A stack of seed catalogs with turned-down pages occupies a corner of my already-overcrowded desk this time of year. That’s because, even though there’s snow in the forecast, I’m already thinking of fresh-picked lettuce and snap peas — plus flowers for my summer garden. I have started sending in my seed orders, because it is already time to start indoor sowing where I live.
For me, putting together seed orders is easier said than done. I like to order a mix of new hybrids, proven performers, and unusual heirlooms, but more about that in a minute. My whole ordering process is driven by when I need to start sowing seed, and that means knowing what my frost date is. While you can get a single hard-and-fast date from your local Cooperative Extension Service, as we all know, Mother Nature doesn’t quite work that way. I like to use a chart by the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. It gives frost dates in over 4,000 U.S. cities but not just single take-it-or-leave-it dates. This site gives last frost dates for three temperatures — 28°, 32°, and 36°F — and three levels of probability, meaning you can pick a date when you have a 90 percent chance of temperatures dropping to a particular temperature, along with a 50 percent chance and a 10 percent chance. The date you choose will depend on whether you are a gambler or not. You can also use the range to take special care with warm-season crops or plant cool-season crops early and take steps to protect them with cloches or plastic tunnels if necessary. The site also gives dates for first fall frost and total estimated numbers for frost-free days in the growing season.
Gambling is not my thing when it comes to spring planting. Long experience tells me I’m likely to fall short on protecting plants if temperatures dip unexpectedly. So here in Chestertown, Maryland (Zone 7), I tend to wait for April 16 or May 4, dates when there’s only a 10 percent chance of temperatures dipping below 32° and 36°F respectively.
But back to ordering seeds! I order seeds from a variety of catalogs. I also participate in a couple of seed exchanges and trade with friends for the rare and unusual. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers a great selection of flowers, herbs, and vegetables, and their catalog is really chock-full of information. They have good catalog descriptions and have tried to cram in as much detail as space allows by using various symbols, charts, and text. I like Territorial Seed Company’s catalog just as much. It, too, contains as much cultural information on crops as space allows.
Catalogs from Burpee and Thompson & Morgan’s also occupy the pile on my desk. Burpee has a good cross section of offerings, while Thompson & Morgan always has a great selection of unusual flowers.
A new favorite catalog has emerged this year, though — Seed Savers Exchange. They have literally hundreds of fabulous heirlooms for the vegetable garden, such as ‘True Lemon’ cucumber and ‘Black Sea Man’ and ‘Plum Lemon’ tomatoes.They also offer oddities such as prickly caterpillar (Scorpiurus muricatus) and heirloom flowers as well. Best of all, Seed Savers Exchange is a not-for-profit organization that is working to save heritage crops from extinction.
By now it’s obvious why sending in seed orders is such a challenge for me. I know I’m far from the only gardener who struggles with this annual wintertime challenge. Who doesn’t want to order one or two of everything? Since my frost date is fast approaching, though, I need to knuckle down and send in my orders today. After all, what would spring be without seedlings on the windowsills?
Barbara W. Ellis is a freelance writer, editor, and lifelong gardener. She is the author of many gardening books, including The Veggie Gardener’s Answer Book (Storey 2008) and Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers (Storey 2007). She holds a bachelor of science degree in horticulture from Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, and a bachelor of arts from Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. She has worked as managing editor at Rodale Press and as publications director for the American Horticultural Society; she is affiliated with the Hardy Plant Society Mid-Atlantic Group, the Garden Writers Association, and the Perennial Plant Association. She lives and gardens in Kent County, Maryland, where she and her husband live in a renovated “green” home on Worton Creek with an assortment of rescued dogs, cats, and parrots. Her garden, which is managed organically and designed to be wildlife friendly, features a wide range of ornamentals, herbs, and edibles for both sun and shade.