Is your mailbox beginning to fill with those colorful and tempting seed catalogs? According to the Direct Gardening Association, January is National Mail Order Gardening Month, and oh what temptations those catalogs hold for us. For those of us in colder climates, it’s the time when we can sit by the fire or a sunny window and dream of spring and gardens to come (and be envious of those who can start planting soon!).
The big question for me is not “if” I buy anything from the catalogs, but “what” to buy and who to buy from. Although local garden centers carry a good supply of plants and seeds, mail order gardening companies generally carry wider selections. Over the years, I’ve created a short list of tips that you might find helpful as you do your spring planning.
Who to buy from . . .
Before buying from a gardening catalog that I’m not familiar with, I always check with The Garden Watchdog from Dave’s Garden. This is a free, comprehensive online directory of gardening resources and companies. Here gardeners share their own mail order experiences and opinions regarding the quality, price and service each company provides. You can do an alphabetical search by company and with that you’ll see how many positive, negative or neutral reviews the company’s had.
One of the companies that is consistently in the top 30 most highly rated is Easy to Grow Bulbs which is part of Willow Creek Gardens, the only mail order company licensed to sell Flower Carpet roses and Volcano phlox. Be sure to check out the other companies that appear on the Garden Watchdog’s Top 30 list!
If you’re confused about any of the jargon used in gardening catalogs, this piece on Learning to Speak Garden Catalog by Marie Iannotti may help.
What to buy . . .
So many choices! I can’t help trying some of the newest varieties of flower and veggies seeds each year, but I’ve also come to depend on those that are marked as “Customer Favorites”. The All-American Seed Selections (AAS) is also a good place to look for new and old “winners”. This group tests new cultivars for garden performance and then lists their winning choices on their website. Most catalogs will include the AAS Winner logo on any plants that have received this honor.
If you’re interested in saving a bit on annuals and sowing your own seeds, remember that some annuals (Bacopa, Petunias, Snapdragons, Impatiens and Osteospermum for example) take up to 18 weeks to reach the stage where they can be planted outdoors. So, unless you have space to start you own plants indoors, self-seeding should be limited to old-fashioned favorites like Cosmos, Calendula, Cleome, Alyssum, Nicontiana, Larkspur, Marigolds, Sunflowers, and Zinnias.
If you’re interested in heirloom, open-pollinated, untreated and/or organic seeds, you’re more likely to find a wider selection of these seeds from gardening catalogs than from local retailers. Territorial Seed Company and many others include many of these options in their catalogs, marked as such. There are also loads of smaller specialty catalogs such as Tomato Growers Supply which offers a selection of non-GMO tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds.
Many catalogs also offer small collections of vegetable plants – perfect for the urban gardener. These plant collections allow you to try 1 or 2 plants per variety rather than having to buy full 6-packs of a single variety. For instance, Harris Seeds, another popular site on The Garden Watchdog, has a great collection of their 5 top-selling Hot Pepper Plants.
When to buy . . .
If you’re planning on starting your own veggie or flower plants, read the catalog’s information on sowing time or the number of days to maturity. Then work backwards from there to determine when you’d need to start them indoors, based on your own zone, last frost date, etc.
Generally seeds are shipped almost immediately or as early in the spring as possible, whereas plants are shipped at a time appropriate for your growing zone. So, if you’re dealing with a reputable company, they’ll help to take the guess work out of the purchase timing.
If you’re buying hard goods from a mail order/online company, check to see if there’s any specifics about delivery time on those products, especially if they’re marked “shipped direct from manufacturer” which can often add a week or so to the delivery time.
A few other things to consider
Guarantees . . .
Every reputable mail order gardening company should have a “Guarantee” statement on their website or in the catalog. If you can’t find a guarantee policy or if it doesn’t include a full-refund or full-credit statement, shop elsewhere.
Shipping and Handling Fees . . .
Remember that mail order gardening companies charge shipping and handling fees. The handling includes more than simply putting your package in the mail. There’s more work than you might expect in storing seeds and plants in healthy conditions at the proper temperatures, packing the products carefully, and shipping at the proper time.
Customer Service . . .
Gardening catalogs’ customer service representatives are generally available online or through a toll-free number. These folks have been well trained to answer your questions and to help you become the best gardener possible. So, don’t hesitate to contact them with your questions.
Catalogs as a teaching tool for kids . . .
If your kids or grand kids are old enough to read the catalogs with you, have them spend some time picking and choosing a few packs of seeds to grow, reading and comparing the various options on easy-to-grow seeds like sunflowers, marigolds, beans, carrots, pumpkins and squash.
And finally, if you’re not using those colorful, cheerful gardening catalogs, instead of tossing them into the recycling bin consider donating the to a local grade school or daycare center. Children love to cut and paste the pictures to create their own little “gardens of delight.”