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Deciphering Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs start coming in January or February - a good time to start dreaming of your next garden!
But there is so much information packed into a seed catalog it can be hard to interpret the abbreviations and array of plant varieties. This article will help you to decipher your seed catalogs so that you can choose the best plants for your garden.

Marjorie Blare, Master Gardener

Deciphering Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs start coming in January or February - a good time to start dreaming of your next garden!

There is so much information packed into a seed catalog! Most people have no problem with the catalogs’ rapturous descriptions of flowers or produce. After all, the catalogs are full of (probably 'enhanced') photos! More bewildering are the icons next to the photos. A good catalog has a key that explains what each icon means. They might have a drawing of a circle that is half dark and half light. They should also explain how many hours of direct sun that icon indicates, perhaps 4-6 hours. The key may be at the front of the catalog, or at the bottom of the page.


Plant descriptions can have letters next to them. For instance, tomatoes may have the letters VFM. This means that variety has resistance to verticillium, fusarium wilt and nematodes. Without those letters, describing a plant as “disease resistant” is useless. Tomatoes will be listed as determinate (bush) or indeterminate (vining). You may find the letters OP (open pollinated), F1 (first generation hybrid) or X (a 'cross') in its name. F2 is a hybrid that can only be propagated vegetatively. These letters are important if you wish to save seeds. The OP seeds will breed true, but not the others.


Flowers will have 'days to bloom' and/or 'bloom season' in their description, and veggies will have days to maturity or harvest. Note: 'days to harvest' for plants started indoors count from the day it is planted out. These numbers are based on the seed company's test gardens; choosing northern-grown seeds or plants, will make those numbers more accurate in Dakota County.


The description or icon will tell you when to direct-sow the seeds or when to start them under lights. The latter requires you to know the average date of the last or first frost. Dakota County's dates are May 8th and October 10th respectively. It will tell you how many seeds are in a package, how far apart to plant, soil conditions (alkaline or acidic, clay, sandy, loamy) and watering requirements. Left-over seeds can be donated to a seed library, shared with friends or saved in a dry jar in the refrigerator. There will be shipping charges on the packages of seeds, so try to order all at once, or with friends, or with a heavier item.


If you are getting perennials, make sure to choose plants that will grow in our U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) zone. Dakota County is zone 4. Some catalogs “stretch” the range of zones, so try to compare what different catalogs claim about the same plant or seed. Some catalogs include a USDA map and perhaps a table of temperature ranges. The catalog should list the scientific name of the plant, because common names are frequently shared by several unrelated plants.


On-line catalogs will have simplified descriptions, but also have links to click to open up more information. They may also have customer reviews which are very helpful!

Photo credit: (1)

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