What Is A Seed Catalog? (Plus How To Read One)


If you are new to gardening, you may not know what a seed catalog is, and why you need one.  If you have never looked through a seed catalog before, you are missing out!

So, what is a seed catalog?  A seed catalog is a printed or digital book that tells you all about the seeds and plants that a company has for sale.  A seed catalog includes pictures of some of their plants, along with descriptions of the plants and information about growing requirements and disease resistance.

Of course, there are some things that are helpful to know when looking through a seed catalog.  Let’s take a closer look at seed catalogs and how to read one so that you can make an informed decision about the seeds you order for this year’s garden.

What Is A Seed Catalog?

A seed catalog is a printed or digital book that contains information about the seeds, seedlings, bushes, and trees that a seed company or nursery has for sale that year.

squash seeds
A seed catalog tells you all about the plants and varieties that a company has for sale, and shows some pictures of what the mature plants and fruit will look like.

A seed catalog contains details about each plant, such as how long it takes to mature, whether it is organic, and when to transplant into the garden.

Seed catalogs often include pictures of the brightest or newest varieties of each crop so that you can get a preview of what they look like at maturity.

Of course, a seed catalog includes pricing information on all of the seeds.  That way, you can compare prices between seed companies.

You can also decide to buy larger seed packets to get a bulk discount, and then share with family and friends.

Some seed catalogs go into lots of detail when describing their seeds.  It can be overwhelming for a new gardener, so let’s take it one step at a time.

How to Read a Seed Catalog

If you know what to look for and what to expect, a seed catalog can give you the information you need to make a good decision about which seeds to order.  First things first – the name of the crop tells you what you are growing and lets you compare to other similar crops.

Crop Name (Type of Plant)

Seed catalogs are divided into sections, based on the type of plant.

There are many different types of corn, including sweet corn, popcorn, and ornamental corn. There are also lots of varieties within each of these categories, including “Silver Queen” sweet corn.

For example, looking at the 2020 Gurney’s Seed Catalog, the “Sweet Corn” heading comes before the descriptions of each variety of sweet corn that the company offers.  There are also headings for “Popcorn” and “Ornamental Corn”.

Variety (Cultivar)

Underneath each type of plant, there are multiple varieties that you can choose from.

For example, under “Sweet Corn”, I can see “Kandy Korn” and “Silver Queen” varieties listed, among others.  The descriptions tell us more about each variety and how they compare.

Description

The description of a crop variety may tell you about the history, flavor, and nature of the variety.

For example, the “Silver Queen” description tells me that it is one of the most popular High-Sugar Hybrid corn varieties in America.

Fruit Size

The fruit size is often found in the description, and tells us what to expect from the plant’s fruit at maturity.

tomato plant with fruit
Fruit size tells you how large the fruit from a plant will be at maturity.

For example, the “Silver Queen” fruit size is “8 to 9 inch ears”, with 14 to 16 rows of kernels.

Plant Size (Height and Width)

The plant size is different from the fruit size.  The plant size tells you about how tall the plant will grow and how wide the leaves will spread.

tomato stakes
Plant size tells you how tall and wide a plant will grow.

This makes it easier to plan ahead for how much space you will need in your garden, and how many of each crop you can plant.

Days to Maturity (Days to Harvest)

A seed catalog lists the days to maturity for each plant.  “Days to Maturity” means the time it will take to grow mature fruit that can be harvested from the plant.

For example, the “Silver Queen” Days to Maturity is listed as 88 days.  This means that it will take about 3 months to get the fruit size listed earlier in the plant description.

You may also see the words early-season, mid-season, or late-season used to describe some plants.  This tells you when they mature, and can give you a hint as to when you should plant your seeds.

Many catalogs will suggest a planting date based on the last spring frost date in your area.  To find the last spring frost date where you live, use this frost date calculator from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Seed Pricing

A seed catalog lists the pricing for each size of seed packet that they offer for a given plant variety.  This allows you to compare prices with other seed companies.  It also helps you to decide whether to order a larger seed packet and get a bulk discount.

pumpkin seeds
Buying in bulk can save money if you have a large garden, or want to share with family and friends.

For example, the “Silver Queen” variety of sweet corn can be purchased as:

  • a packet of approximately 250 seeds for $6.99 ($6.99 / 250 = about 2.8 cents per seed)
  • a packet of ½ pound of seeds for $24.99 (we would need to know how many seeds there are per pound to calculate a per-seed price – this might involve calling or emailing the company)
  • a packet of 2 pounds of seeds for $79.99 (this is a 20% discount over what we pay for a ½ pound seed packet)

Disease Resistance

Resistance to common plant diseases is usually indicated in the plant description, since it can vary depending on the variety.  Some varieties are specifically bred to resist a certain disease.

tomato early blight
Here we can see late blight on a tomato plant. This disease can devastate a tomato crop, so it is a good idea to buy resistant plants.

For example, the “Silver Queen” sweet corn variety is listed as tolerant to Southern Leaf Blight, Northern Leaf Blight, and Stewart’s Wilt Disease.

You may also see abbreviations used to denote disease resistance.  For example, “F” often stands for resistance to fusarium wilt.

Maybe you had a problem with a plant disease in the past, or perhaps you know that a disease is common in your area.  Either way, it is worth paying attention to these disease resistance labels when reading a seed catalog.

Genetic Origin (Organic, Hybrid, Heirloom, Open Pollinated)

Seeds and plants can have labels that indicate their genetic origin, including organic, hybrid, heirloom, and open pollinated.

You will usually see an indication of the genetic origin of a plant in its name (such as “White Knight Hybrid”) or in the section heading (such as “Hybrid Sweet Corn”).

pumpkins seeds
Hybrid seeds come from plants that are cross-pollinated (chosen by breeders in an attempt to get offspring with specific traits).

Hybrid seeds come from cross-pollinated plants.  This means that breeders choose two parent plants (a mother and a father) in the hopes of producing offspring (seeds) that have a particular trait (or combination of traits).

For more information, check out my article on advantages and disadvantages of hybrid seeds.

Heirloom seeds come from open pollinated plants, and come from varieties that are at least 50 years old.  Organic seeds can be either open pollinated or hybrid (cross pollinated).

For more information, check out my article on the difference between organic and heirloom seeds.

Annual, Biennial, Perennial

This tells you how often the crop will need to be planted.

  • For an annual plant, you need to plant seeds every year, since the plants will die off after producing fruit, or when they encounter a killing frost.  An example of an annual crop is a tomato plant.  For more information, check out this article on annual plants from Wikipedia.
  • For a biennial plant, the life cycle takes two years instead of one.  These plants grow leaves, stems, and shoots in the first year, and produce flowers and fruit (or seeds) in the 2nd year.  An example of a biennial crop is parsley.  For more information, check out this article on biennial plants from Wikipedia.
  • For a perennial plant, you do not need to plant every year.  These plants can survive winter (either through dormancy or dying back of the parts above ground).  In fact, some perennials can survive for decades!  An example of a perennial crop is rhubarb.  For more information, check out this article on perennial plants from Wikipedia.
rhubarb leaves
Rhubarb is a perennial plant that can survive winters and thrive for many years.

Growing Conditions

Seed catalogs will usually list some of the necessary growing conditions for the plant varieties they are selling.  Some of the conditions they may specify include:

  • Sunlight – many plants need at least 8 hours of sunlight per day.
  • Soil pH – most plants do well in a soil with a pH between 6 and 7, although some (such as blueberries and azaleas) like acidic soil in the range of 4.5 to 5.5.
  • Soil Moisture and Watering – some plants like well-draining soil, some can tolerate drought well, and some need to have the soil moist all the time.
  • Fertilizing – some plants are “heavy feeders”, and will need to be “side-dressed” with fertilizer during the season to keep them growing for the best harvest.
sunlight through forest
Most plants need plenty of sunlight in order to thrive, so don’t plant them too close to trees or buildings!

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone

The USDA has split the U.S. into Plant Hardiness Zones.  This tells you how cold each zone gets, and thus is a good indication of which plants can survive there.

frost
Frost dates, length of growing season, and USDA Hardiness Zone are important to determine what you can grow in your garden.

For example, you might see “Asparagus does well in Zones 3 through 8.  It can be grown in Zone 2 if offered cold protection.”

To find your Hardiness Zone, check out this Zone Hardiness Map from the USDA.

How to Start Seeds (Transplant or Direct Sow)

This indicates whether you start seeds indoors (and transplant outside later) or start directly in the ground (no need to transplant later).

Certain warm-weather crops, such as tomatoes, do not tolerate frost, and should be started from seeds indoors.  Of course, you can buy established seedlings and just plant those when it gets warm enough.

tomato seedling
Tomato seedlings should be started indoors and transplanted later in the spring, since they do not tolerate cold well.

For more information, check out my article on planting seeds directly in the ground, and my article on hardening off seedlings (preparing them for transplant to the outdoors).

How to Transplant Seedlings

If seeds are started indoors and transplanted outdoors later, a seed catalog will often specify when to transplant and how to do it.  Often, the suggested timeframe will be in terms of the last spring frost date for you area.

As mentioned earlier, finding the last spring frost date in your area is useful for transplanting.  You can find frost dates on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website.

Dwarf Varieties

Finally, some plant types are dwarf varieties.  This means that they do not get as tall as other “standard” varieties of that crop.

A dwarf variety often will not produce as much fruit as a standard variety.  However, they can be nice to have if your space is limited, or if you want to grow indoors.

What Is The Best Place To Buy Seeds Online?

There are tons of websites where you can buy seeds for your garden online.  Some of them include:

There are dozens of other seed and nursery companies, so don’t stop your search here!  Lots of companies specialize in plants that may interest you.

Conclusion

By now, you know what a seed catalog is and how to read one.  The information given in a seed catalog can help you to choose the best seeds for your garden and your climate.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions about seed catalogs, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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