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. Bobster says:

    Um, just a thought. But both seeds and seed catalogs should be covered by insurance plans as mental health programs for gardeners.

  2. kerry says:

    I’m experiencing my annual plant panic. I am overwhelmed with all the choices and decisions and therefore sit like a deer (with a credit card) in the headlights.

    1. margaret says:

      Well, Kerry, you caused me to become hysterical. Thanks for that. And I had only barely recovered from Bobster’s suggestion that we send our invoices for seeds in to our insurance providers as mental-health expenditures. Obviously this whole gang here is a case of peas-in-pod (and by the way, anybody know which shelling pea varieties give the most medium-to-large pea per pod)?

  3. Sharon says:

    Count me in as one of your peas, Margaret.

    My solution to the problem: organize all your seed packets in neatly labled expanding (and I do mean expanding) folders by general category (early spring, late spring, etc.) and then pretend you’ve conquered your addition. aaah, there’s nothing like the illusion of control.

  4. Gin says:

    Thanks for offering your self-help course in restraint. That’s exactly what I need now that I circled and highlighted way more seeds that I need to plant in my garden.

    Last year was my first on 5 acres after living all my life as a city girl, and I didn’t even plant all of the 20 x 20 garden that was tilled. Instead I concentrated on building flower borders around the property around the house. This year I intend to plant that as a cutting garden and move the veggies to another spot where I discovered the previous owners had tended a very productive garden.

    Now as I pray for control, the White Flower Farm catalog arrived yesterday. As you said, Om…restraint…om. (Or not.)

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Gin. It sounds like you have your garden very well-planned. I had a little gasp when the Plant Delights catalog from Tony Avent, a favorite for me, arrived after I had survived the seed-ordering phase pretty well, so I hear you. Come again soon.

  5. Rick from Cherty Rock Farmer says:

    Well done again Margaret.
    While you was writing your entry, I too was working on my own post about clipping up seed catalogs, dreaming during the cold winter. I put a link back here to this article on my blog, so my three faithful readers should show up in the next day or two! Have a great one.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Rick…and I will keep an eye out for the minion. :) I am writing a confessional next, I think: What I ordered. Dare I tell?

    1. margaret says:

      You know where to find me here and @margaretroach on Twitter if you need any specific counsel, Millie…and all of you. Frankly, I think the commenters sometimes give the best advice of all on A Way to Garden. I need to post about seed-starting rigs…gave mine to my sister, Marion, and need to build another.

    1. margaret says:

      Dear Tomato Enabler: Please give us real feedback about which ones taste the best, and spare us overdoing things on that score at least. Sincerely, Pumpkinaholic.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Kylee. Hope you read Part 2, the confessional, about what I actually ordered. I am trying to control myself, at least a little. Do come again, and I am headed over to visit you now…

  6. Jennifer says:

    Looking at all the seed catalogues reminds me of what didn’t come up last year. Something odd happened – seeds from one company only had about a 30% germination rate. Is this something we should keep more accurate records about? The first times it happened 10 years ago, I thought it was just us – new to gardening nitwits that we were, but now I’m not as sure.

  7. Mary says:

    Hello Margaret-My first actual sit down and read. Anyway, I was just thinking about what to put in our 12×12 plot here in Porltand and you have helped organize my thinking. Definately not so much eggplant.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary. Indeed, not so much eggplant. I never regret the space I give my tomatoes (resulting in a year of sauce and soup base) but more than one eggplant plant was silly for my one-person household. (The cat loathes eggplant.) I will be wanting to hear what you grow and how it goes…12 by 12 can produce a surprising amount of food, if you pick varieties that are compact but prolific.

  8. Providence Acres Farm - Sheryl says:

    I also love the ornamentals along with the veggies. I do a lot of seed trades all over North America to get the seeds that I want. Usually we pick a lot from a list to make it worth the postage (less than $2 for a bubble envelope full of seeds) so I end up with a lot of seeds, some of which I never plant.

    This year I decided to only trade for what I know I will plant. I still ended up with a large box full, mostly flowers, some veggies. I am determined to plant them all. I have the space, just don’t have the time.

    I also save mine from year to year. I have bags full of various squash seeds which I hand pollinated to help keep them pure.

    Trade for seed or save your own from year to year and it will save you a lot of money.

  9. mimi says:

    Dear Margaret,

    You touch my heart! Thanks for your voice of garden reason. It will help balance my panting-adrenaline-rush after seeing all the seed-starting stuff at my local produce/plant emporium.

    With an 18 year-old vegetarian directing our household these days, we are eating more like you — and took more sustenance from our garden and Farmers’ Market than ever before. I especially appreciate your thoughts about garden efficiency . . . but there’s also the seduction of seeds/plants that we’d never find locally. What’s on your indulgence list? (Apologies if it’s already up and I just haven’t found it.) Love the site, love your support!

    1. Margaret says:

      @Mimi: My latest indulgences are probably featured in this “category results” page for the section I call “from seed” — some colorful beans, a tomato new to me, and so on. Including potatoes and sweet potatoes, I order more than $200 a year in goodies to get the food garden started.

      What I am really looking forward to this year are some new herbs from Well Sweep Herb Farm (their catalog comes out next month). They sell plants, not seeds, and it has been a long time since I ordered from there but was reminded recently by a reader. Each year I get a bug about something that I don’t “need” as much as “want,” of course…and this year I think it will be herbs. We shall see…

  10. Rosella says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for your wonderful advice! My but those catalogues are sexy! But at my very advanced age, I have finally learned that it is just not worth growing something that we don’t really like, or zucchini that I can buy for pennies in the market in high summer, or melons that won’t ever ripen properly.

    So now, I grow lettuce in variety, herbs, a small and decorative eggplant in a pot because it’s pretty on the patio, tomatoes from plants and not seeds (I just don’t need six plants of five different tomatoes, and there is a wonderful nursery nearby where I can buy seedlings singly), onions because they make me feel so self-sufficient when I braid their stems and hang them, chard because we like it and it’s pretty, a row of beets because we like that too, mache, and some pole beans. I also like to take a flyer on something different just for fun — this year I am planting cardoons and Sweet Annie by the entrance to the garden, just because. And like you, I mix annuals such as zinnias, nigella, cleomes and sunflowers into the garden. By the end of summer, everyone is pushing everyone else around and leaning on one another in a glorious tangle, and passersby are stopping to talk. Last year I grew large grey-blue Australian pumpkins which climbed into the nearby bushes and hung their 8 lb. fruit there, and one dear lady asked “Are those pumpkins?” When I said that they were, she said “Oh, I didn’t know they grew on bushes!”

  11. Claire Hattendorf says:

    I have a question. Strawberry seeds are supposedly best germinated under a covering of ‘moss’. What kind of moss is best?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Claire. I suspect in regards to germinating seed, it means a finely milled spaghnum or peat moss — in other words, a very fine-textured seed germination mix, NOT regular potting soil that has relatively big pieces of bark or perlite or vermiculite in it.

  12. Emma Palfree says:

    I have to agree with everying in the article, but I still can’t resist the lovely little paper envelopes with lots of little balls of life inside, each one so individual and so different. I have many loves, like shoes, nail varnish, underwear, but seeds are just a different level of love and obsession. This year I have reached the grand total of 23 different tomatoe varieties……I just know it will grow next year……I dispair of myself and love it so much all at the same time.

    1. Margaret says:

      Good for you, Emma. I share all the same emotions about them, and just try to stop myself — but sometimes I cannot, either! See you soon.

  13. Crystal says:

    Like a previous poster I am a city person moved to the country. We inherited a garden that is 50′ x 24′ which was so overwhelming as we moved in in August and everything was ready to harvest (we took it all to a local food bank). As I look forward to next year I am hoping to either give up the garden to be part of the local community garden OR make this one smaller OR Add flowers to the garden. That said, when planting flowers in a garden are they best in a border? Best in a designated space in the garden grid? Or dispersed among the veggies? I have so much to learn and am reading as much as I can. Any articles to recommend?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Crystal. I don’t know if there is any best way as much as whatever you find visually pleasing and easiest to manage. I like to put blocks of flowers — calendulas, or marigolds, or zinnias, or nasturtium, easy things like that (some people like cosmos, too) — at the ends of each bed, like bookends. My sister likes to devote one whole bed (row) to all her different zinnias. Each to her own.

      I don’t put one flower here and one flower there all over the place because when it’s time to, say, deadhead the spent blooms (or even cut a bunch of flowers), I prefer to just focus on each block (and my sister her whole row) rather than have a little here and a little there all over the place.

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