Seed catalogs usually start showing up in your mailbox just before the ball drops on the New Year and the clothing catalogs come out with spring fashions. Buying vegetable and flower seeds is probably the last thing on your mind, and you may well be wondering, what's the rush? Or why bother ordering them from a catalog? There are lots of seed packets for sale in grocery stores, hardware stores and garden centers later on.
The main reason to study the catalogs and consider ordering from them is if you want to grow particular varieties. If you don't really care which type of bush bean or marigold you grow, then the local stores are fine.
But if you're interested in particular colors or types of flowers, or if you've had problems with diseases in the past and want to try a more disease-resistant type, then at least studying the catalogs is worth your time. Some varieties sell out early, so if you want to be sure to get particular ones, it's wise to get your order in early. You'll notice that some varieties are sold by some catalogs and not others, so you might have to hunt a bit to find a particular favorite.
If you've ever grown any of the cucurbits — cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, pumpkins or winter squash — you may have had to deal with powdery mildew. It's extremely difficult to control this disease with sprays, whether they're organic or conventional. But a lot of progress has been made in breeding for resistance in this group of plants. Read the descriptions carefully; if they have resistance, they'll be sure to mention it. If it says nothing about disease resistance, keep looking.
Another factor to consider is whether the seeds of the plants you want to grow need to be started indoors first or can be direct sown, or planted directly into the garden. If you don't want to bother with grow lights, buy only the seeds that can be direct sown and plan on buying transplants of the others. Tomatoes, peppers, petunias and geraniums are some of the most commonly grown plants that must be started indoors several weeks before they can be planted outside. So if these are your favorite plants, and you don't want to use grow lights, plan on buying these as transplants this spring.
Most of the other vegetable crops can be direct sown. But there are a lot of annuals that won't have time to produce flowers before the fall frosts if they aren't started indoors. The better catalogs and most seed packets say whether the seeds need to be started indoors, and if so, how many weeks before they can be set out in the garden.
The next question I get is about which catalogs are the best. I can't give recommendations on particular companies in my role with Cornell Cooperative Extension, but I can give you some tips about what to look for in a catalog.
Rule No. 1 — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Watch out for the hype. Some catalogs make every entry sound like the perfect choice for you. Look for catalogs that have more realistic descriptions and helpful, not color-enhanced or exaggerated, photographs or claims. Lastly, if you have friends who garden, ask them which catalogs they like, and maybe even go in on a group order with them. You usually get far more seeds in a packet than you can use in a year.
Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: www.cce.cornell.edu/ecgardening. Email questions to askMG@cornell.edu.