my seed-catalog shopping rules

6packRESTRAINT IS NOT MY STRONG SUIT, but when faced with a pile of seed catalogs and an internet line linking me to thousands more, restraint must become my mantra. To insure vegetable seed-ordering success, not excess, I wrote a refresher course whose principles I swear I am trying to follow.  Om…restraint…om. (Or not.)

At first, I thought this would be a post for beginners, but realized even experts are over-indulgently inclined. Some over-riding principles: I buy organic seed when available for my organic garden, and seek out regionally appropriate varieties. Here’s why, in detail.

For me, resisting buying everything requires an annual review of the basic mathematics of vegetable gardening. Now (not after 11 boxes of seeds arrive that you forgot you ordered) is the time to crunch your own numbers:

How many of A, B and C plants can fit into my Y square feet (and for what cost in seeds, supplies and labor)?

My more detailed self-help course in restraint goes like this–a series of questions, really. (And yes, I talk to myself, the naughty Margaret trying to tell the practical one to just please let her have 25 kinds of tomatoes):

germination test1. What do you have left over that’s viable from last year? This may require a germination test (left) to answer properly.

2. How much room in a sunny spot where the soil drains well do you really have? Tell the truth.

Most vegetables crave sunshine (so do a majority of annual cutting flowers, if you, like me, lump zinnias and such into your vegetable-seed order). Even here, on a couple of acres, production growing competes unfavorably with my love for ornamentals; there’s never enough ideal space for all such annual crops that I believe I cannot live without. Another wrinkle: We are talking about space with water, as many food crops rely on regular, deep soaking for maximum yield.

3. What really rates that precious square-footage, based on these two factors:

(a) What do you eat most of/can’t live without?

(b) From that list of “big loves,” what is available locally for a reasonable price in season? (This second bit of thinking may help those of us who define “can’t live without” as “the entire botanical world.”)

On this “essentials” list, include items that you “put up” for year-round use, as I do all my tomato products, and various herb pestos (plus I freeze herbs in other ways, like this). If you consume a lot of something, it may well be worth growing. Examples:

squash2As a vegetarian, I eat a lot of white potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash, heavyweight items which when purchased in the organic-produce section really add up. A mere $3 of ‘Delicata’ or ‘Blue Hubbard’ seed (or better yet, a packet of each that will last two years) yields a lot of squash if grown well (meaning protected from vine borers, with vigilance and perhaps Reemay).

I also grow all my chard and kale, basil and Italian flat-leaf parsley, because I eat a lot of each one and simply will not pay a couple of dollars per bunch for the herbs or double that for the greens.

What won’t I be growing, if I follow this thinking? I gave up eggplant, for instance, because I only ate them once or twice a month, and could more efficiently buy that eggplant or two when I had a taste for it than grow a crop. I use celery, sure, but maybe a bunch every month, and it’s always available, so why give it a place in my sun? If you merely love the occasional beet for a salad add-in, that won’t require a whole row like Margaret the beet-lover grows. Toss one in your market basket on occasion.

But certain specialty items are either too pricey or unavailable for purchase locally, meaning you must make room. If you make all your own salsa, perhaps you want to grow tomatillos. But maybe it would be cheaper and easier to simply purchase the one jalapeno pepper plant you’ll need at the nursery, or a pound of jalapenos at the produce market, rather than buy and start seeds. Grow what’s precious: Have you seen the price of organic baby greens or a single, juicy colorful heirloom tomato, even in high summer?

3. Now that you have a list of things you want to grow, the final challenge: Which are really worth growing yourself from seed?

beanseeds(a) Anything that grows better direct-seeded than started in cells and transplanted, and/or that I want to make repeat sowings of: I include beans, peas, squash and pumpkins, spinach and salad greens, cucumbers, root crops like carrots and beets, braising greens (chard and kale are my staples), dill, basil, melons, and corn (though I don’t grow the last two).

(b) With things that “do” from transplants, like tomatoes or peppers, think this way: How many plants of each will you need? For example, I have taken to buying one ‘Sweet 100’ and a ‘Sun Gold’ cherry-tomato plant at the nursery, or begging them from a friend who has extra, rather than ordering a packet of seeds for each and growing on a six-pack per variety. Who needs more than a cherry-tomato plant or two?

tomatoseedlingsWith paste tomatoes, of which I grow 18 plants, my thinking is the opposite: no wasted seed or effort there. Start from scratch. Vegetable growing doesn‘t produce free food, just great food and safe food, food with a connection. Choose carefully for maximum reward.


  • Once you’ve pared your list with this curmudgeonly thinking, do this: Add a couple of indulgences back in that don’t meet the requirements—I know I will.
  • Don’t grow something in bulk that you can’t cure and store properly, even if it’s a staple of your diet. Do the research in advance.
  • Collaborate: A friend and I often compare our orders, and swap partial packets or plants to get around wasted effort and cash.
  • Don’t overlook an investment in pest-prevention, such as floating row covers and hoops to support them. If handled carefully, these are reusable for many years, and save many a crop.
  • Consider trading up to seeds labeled as OG, or organically grown. This puts your dollars where they will do the most to support environmentally sound farming practices that deplete fewer resources, including the soil itself. And those seed are the best match for your organic garden. Here’s why.
  1. matt says:

    I wish I could leave a comment but my mouth has dropped and my head is shaking silently with “oh yea! yes…. yes, ok, got it, yes…. yes… good point!”

    I soooo needed this right now! Thank you!

  2. margaret says:

    Hi, Matt…and remember, the most important rule: Do as I say, not as I do (because the naughty Margaret is agitating for some indulgences, and the good one is getting exhausted). :)

  3. My son is home for a month or so and we’re talking about building a raised bed veggie garden. I have a few plants among flowers in the cottage garden, and space on the deck. Since we have to keep both deer and rabbit out– and we have covenants — any design has to be approved by our HOA/ARB.

    Love seeds! Especially pretty packets of flower seeds.


  4. Andrea says:

    Great post. We grow the basics (tomatoes, peppers, herbs) and have been expanding a little at a time, always thinking of those vegs we like to eat but cost a lot (shallots, tomatillos, etc) and we’re adding more this year (big long list).

  5. Daphne says:

    I was pretty good last year. Just one seed packet that didn’t get opened and used. There was just no space for it. This year I’ve been pretty good. My hardest problem is paring down the varieties. I only need four heads of lettuce every two weeks. I can’t eat more. I know that. I now have four varieties to plant – two left over from last year and two new ones. I know it seems silly, but I’m trying to find a variety that can hold longer in the summer heat. My original list had four new varieties. I sadly crossed two of them off. Maybe next year.

  6. Margaret — I’ve rarely grown anything from seed and the sunniest spot in the garden is where the pond is situated so we can have water lilies. That said, thanks for this post. It helps me to think about herbs and some things I could do in pots that would be worth it.

  7. margaret says:

    @Daphne: Hello, and welcome. I have to say I appreciate Johnny’s catalog evaluations of the heat-resistance of their salad greens (for instance, ‘Tropica’ and ‘Green Star’ among the large-leaf green types are meant to be exceptional against heat). I am the same re: limiting varieties, my worst indulgence being pumpkins and squash…which of course take up the most room as well. Uh-oh.

    @Mrs. Flam. Welcome to A Way to Garden, and your husband’s comment will remain in my mind. Hilarious. Truly hilarious. Thanks.

  8. Emily says:

    Seed catalogues help me survive the long, dreary winter. Even though I can’t order the vast majority of varieties, I am cheered just by seeing pictures of the many types of pole beans, ornamental peppers, and heirloom tomatoes. Don’t know what I’d do without the catalogues and the few houseplants we have…this was a great post. I did find it interesting to compare our must-haves. We eat so many beets that we grew over 3 rows (can’t remember the yield right now), and it still wasn’t enough.

    And to your rules, I would add “How much time do you want to spend weeding?” Last year, our garden was a bit to ambitious considering that we both work full time, commute, and garden organically (w/o any chemicals at all). As a result, the weeds got most of the moisture in some spots and we ended up with small onions. Anyway, thanks! I love your site, Margaret.

  9. Erin says:

    Great post. Gave me the little smack up-side-the-head that I needed.

    I’m starting a deck garden as an experiment in urban agriculture. And since I haven’t gardened since I left my parents farm, I’m sure I’ll be nosing around for more sage advice.

  10. margaret says:

    Welcome, Emily and Erin. Thanks to both of you for starting the year with us.

    Good idea, Emily, to add that extra rule. I mulch my vegetables heavily with oat straw to try to keep the weeds down, but…

    Thanks, Erin, for taking a slap-in-the-head with a smile. :) Hope to see you soon again.

  11. Jen says:

    This is probably a bit off topic but I noticed your reference in regard to squash to Reemay and vigilance. I am about to give up on squash due to massive infestations of squash vine borer in my garden for the past two years. Can I hope for an upcoming post on how to combat these damn things? I don’t remember this and did a search just now, but my apologies if I missed it.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jen. I lost most of my squash crops last year, and so it is on my mind, too. I am doing some homework to prepare a post in time for spring planting, but meantime one of the things I was interested to read last summer when my vines perished was this article on the website of the Gardens Alive catalog folks. I also am a big believer in planting two sowings of things so that the couple of weeks’ difference sometimes makes all the difference, and one crop or another isn’t in synch with the pest’s developmental stages so it escapes harm. Hope to see you again.

  12. Johanna says:

    It’s nice to find so many kindred spirits! My blood pressure rises every time I open my mailbox and find another seed catalog — everything else has to wait while I take that first trembling flip through the pages to see what’s new!

    Aren’t we all big planners? I’ve been saving the yellow plastic kitty litter containers to cut off the bottoms and plant those generous herbs that like to offer you so much more of themselves than you need. I think I can keep them more under control this way. Of course I have about 20 boxes saved already!

    And as for fantasies, after a Saturday afternoon spent perusing all the catalogs, I had layed out an entire new perennial flower bed on the south side of my house, selected the climbing roses and hydrangeas and everything else that I would look out on, only to remember that I meant to have a deck built there this summer! I guess I’ll hold the plan and plant around the deck next year!


  13. Plangarden says:

    My wife added a rule where I am not allowed to bring in a new seed catalog from the mailbox until I get rid of last years edition.
    This doesn’t help in reducing orders, just keeps the number of catalogs down.
    My seed orders are still bigger than my garden. (At least I can come clean and admit I have a problem.)

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Planagarden, to the virtual 12-step meeting room for seed-catalog abusers, and thanks for working the first step without having to be prodded (“We admitted we were powerless over…”). I tossed my old editions too, which made me feel virtuous. Today, since I’d read my own story over a few times, I allowed myself to actually place my orders, and I think I behaved pretty well. Hope to see you here again soon.

  14. I was marking all the wonderful things I wanted to order just the other day and now this post… just when I thought it was safe to be excessive you have to go and be all common sense like. Where’s the naughty Margaret when I need her most!?! I will now do the right thing and rethink it all. (said while pouting)

  15. n. says:

    I ordered all my seeds (more than I can use…) so I’m no longer allowed to look at seed catalogs, swap sites, websites, etc etc! I plan on offering some of my seeds on Freecycle since I have no gardening friends yet. I’ve also contemplating selling extra seedlings on Craigslist instead of killing them when more than I can use make it from seed to seedling.

    This is my second year with all heritage varities, some are organic most aren’t but I’m happy choosing heritage over hybrids. Plus I love the crazy names :)

  16. chris says:

    i am not going to grow corn this year because i can buy excellent just picked corn at the local farmside stand and they manage to produce it for a longer window than i could…plus, corn takes up alot of sunspace requiring it to be planted on the north side of my garden, and i don’t like planting the same veggie in the same place year after year, so this year i will simply omit it and see how it goes…not growing corn seems a little bit strange, but i won’t miss all the thinning

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, that’s one that Susan (who helps me in the garden a couple of times each week) and I talk about a lot all these years: She would not be without fresh rows of corn, and I have never grown it myself. I am with you, Chris, on this one; Susan swears even an hour or two post-picking is different.

      Today I thought of another example of my thinking: cucumbers. Except for at pickling time, when I want a large crop of smallish cukes, I really only want a single slicing cucumber maybe once a week or less frequently. I certainly won’t grow a big vining variety for just one cuke a week. At most, one bush-habit plant. Or probably none, just the picklers, and I’ll buy an occasional salad type.

  17. Debbie says:

    I don’t have much sunny space at all, and a small deer herd wanders through the yard several times a day, so I really have to pick and choose what I can fit in and protect. The must for me are zinnias! I do buy seeds for two reasons- one is that the annual plants in the nurseries can be pretty sad and secondly & the main reason is selection! I have found the past few years that the garden centers will have flats of one color or just have the miniature variety. I love to plant the seeds and then wait anxiously to see what colors I have. Summer to me is a large vase of wildly colored zinnias! (And tomatoes and cukes and corn and basil…..) ;-D

  18. chris says:

    short followup on boom and busts of the nonfinancial variety…perhaps some readers are like me and hang their hats in the metro NYC region and “upstate”, whether the berkshires, hudson valley or whatever…just a thought on playing both sides now, by which i mean by all means go to the local farmstand to buy plenty good veggies from your neighborhood commercial gardener when you need to supplement your garden and do some filling in for your salad or recipe, but don’t forget that when your crop comes in all at once, it’s good to lay a little on to the foodbank people…see http://www.foodbanknyc.org/ for NYCers…westsiders please go to the westside campaign against hunger on 86th.

  19. sally calligan says:

    This is a useful post. I live in the Seattle area and there are fewer degree days here. We grow lettuce well. Last year I had a vegetable container garden, which I enjoyed a lot. We are a two person family so we don’t need much, but it is hard to work my growing plan. Somethings I end up planting just because I like planting them, like potatoes.

    Each year my zinneas come out totally different. Feast or famine.

    1. margaret says:

      @Debbie: I like to buy seeds in single-color strains for zinnias, like the Benary’s Giants: I just get the shades I want.

      @Chris: Exactly. Thank you for the good advocacy and good link. Web searches and phone calls will locate such worthy places all over the country. Great addition to the conversation.

      @Sally: Welcome. The short season of Seattle is deceptive–we Northeast types think you are so “warm” but in fact you don’t get the heat many vegetables want, so things like Russian tomatoes (from Territorial Seed among others) and such do better for you than some varieties our hot summers will ripen and yours won’t. Please visit with us soon again.

  20. Brody&CalsDaddy says:

    Margaret –

    I am so excited! I am so very excited! And you know how I get when excitement hits my enthusiasm. Somethings gonna happen, baby! This year, I have decided to garden at my wife’s family farm high in the rural Middle Tennessee mountains. Amazing soil. Great well water. I cannot wait to get started sowing seeds. Using my graph paper for planning/layout purposes. Getting my hands dirty and best of all TIME ALONE in the garden!

    So, c’mon spring. I am ready. And as for restraint – I am throwing caution to the wind and ready to rock and roll!

    Now where is that Seeds of Change catalog and my Visa card?

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you Brody&CalsDaddy. Just to fill everyone in: this is one of the most devoted listeners to the program I used to do on Sirius Satellite Radio talking…and when he first reached out to me and co-host Andrew Beckman a few years back, he had never gardened. Now look what’s happened: He’s taking on a whole farm! I love being part of the back story on this one. Onward!

  21. Jean S says:

    I’m another NW grower and swear by my Territorial Seed catalog. I have many pages marked, and am trying to think through what’s reasonable and rational….with the reminder that I love to give vegetables away to friends and neighbors, and they love to receive them. Also, at our community garden, we have a “swap box” (unfortunately, it’s usually clogged with giant zucchini).

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Kate. Consider as in maybe, perhaps, probably not, or “Is that Margaret Roach CRAZY?!” Nice to see you here. I controlled myself sort of this week while ordering, and hope I can suppress too many urges these next dark weeks of winter. See you soon again.

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