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The Gardener's Delight: Understanding Seed Catalogs


It's seed catalog season. The time of year catalogs arrive in the mail. They whet our appetite for new, different and exciting plants. Sometimes it’s hard to wade through all of the seed catalog information.

Most catalogs have a key to the symbols they use. Sometimes these keys are disguised as glossaries or indexes. To really understand each catalog, find the key. One catalog we have lists seed counts by the ounce. Another lists seed count by the pound. It’s good to know how many seeds you’re getting and whether you need a few ounces or a couple pounds.

It is important to know if the plant is a seedling variety or a hybridized plant. A plant variety is a genetically similar group of plants. Like a mix of Cosmos are all Cosmos plants but may have different colored flowers.

Some catalogs list open-pollinated varieties. Open-pollinated varieties reproduce themselves. These varieties are the classic version of `The Birds and The Bees’. The seeds of open-pollinated varieties can be saved and grown year after year.

Hybrids listed in catalogs are the result of the crossbreeding of two or more varieties. The careful cross-pollination and breeding produces a specific plant. A hybrid Cosmos has a precise, pink colored flower and all of the seeds of that hybrid are the same color pink. A hybrid tomato turns out the same tomato every time.

F1 hybrids are also listed. They are the first generation of the hybridization process. F1 hybrids have very strong traits. They tend to be more vigorous, more floriferous and, for vegetables, tastier. An F1 hybrid, or any hybrid, does not produce reliable seed that can be saved and used year after year.

Most catalogs give some cultural or growing information. Some catalogs are general. They may say `don’t let plants wilt’; `transplant in five weeks’; or `sow one seed per cell’. Other catalogs are detailed with seed sowing depth, light requirement, germination temperature and specific treatments.

Catalogs use symbols to catch our eyes. Scissors indicate a plant good for cut flowers. New is always capitalized or in bright colors. Some catalogs designate plants best used in containers or in that grow well in a greenhouse.

And then there are catalog descriptions. What is an elegant or intriguing flower? Tomatoes have `old fashion’ flavor. What is new tomato flavor? And do you really want an enormous eggplant?


Tom has been offering garden advice on KUNC for almost two decades. During that time he has been the wholesale sales manager at Ft. Collins Nursery, Inc. Since January of 2005 he has been the owner and operator of Throgmorton Plant Management, LLC., a landscape installation and maintenance company as well as a horticultural consulting firm. He lives in northern Ft. Collins with his wife and two kids.
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