How and why to use free garden catalogs to help you learn more and grow a great garden. Plus I share my favorite catalogs out of the bunch and the tried and true seeds I order regularly (hint: you'll want to try them, too...).
You can find more seed starting information in our Seed Starting Guide.
One of the things that helps me fight the post-holiday blahs each year are the free garden catalogs that start showing up in my mailbox in December. I put them aside during the busy season and then when January hits I enjoy reading through them slowly, preferably with a cup of tea, dreaming of the plants I want to grow in the new season.
I've learned a lot from all the information in the catalogs (some even provide planting charts and specific growing instructions), so I thought I'd share with you a few of my favorites, plus the seeds I make sure to buy regularly from them.
These are the seed varieties that have performed so well in my gardens that I would hate to be without them.
Why seeds again, instead of plants?
I've shared quite a bit about why I love starting plants from seeds, even when my garden is small. While there are four very good reasons to grow plants from seed, the main one for me is:
You get to determine when you plant your seeds and transplants.
This is very important to being able to grow the most you can in your space and your season limitations.
Secondary to that is to get to choose what you want, and if you save the seeds properly they'll last 2 to 5 years, saving some money, too.
OK, now that I've given you my seed-starting pep talk, on to how to use garden catalogs, which are my favorites, and the seeds I order from them.
How to Use Garden Catalogs
Seed and plant catalogs aren't like fashion and other catalogs - these are really very useful. All of them give information about the specific seeds and plants, but some go into much more depth, giving you detailed seed starting, planting, and harvesting information.
I actually learned a lot about growing food and flowers from catalogs when I was a new gardener.
Here's how to take advantage of this free information, plan for your garden, and maybe create an after holidays tradition you can look forward to:
- First, look through each catalog, even ones you've never ordered from and probably never will. It's a way to see what's new, remind yourself of what you've grown and may want to grow again. You don't have to look through all of them if you're not as into is as I am, lol, but you'll probably want to choose 3-5 to be on top of what's going on in the garden world.
- Next, go through the ones you like the best with a pen and start circling any seeds you want to try. This is the "dreaming" part - pay no attention to price or even if you already have the same seeds. Just circle and underline anything interesting, including any new planting tips.
Update: Actually, now I mostly combine these two steps, glancing through the catalogs I know I won't buy from, and using a pen the first time through my favorites. It's your choice!
- A week or two after the dreaming stage, it's time to get more serious. Pull out the seeds you have already (here's how I save my seeds) and go through them, writing down all the seeds you have and then noting what you need. (TIP: Using the section in the free Garden Journal Notebook makes this easy!)
- Now go back through your marked catalogs and start listing the seeds you need and from which company, which is also easy to keep track of in your garden notebook. And if you're anything like me, this is when you'll see the price climb and you'll need to pare down your list to more realistic amounts.
- Finally it's time to place your orders using your pared-down lists! I usually order from 2-3 companies (any more and the shipping eliminates any cost saving) and aim to get my orders in before the end of January to get the best selection. Yes, popular seeds sell out!
My Favorite Garden Catalogs for Seeds
Note: While my main order comes from a nonlocal company, garden catalogs that are near the area you live are one of the best ways to learn about varieties suited to your climate, as well as the best planting and harvesting times. You'll want to be sure to have any company's catalogs that are from your state or region delivered to your home.
I've ordered the bulk of my seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds even though they are all the way over in Maine because they sell smaller packets at very reasonable prices. I don't need 100 seeds of beans or tomatoes, so this works out great for me.
They've got great customer service and a nice selection of seeds as well as bulbs, roots, and some fruits. Their seed is not all organic, though they are offering more and more, and they don't sell any GMO seeds and try not to sell any treated seed.
In addition, they've got some nice books at great prices and a selection of soap-making and other craft supplies at discount prices, too.
What I buy regularly from Pinetree:
- Emerite Pole Bean. I LOVE it- I don't know why more catalogs don't carry it! (I love it so much, I wrote a whole article about it.) It is a filet-type pole bean that is good as a small filet, but keeps it's tenderness (and stringless-ness) even when left to grow 8-9 inches. The one thing about this type is that it seems to wind down in the dog days of August and you wonder if it's done...but watch out! As soon as the rains come again, the beans start producing like crazy and don't stop until cut down by frost. I harvested these all the way into the first week in November when the Blue Lake poles were only a dim memory! UPDATE: Sadly, they don't sell this anymore. I've been able to get seeds when I can't save them myself at Vermont Bean Seed Company.
- Pinetree Lettuce Mix (and also the Winter Lettuce Mix). Their lettuce mixes are most reasonable priced for a great mix of lettuce to grow in the cut-and-come-again method. I try to sow a row every couple of weeks in the spring.
- Cheddar Cauliflower. If you're going to grow your own, you might as well get the fun colors!
- Quickie Corn. I buy it every year because it's the earliest corn (64 days) with the best flavor I've found (for an early corn) . I like to have a few rows of these to get us through to the main corn season. (Want to grow a corn bed weed free? You can!)
- Brandywine & Pruden's Purple Tomatoes. Can. not. live. without. these.
This is a catalog from one of our local nurseries- it's just up the highway in Albany. They don't have as big a selection as some, but I know their seeds and trials are tailored to my area. They have decent prices, are a family-owned company in business for more than 50 years, sell no GMO seeds and use local farmers to help produce the seeds.
They also sell things so you can make your own cheese, beer, and tea (even the bags which I've done for gifts in the past!).
What I buy from Nichol's:
- Garlic. Good prices and nice selection, including Elephant garlic.
- Tricolor Mix Baby Belle peppers. I love having these in my garden! They have very few seeds so you can bite into them without getting a mouth full- but most importantly they're small enough to ripen to yellow, orange, and red even in our wet, cool climate!
- Oregon Giant snap pea. Sweet, good, and a reliable producer.
This catalog is from our other, larger, local nursery. They actually have a store about 10 minutes south of us that I try to get to in order to save on the shipping. Even if you don't plan to order from them, I encourage you to get the catalog because it has the most detailed seed-starting and growing information of any catalog out there.
Their seed packets are fairly large and on the more expensive side, but many varieties are offered as organic seed and they sell no GMO or treated seed, plus they do extensive trials on all the varieties they sell.
What I buy from Territorial:
Every year I order at least some tomatoes from them because I want the varieties that have proven themselves in our climate:
- Cherokee Purple tomato. My favorite heirloom- beats Brandywine in my book, but since Cherokee starts producing earlier and then pretty much finishes up when Brandywine is starting to come on strong, they're a good combo!
- Jolly Elf grape tomato. The best I've found so far: not too small, produces over a long time, and not so sweet that all the tomatoey-ness is taken out.
4. Seeds of Change.
They offer all organic and heirloom seeds (though I feel that traditional hybridization-which is NOT genetic modification- has a place in the garden for the disease-resistance and the flavor improvements they offer) with lovely pictures - I fairly drool when this comes in the mail.
I don't order from Seeds of Change as regularly as the other three, but I've bought:
- Arkansas Traveler Tomato (nice big tomato with a good flavor that was fun to grow)
- Amish Paste Tomato (most really love this, but I find it doesn't hold well, getting pretty mushy pretty fast)
- Colorful Carrot Blend (this is super fun to grow and pick, though we found we weren't fans of the flavor of white carrots...)
- New Red Fire Lettuce (wonderful color and slow to bolt, too)
Update: I've also ordered from Johnny's Selected Seeds in the past and know many gardeners love their selection and product.
So, find some catalogs from your climate zone (search online if you don't know), grab a cup of tea, put up your feet, and join me in one of my favorite after holidays traditions- dreaming of the garden future.
What catalogs do you like and what do you buy from them?
This article has been updated - it was originally published in January of 2011.
Make This Year's Garden A Success!