Gardening Tips: Fun with Seed Catalogs

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 17 January 2018.


What to do this week:

It is still winter, and we are still holed up with our seed catalogs.

In case you haven’t noticed, some catalogs are better than others. Some are pretty, and inspirational for that reason. Others are full of information you will need in addition to those beautiful photos. It is tempting to buy from them, but good technical information is much more useful in a seed catalog.

Good catalogs will tell you things like just how many row-feet a packet will plant, or how many grams of seed you need per 100-foot row. I also look for germination rates, or if the seed has had any disease resistance bred into it. A good seed catalog will give you that information. It will also tell you about expected days to maturity and the optimum temperature for germination.

William Dam is a good catalog, and so are Halifax Seed and Johnny’s Selective Seeds. These three are the most common sources used by market gardeners and experienced home food growers. Vesey’s has a beautiful catalog, great for inspiration, but you will have to look carefully between the lines for technical information about their seeds before you can get started buying confidently.

Another thing you want to look for in your seed catalog is information about whether the seeds have been adapted for your growing area, or for zones similar to yours. I have often gotten seed catalogs from BC, for example, but their growing region really bears no relation to the growing conditions we have here in the Maritimes. I haven’t found that any seed I order from BC has done well here at all.

Cape Breton is Zone 5B at best, so watch for that data when you buy. Even so, there can be a big difference between one garden and another here on the island, depending on whether you are south facing or not, protected from wind or not, and other micro-climate factors. You will be safe with seeds bred for Zone 5B, and can experiment to see what your garden allows beyond that.

Most catalogs have a mix of hybrid and open-pollinated seed. Good catalogs will give you this information. They will either say hybrid, or F1 (which means first generation/hybrid).

Hybrid seed is very expensive to make. You have to breed the plant over and over again. Developers take the trouble to go through this process to produce seed for large markets, not smaller markets like Zone 5B. If you go for open-pollinated seed instead of hybrid you will get seeds with more adaptability. They will be more forgiving about imperfect or variable conditions like those we have here.

Don’t get me wrong, hybrids can sometimes be very useful. I grow hybrid onions almost exclusively. But if the seeds you want list Zone 5B as the marginal condition, you might want to select open-pollinated over hybrid if you have the choice.

Open-pollinated seeds have the extra advantage of being able to produce plants that produce seeds that can be collected, saved and planted the following year. Home collected hybrid seeds will not “breed true” the second year. This means there will be variations you may not have expected, or want. That is important to avoid for a seed saver.

You may also find catalogs from small, often local companies that tend to specialize in heritage seeds. Some of these suppliers are good, and some are more about enthusiasm than quality seed, unfortunately. You may be tempted to support them, and that can be a good thing, but do not put all of your eggs in one basket, or buy all of your seeds from one new, small supplier.

Another way you can spread out the risk is to order with friends. Very often you don’t need a whole packet for your small garden, or you may want to try seed from several sources but just don’t need that many seeds. If you get together with a group of friends, you will find it much more possible to have a variety of sources and crops, without ending up with way too much lettuce seed. (They always send you too much lettuce seed.) Gardening as a communal pursuit is more efficient, and can be a lot more fun. Maybe this week, start a garden club.





Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.