Seed catalogs are the best place to find truly unique varieties that offer creative culinary options. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Season of Dreams

It pays to plan ahead. This was painfully evident last year when I discovered retailers pricing 1-gallon potted organic tomatoes at more than $7 apiece in June. The small-budget gardener in me knew that same plant could be have been grown from seed for pennies. But retailers know that many of us fail to plan ahead, and the result is we are forced to pay more.

To realize the economy of growing your own food, and to gain access to a gazillion modern and heirloom varieties of common vegetables, you need to plan well. That's what seed catalogs are for. Sure, they help you buy seed, but taking time to peruse the pages reminds us of what we failed to plant last year or why what we did plant failed. A good catalog will be filled with helpful hints for selecting the variety so you're successful and return next year for another season of seeds.

It is a time-honored tradition of gardeners everywhere to spend cold winter days perusing catalogs. I require hot tea, sticky notes, yellow highlighters and a tablet for notes and sketches.

As a horticultural journalist, I get most of my seed catalogs via the Direct Gardening Association ( Their website is a great resource because it features a list of catalogs for home food growers.

It's easy to use the list because there's a live link for every catalog and beside it is a phone number for those who don't use the Internet. Simply call and request they send you a lovely, full-color catalog that you can study for weeks this winter as you mentally organize next year's garden. For many of us, having the catalog in hand is preferable to shopping online because we can make notes on the page, carry it with us to read on the run, and pepper the pages with sticky notes. For others who prefer to limit paper use, online shopping is even more adaptable using hand-held Internet-access devices during short snippets of time.

Many of these catalogs are general, such as Johnny's Selected Seeds, which is a favorite of organic market farmers because they sell in bulk, not just regular seed packets. They offer one of the most detailed and diverse catalogs, with a good deal of information on growing each variety to help small farmers find greater success with their crops.

Burpee is more focused on the novice or first-time gardener, with fewer varieties that are more widely adaptable. Sometimes fewer choices make it easier to wade through the options.

Also in this list is Oregon's Territorial Seed Co., which is dedicated to vegetable varieties that do well in the Pacific Northwest.

Best Cool Seeds is located in Alaska, and they specialize in the far north. Whenever you find a seed catalog that is focused on your region, it will offer problem-solving varieties capable of dealing with the challenges of disease, short seasons, extreme heat and perpetually overcast skies.

This is the perfect jumping-off point for those just getting started with growing their own food. Follow these tips to help you get what you need for your region, your level of expertise and the method you use to grow food.

  • Select just one general seed catalog to start your first garden.
  • Don't order out of multiple catalogs unless you're an experienced gardener.
  • Be sure to read the entire description of the variety because pole and bush beans look identical in pictures.
  • It's easier to purchase seed online with a click rather than writing out all the varieties by hand.

Never forget that a well planned garden is based on the research you do now, which will pay off with all the $7 tomato plants you can manage for just pennies apiece.

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