Less Noise, More Green: Top Five Tips For Buying Vegetable Seeds

Monday, January 6, 2014

Top Five Tips For Buying Vegetable Seeds

Tips for buying vegetable seeds, urban farming

How many seed catalogs did you get in the mail this year? I stopped counting and just put them in a pile for some serious overindulgence after the holidays. Forget Christmas, for gardeners  January is "the most wonderful time of the year." Looking through these catalogs is like pouring over a toy catalog as a child, circling all the things we want in red and drawing stars next to our top picks.

My first scan of the catalogs is not very scientific. I circle everything I want in every catalog. I then realize I don't need thirteen varieties of green beans, laugh at myself, pull out the list of notes I made at the end of last season and get down to seriously deciding what I need, what I want and what would be fun. Then I cut the list in half because it is still too long! 

Before I order anything I look at my seeds from last year and see what I have left. Seeds do not last for ever, but some last longer than you might think and most last longer than one year.

Iowa State University Extension has created a handy chart listing the length of time seeds stay viable.

This chart assumes that the seeds have been stored in optimal conditions over the winter. Seeds should be stored in a cool dry place, protected from insects. Some gardeners like to store them in plastic bags in the fridge.

Seed Germination Test                 
If you have seeds that you think may have been exposed to moisture or extremes of temperature, or are borderline for loss of viability, you may want to conduct an easy seed germination test.  Take ten seeds, wrap them in a damp paper towel, place it in a sealed, labeled plastic zip lock bag and leave it somewhere warm for four days. After that time, check to see how many seeds germinated. Did three? You only have 30% germination. Did nine? You have ninety percent and so on. You can now decide if you want to plant these seeds or buy new seeds.

It is very easy to get carried away and order not only too much, but seeds that will not flourish in your particular garden. Here are five tips I try to follow when ordering seeds to ensure I make wise choices.

Tips for Buying Vegetable Seeds

Top Five Tips for Buying Vegetable Seeds

1. Buy from companies that have tested their seeds in a hardiness zone comparable to yours.
Many seed catalog companies are just middle men. Buy from seed companies that grow and test their own seeds. If they are located in the same or close hardiness zone, you should get good results, too.

Do you know what zone you are in? Visit the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out. Type in your zip code and it will tell you your zone. Some of the zones have recently changed due to climate change. If you haven't checked in a while, it might be worth a look.

2. Pay attention to the plant's maturity date.
Is it fifty days or one hundred and twenty days? Do you have enough time to grow this plant between your first and last frost dates for your hardiness zone? Do you have time for a second planting?

3. Pay attention to how much sun the plant needs.
Is it full sun, partial shade or full shade? Know how much sun parts of your garden gets. Full sun is a minimum of six hours a day. Placing a plant that needs full sun in partial shade will effect your yield.
Take the time to read the manual! Seed catalogs and websites are a mine of information. Take the time now, rather than pay for it later with a poor result (not that I'd know anything about that).

Tips for buying vegetable seeds, urban farming

4. Does the seed need to be direct sown or started indoors?
Some seeds need to be started in pots in a warm environment. If you live in a zone with a short growing season and cold springs, direct sowing these seeds will result in a disappointing season. If you do not have the space to start seeds indoors, stick to crops that can be direct sown.

5. Look for seeds that solve your gardening problems.
What were the issues you faced in the garden last growing season? Are you short on space? Plagued with a disease or pests?  Seed catalogs will tell you if the plant will be compact in size, early or late yielding, short maturity time, resistant to disease, can handle very cold temperatures or does not bolt in the heat, grows well in containers, etc. If a crop failed last year, don't give up. Try a different variety that could be a better fit for your garden.

Have you started ordering seeds yet? What do you look for?

See you in the garden,


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  1. Thank you for all the great tips. I, myself, am overwhelmed yet with all the catalogs and the many that keep arriving!

    I can't wait to actually decide!

  2. It really is a process of elimination for me. I am so short on space, I have to be realistic but it takes me a while to get there!