Seed Catalogs: A Homesteader’s Guidebook

Home Garden Seed Catalogs: A Homesteader’s Guidebook

Have you been reading up on seed catalogs? If you haven’t, here are a few reasons on why you should. Keep reading to find out why reading and buying from seed catalogs is always a good idea.

Seed Catalogs: A Homesteader’s Guidebook

By Kathy Bernier

It is winter up north. Snow is falling and the wind is blowing a gale outside your window. You gaze at the lawn, buried under a load of white, wondering if there really could be grass under there. You stomp the ice and snow from your heavy barn boots and try to remember what wearing flip-flops was like.

Late night winter on the homestead

A dark winter on the homestead

All this can only mean one thing. It is time for reading seed catalogs, of course.

They start arriving in my mailbox sometime during the last week of December. When I was a kid, my mother would anticipate their arrival with more enthusiasm than kids look forward to Christmas. I didn’t get it then, but I get it now.

I love to settle onto the couch on a cold winter evening, a fire humming in the wood stove, cozy slippers on my feet and cup of Earl Grey tea in my hand, and immerse myself in seed catalogs. There aren’t any visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, but there are plenty of images of other delectable edibles. Spinach and carrots and kale—oh my!

It isn’t that I don’t like winter. I love winter. I love the snow, the cold, the winter sports, the beauty, the intensity, and the long nights. And I love the midwinter rituals of planning for the next growing season.

Seed Catalogs

My New 2016 Seed Catalogs

Going through seed catalogs in January is an act of hopefulness. It’s the hardcopy of optimism, the very stuff of which homesteaders are made. It’s the syndrome of “next year will be different,” no matter how dismal last year’s garden harvest, or hay crop, or calving season was.

Planning next year’s garden is the renewal of wiping the slate clean and starting over, the excitement of trying something new, and the comfort of knowing that something good has always come of it.

It is more than that, too. For me, going through seed catalogs is entertaining and educational. There is such a wealth of knowledge packed into the ones I use that I am always astounded at how, after seven years of raising my own food, there can still be that much I don’t know.

There are hundreds of purveyors of fine garden seeds out there. I have pored over many of them in past years, but have more recently come to rest with using just three of them. Many gardeners are fiercely loyal to the seed companies they use most. I applaud anyone’s choices for favorites, and love my own too.

The reasons for my many different favorites are as varied as gardeners themselves. I love different aspects of each one. I love one for its witty entries that read like a mixture of fancy wine descriptions and satire magazines, another for its hard-core technical data, and still others for their seductive full-color photos and even the political and philosophical commentary.

My favorite Seed Catalogs:

Examples of Seed Catalog diversity, and why I love them each:

Pole beans are described by the people at Fedco as having “a distinctive nutty taste,” and a variety of squash is said to deliver “sweet buttery richness and sweet-tangy taste..and memorably rich deep orange flesh.”

In the beet section, Fedco declares that “Too many white beets are either insipid sugar-beet types or, even worse, bitter throat burning hell rides.” I laughed out loud at that one.

What a fun job it must be to write these narratives, employing such creative and entertaining ways to tell gardeners about the vegetables that will emerge from tiny packets of seeds!

Along with rich descriptions and anecdotal information from customers, seed catalogs offer the science behind the seed.

Growing Seeds | Seed Catalog TIps

The glorious greens that sprout from my seeds.

The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog gives specific information for serious gardeners, telling exactly how far apart to place seeds, how long to expect to wait before germination, what pests are most likely to bother it, and exactly how and when to harvest the fruit. They also show comparison charts, lining up actual photos of all the different cultivars within a type—seedless cucumbers or early carrot varieties, for example—against a backdrop of size delineations.

Johny’s shows germination rates, offers suggestions for treating pests and disease, and showcases market gardeners who use their products.

The folks at Baker Creek Heirloom seeds have traveled the globe to amass their astonishing collection of unique seeds and products, and spending time with their catalog is so intense that I almost feel like I’m at an IMAX theater.

My first choice for just about everything is keeping it local, and seed-buying is no exception. Two of my three favorite catalogs are located within twenty miles of my homestead. Not only does that mean that the seeds they sell are very likely to do well in my growing zone, but that by buying from them I am helping to support my neighbors in a very literal way.

Most Seed Catalogs tell the following information:

  • Organic or not. This matters to some people but not to everyone.
  • Open-pollinated or hybrid. This tells whether it is a standard variety and the seeds can be saved, or a cross-pollinated variety which may not produce another generation like themselves.
  • What kind of climate you will need for growing this plant, either in terms of number of days needed for it to mature, or the USDA growing zones it does best in. Some companies omit this, pointing out that growing days vary so greatly from one region to another that the information is not useful.
  • Some catalogs include the country and/or developer where the seed originated. Many gardeners consider it important to avoid doing business with certain suppliers.
  • Many catalogs offer pros and cons among variety—not as prone to blossom end rot as this one, thicker skinned than that one. Easier to germinate, doesn’t store as well, bears fruit earlier.

Choosing The Right Seed Catalog For You

My choices are in no way perfect for everyone, and you will want to find the ones that work best for you. There are many other considerations when deciding what catalogs to use.

  • Price. Many are free or very cheap, but I recently bought one at a bookstore for $10.
  • Cost of seeds and products. If you are only buying a handful of seed packets, the difference between the $1.80 packets and the $3.50 packets amount to not much more than a cup of coffee. But if you are buying the seeds to grow enough food to feed your family all year long, a difference of a dollar or more a packet adds up quickly.
  • Do they have the varieties you like? If you prefer dinosaur kale to curly-leaf and one catalog doesn’t carry it or is sold out, availability will be a factor.
  • Customer service. Buy from people you enjoy doing business with, and who seem to enjoy helping you. It might not make a difference every time, but it can be meaningful enough overall to let yourself be swayed by the fact that you just plain like them.

I am far from expert at gardening. I dive in head first every year, and somehow manage to use the knowledge and advice that I gain from seed catalogs—among other resources—to keep myself from drowning.

The harvest from all the seeds I grew this year! | Seed Catalog Tips

Seed Catalogs are buckets of fun.

I give myself permission to be a little ridiculous. This year, I ordered peanuts, cardoon, and six varieties of eggplant. None of those are particularly wise choices for my growing zone, but I thought it would be fun to try them anyway. I consider it acceptable to spend a little extra on gardening seeds and supplies, and when the total sounds like too much to spend on seeds, I ask myself where else I’m going to get a year’s worth of food and entertainment for that price.

Fun is key. Some aspects of growing your own food can involve hard, nose-to-the-grindstone, dirty, bug-infested drudgery. I know these grueling hours of hand-picking Japanese beetles and canning tomatoes in a ninety-degree kitchen and picking out the garden by headlamp before the killing frost are going to happen, and I like to offset them as much as I can. I enjoy the fruits of my labor all year long and relish in the satisfaction of self-sufficiency. And when January rolls around, you can find me having a great time immersed in the pages of my favorite seed catalogs.

Need some tips on how to order tips like a pro? Check out this video from Stacey Murphy:

Are you going to give these tips are try? Let us know below in the comments!

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