plant line
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated -  January 12, 2005

Shopping the seed catalogs is interesting, enjoyable...and a challenge. There is so much to choose from, even in a single catalog, that a lot of time can be spent deciding what to order. Gardeners who are not familiar with the plants offered should also spend time checking cultural information. Many catalogs provide quite a bit of detail about growing the plants they sell. Gardeners can increase their chances of success by paying attention to that information.

Most of the mail order seed companies are selling seeds throughout the United States. Not all the offerings will be suitable for NJ. Plant hardiness is one characteristic that most people pay attention to in selecting plants, but growing temperature preference is also important. That information can often be found in the catalogs if one is looking for it. Descriptions may note that a plant grows best under cool temperatures or it may be listed as a cool-season plant. In general, these plants are not the best choices for NJ. That does not mean they should not be used, but used on a trail basis if the gardener is not familiar with how they perform here.

Sometimes these plants (snapdragons, for example) do very well in our spring and fall but languish during summer. Soil type is a selection consideration for some plants. Where a catalog specifies that a sandy soil is preferred, Hunterdon gardeners would probably be wise to look for another plant. Seed germination times and sowing instructions are not always available in catalogs as they are on seed packets. Many flowers and vegetable seeds must be started indoors, another challenge that may or may not be in a gardener’s plans.

Check on seed growing requirements before ordering.The catalog choices may be totally confusing for new gardeners. By looking for varieties that are designated “All American Selections Winner” choices can be winnowed to plants that have been judged exceptional in trial plantings throughout the United States. The awards are given by All-America Selections, a cooperative non-profit seed trade organization which originated in 1932 for the purpose of encouraging development and promoting recognition of new varieties of flowers and vegetables. Seeds, submitted by plant breeders to the committee, are grown and judged at designated trail gardens throughout the U.S. Horticulture and agriculture professionals from universities, botanical gardens and seed companies do the standardized judging.Awards are based on the judging results from all trials. Winning selections receive widespread publicity and are shown to the public in official All-America display gardens. The designation “All-American Selections Winner” indicates that a variety is new and has been judged significantly superior to existing varieties in the same class in some particular characteristic, like color, size, use. For more about AAS and to view current and past winners visit new plant varieties are developed and marketed they may replace older ones. The disappearance of past favorites can be disconcerting to gardeners. Plant breeders have seen the loss of plant varieties as alarming because plant diversity (that is, genetic diversity) is the “raw material” of plant improvement, a never-ending challenge. Concern for preserving plant diversity resulted in establishment of a worldwide network of gene banks that serve as repositories and sources of “raw material” for plant breeders.Similar concerns among gardeners interested in preserving “heirloom” and other old or special quality varieties have prompted the development of organizations dedicated to this purpose. Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, a non-profit, is one of the largest. The current inventory of seeds offered by Seed Savers Exchange members to members contains 11,000 varieties. SSE has an online or by mail retail catalog, too.

Flowers, herbs, fruits and grains are included. A fondly remembered old favorite might be found through SSE: there may be a long lost variety here in Hunterdon County to be shared. For more information about SSE and for a catalog, visit or write SSE, 3076 North Winn Road., Decorah, IA 52101.

The growing interest among gardeners in “heirloom” crop varieties has no doubt spurred their inclusion in many seed catalogs. But, gardeners growing older varieties may be saving seed themselves. Any seed saved from past years (whether home grown or purchased) should be checked now to make sure it’s still viable before depending on it for this year’s planting. Roll several seeds of each type in damp paper towel, put the roll in a plastic bag and hold at 70-75° F. Check for sprouting every couple of days. Testing viability now will avoid disappointment later when it may be too late to buy fresh seed.