “read” and understand them, I showed sample pages from the Territorial Seed Company catalog. Territorial is located in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Though it doesn’t produce all the seeds it sells, it trials every variety to find the ones that will grow best in the Pacific Northwest. It also has the most thorough and easy-to-understand cultural information I’ve seen.

As with every seed catalog, codes are used throughout. Among the most important are the symbols F1 and OP. I explained that F1 designates a hybrid, i.e., a cross between two varieties to achieve a new one with the best characteristics of each of the parents. Hybrids are usually more uniform than open-pollinated plants, and may display “hybrid vigor,” i.e., grow faster and/or bigger than their parents. But gardeners may not care so much about uniformity. And, if a gardener wants to save their own seed from year to year, they must grow open-pollinated plants.

There is sometimes confusion between the terms “open-pollinated” and “heirloom.” Territorial uses the symbol of a clock to designate their heirloom varieties. Master Gardeners know that heirlooms are varieties that have been loved and grown by generations of gardeners, perhaps because of exceptional flavor or disease resistance. However, breeders can and do produce new varieties of open-pollinated plants. So, although all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Other symbols are the ones for cold hardy and dual season plants; container friendly varieties; and the amount of sunshine required to grow each kind successfully. There also are abbreviations for resistance to diseases that infest some vegetables including cucumbers and tomatoes.

I showed viewers where to find species names in the Territorial catalog, and what they mean (not important to know for most vegetables, but useful in the case of squashes.) For tomatoes, I explained the difference between “determinate” and “indeterminate” types. And I pointed out the availability of pelleted seed and seed tape for those who want an easier way of sowing tiny seeds.

Before signing off, I encouraged viewers to borrow or buy a copy of JCMGA’s Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley. It has so much information I couldn’t include in my talk, like the length of the growing season in different parts of the Rogue Valley, and the NPK values of various organic fertilizers.

If you’d like to brush up on your skills at reading seed catalogs and deciding which varieties will best suit your gardening needs, click here to view my one-hour presentation on the library’s YouTube channel.