Demystifying the Seed Catalog

Nella Mae’s Tips for Choosing and Ordering Seed

December 30, 2019

Just when I think the days can get any shorter or darker, a small blessing arrives—seed catalogs in a rainbow of colors and significant heft. They brighten the dreary days and are excellent paired with tea and bed. Seed catalogs are the endosperm to my dormant germ of ambition. In other words, they feed my excitement and allow me to start dreaming about the coming growing season—which will always be bigger and better than last year! 😉

As I studied my seed catalogs this year and made my first order ($401 worth), I noticed how much information is packed in to each seed description. With this blog post, I want to help explain some of the terminology as well as give some suggestions for how and where to choose seed.

seed catalogs.JPGSeed Companies

At Nella Mae’s Farm, we primarily buy seed and tools from Johnny’s Selected Seed. That said, there are many other great seed companies we like.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seed is a large company with an extensive organic and conventional seed options. Lots of growing information and great customer service. Winslow, Maine.
  • Territorial Seed is great for the home and northwest gardeners. Cottage Gove, Oregon.
    Baker Creek’s vibrant catalog!

    Baker Creek Seed specializes in rare, weird, and heirloom varieties from around the world. Their catalog is a work of art. Mansfield, Missouri.

  • High Mowing Organic Seed specializes in 100% organic and non-GMO seed from independent seed producers. The website has a great blog and growing information! Wolcott, Vermont.
  • Wild Garden Seed specializes in open-pollinated varieties lovingly selected. Philomath, Oregon.
  • Fedco Seed is an organic growers’ cooperative with good options. Clinton, Maine.
  • Seeds From Italy is the US distributor of Franchi Seeds, which is Italy’s oldest family-run seed company. They specialize in heirlooms and have interesting things to try. Lawrence, Kansas.

Reading a Seed Catalog

Each catalog has its own format, abbreviations, and symbols, so follow these tips for better understanding:

  1. Look for the legend at the front of your catalog. It is the “decoder ring” for fully understanding seed descriptions.

    pull out box.jpg
    Pull out box with helpful info on starting cauliflower.
  2. Don’t skip the first few pages of the catalog—they have important information about seeding rates, disease resistance codes, etc.
  3. Look for other pull out boxes and notes about culture, growing, harvesting, starting seed, etc. as you go along. Some seeds need special soaking or cold storage for best germination.
  4. After reading the catalog, check out the seed description on the website if you need more information. They can fit more growing tips and taste descriptions online.

When you are reading a seed description look disease resistance; whether the crop should be trellised; if they are greenhouse growing varieties; if it is treated, conventional or organic, hybrid or heirloom seed; if it is cold/heat tolerance; when to plant, and more.

How to pick seeds for YOUR garden

Days to Maturity: This is the (very imprecise) estimate of how long it will take for your crop to mature. (Do children come with DTM? That would be really useful.) If this crop is transplanted as a plant like tomatoes rather than direct seeded like carrots, the DTM is from the time of transplanting.

Choose varieties that match your hardiness zone and that fit comfortably into your window of frost free days. For example, our Cove, Oregon farm is in USDA hardiness zone 6b and enjoys 100-130 frost free days. I haven’t been able to reliably grow crops with a long DTM, so I generally pick varieties with a DTM of less than 100. For more on determining your garden’s hardiness and frost-free days, read on!

Frost-free days: You can find your location’s average number of frost free days quickly at the Old Farmer’s Almanac site. Just remember to plus or minus the average based on your lived gardening experience. For example, I know it is always colder at my house than the rest of Cove, and I have fewer frost-free days.

Hardiness: Click here to find out your USDA hardiness zone by zip code. Hardiness determines whether things will overwinter. It is a life-long devastation, but I will never have perennial rosemary, wisteria, or artichokes. Never. While these lovely plants are perennial in California, Georgia, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, they will not overwinter at our zone 6b, 3,100 ft high farm. They can live only in the Mediterranean climate of my mind.

Key Words in Catalogs

  • Early- Yes, this means you’ll get an early crop. It also means this seed is probably more suitable for short season places like mine.
  • Heat-tolerant- This seed can grow outside its normal season. For example, heat-tolerant spinach will do alright in the summer at our farm without bolting.
  • Resistance- Many hybrid varieties are bred for their resistance to plant diseases. Check out the codes and descriptions if you have had specific disease problems like powdery mildew on cucumbers. If you have had mysterious, un-diagnosed diseases, consult your local master gardener program next time!
  • Widely Adapted- A variety that grows well in various climates.

Organic vs Conventional Seed

This is a matter of preference. Certified organic seed is sometimes more expensive, but in my experience, usually not by much. It won’t break the bank of a home gardener. If you do break the bank buying seed, call me. We can start a support group. 🙂

If you want to support organic seed growers, help reduce pesticide and herbicide use in agriculture, or you like the idea of eating something that is 100% organic from seed to table, buy organic seed.

Open-Pollinated vs Hybrid

At our farm, we use both open-pollinated and hybrid seed. Open-pollinated seed is the oldest way of breeding seed, and it was started to create seed (and plants) that are more uniform. In open pollination, a single variety is grown in isolation from other varieties so the resulting seeds are “true to form.” The new seeds should look, taste, and grow similarly to their parents and not have the characteristics of milkmen or interlopers.

Hybrid seed is an old, although more modern type of seed. Plant breeders choose plants from specific, different varieties and allow them to cross. The resulting seed is a mix of characteristics from both varietal parents. Hybridization allows breeders to choose flavor from one variety and disease resistance from another and create uniform seed (and plants.) Hybridization is not the same as genetic modification (GMO), which often adds genes from different species.


Baker Creek’s wacky heirlooms.

Old, open-pollinated varieties that are basically unaltered since their original breeding are called heirloom. Many people prefer their taste over hybrids. They can have less disease resistance.

Treated Seed

When you open your seed packet, you might find some strange colored seed—often red or blue. Some seed is treated with antimicrobial or fungicidal chemicals to protect from pests and disease. Treated seed is not organic.

Your seed catalog will note whether seed is treated or not. If you decide to buy treated seed, do some research. Some treatments are in the neonicotinoid family of insecticides, which are very hard on pollinators.

Seeds have arrived!

Make sure you don’t lose all that precious knowledge! I write directly on packages important notes like “trellis” or “soak.” I also separate seeds into fall, spring and summer planting groups so they go in at the right time, even when I’m in a hurry.

I hope this post helps explain a few things about buying seed. If you have specific questions or topics you want me to write about, contact me at

Best to you all!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae