Don't be seduced by seed catalogs when picking flowers, vegetables

University Park, Pa. — They're alluring, they're glossy and they're filling up your mailbox. The flower and vegetable gardening catalogs have arrived, and a specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has tips to avoid being seduced by a pretty picture while harvesting useful information.

The expensively photographed catalogs are meant to mesmerize gardeners who are planning their spring plots while winter's snow still covers the ground. But Ginger Pryor, state coordinator for Penn State's Master Gardeners program, says before immersing yourself in the catalog, take a minute to decide whether you want lots of pretty flowers, a bountiful harvest for canning or a season-long supply of fresh vegetables.

"A lot of people plant things because they see a pretty picture in a catalog or a store, so they just pick one up and plant it," Pryor explains. "They don't necessarily do research into the different varieties available and what grows best in their region or climate zone. It's important to know a little about vegetables and flowers, so you can pick the right kind for your needs and situation."

The first step, she says, is to take stock of your goals and your family's needs. Planning a garden that yields a burst of colorful flowers in the spring would be totally different from one that yields a large end-of-season harvest or one that has low water requirements.

"If your goal is canning, you can look for varieties in the seed catalogs that are good for preserving," she says. "Many seed catalogs will tell you which varieties are good for freezing, for example. Certain green bean varieties hold up better for freezing than others do, and the seed catalog will tell you that. So, the catalog can help you determine what type of plant you want if you know what your goals are."

Tomatoes are an ever-popular home-gardening plant, but many people don't realize that all tomato plants are not created equal, Pryor says, and the differences can be important.

"Indeterminant tomato varieties are taller and just keep growing," she says. "Determinant plants are shorter and bushier and tend to produce many tomatoes at the same time. So, if you want a big harvest all at once, you may want a determinant plant. But, if you want one or two tomatoes every couple of days, you may want an indeterminant plant. By reading the catalog, you can select plants according to your need."

Pryor says once you've established your gardening goals, it's important to look past the lush images in the catalogs and read the details about each plant variety.

"They'll have symbols that indicate whether the plant is a cool-season or warm-season crop," says Pryor. "Every catalog's a little bit different, so you'll want to read the glossary and see what the symbols mean."

Pryor says plants won't thrive unless they're well-suited to your area and to your specific site, and the catalog can direct you to the variety that will work best in your climate zone and your personal situation.

"Every variety listed will also have a number of days written beside the variety name," she says. "That number is the time from when a seed begins to sprout and grow to when it will typically produce a harvest. You'll want to look at those days-to-harvest numbers very carefully -- especially for things that are really warm-season plants that have a longer maturation time, such as squash, pumpkin, watermelon and cantaloupe.

"If you see two plants in the catalog, and one's an 85-day variety while the other is a 120-day variety, you'll want to plant the 85-day variety in Pennsylvania. Depending on where you are in the state, the longer variety may not have enough time from when the plant begins to sprout until you have a first frost."

When selecting seeds and plants from multiple catalogs, Pryor recommends going with companies based in your climate zone or a zone colder than your own.

"There are several large seed companies from Pennsylvania, Maine and Ohio, in areas that are similar to or colder than ours, that I would recommend ordering from before those in a more southern state," she says. "It is not so much that the closer companies are better than it is that they tend to carry plant varieties better suited to our climate. Their seed catalogs are likely to have more varieties of plants to choose from."

For more information on Penn State's Master Gardener program, contact your county Penn State Cooperative Extension office or go online to

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Last Updated November 18, 2010