I remember when the seed catalog was a fairly elementary publication. Times change. Today’s catalogs are glitzy and packed with pictures and information.
But to folks who don’t speak the language, perhaps a bit too much. Not everyone has a farm background, is a master gardener or has a degree in the plant sciences.
With the gardening season right around the corner, I’ll attempt to demystify some of the jargon you might encounter in the stack of seed catalogs that has accumulated beside your easy chair this off-season.
Hybrid: Manufactured, under controlled conditions, by artificially cross-pollinating genetically different plants of the same species. Uniformity, disease resistance, habit, early ripening and yield are a few of the traits that commercial breeders strive to develop when producing hybrids. Seeds from hybrids will not produce plants that are true to type.
True to type (true to seed): Seeds that will produce the exact characteristics of the parent, or original, plant.
Open-pollinated: Seeds that can be saved from mature plants one season and replanted the next, preserving desired characteristics of the parent. Note: This works as long as cross-pollination with related varieties is prevented. Certain species require separation by distance to prevent cross-pollination by wind or insects.
Cross-pollination: The transfer of pollen from one variety to another within a species. Cross-pollination in the garden does not affect the fruits produced, but it does scramble the genetics, producing variation in the seeds produced by those fruits.
GMO: Genetically modified organism. Humans have changed its makeup through genetic engineering.
Pelleted seeds: Seeds coated with an inert substance, such as clay, to make them smooth, round and more uniform, so they are easier for gardeners or mechanical seeders to handle.
Treated seeds: Seeds coated with materials that improve germination or protect against insects or fungal pathogens.
Organic seeds: Seeds harvested from certified organic crops produced under specific USDA guidelines. These plants have been produced without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and are non-GMO.
Dormancy: An adaptation that prevents seeds from germinating when environmental conditions are unfavorable to their survival. Stratification, a moist/chilling treatment that simulates winter, can overcome certain types of dormancy. Dormancy is generally not an issue with seeds of commercially available herbaceous annuals.
Heirloom: Definitions can vary. Heirlooms generally pre-date modern commercial plant breeding; they are typically older than 50 years, and some varieties are considerably older. In the strictest sense, they are passed down generation to generation in a region or area, from family to family or within groups. The seeds have been selected, cultivated and maintained to preserve desirable characteristics. They may have been developed by university breeding programs. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, without human assistance, and remain true to type, replicating the characteristics for which they have been selected. Note that not all open-pollinated varieties are considered heirlooms.
Determinate, indeterminate: Terms used especially for tomatoes. Determinates are bushier and shorter, and have a shorter fruiting period; indeterminates continue to run up, produce throughout the season, require more room and benefit from staking.
Disease acronyms: Depending on the crop, catalogs may use such acronyms to specify disease resistance and will provide a key. Examples: F (fusarium) and TM (tobacco mosaic).
Seeds are usually sold by the ounce or gram, or by count. The smallest quantity you can buy should be adequate, unless you’re planning a really large garden or are direct-sowing or planning successive sowings for a crop. Catalogs usually note the number of seeds to sow per row or given space.
Depending on the crop, unused seeds can, with proper care, be stored successfully for some time. Nevertheless, I prefer not to overbuy, nor to save seeds for more than a few seasons. I’d consider making an exception for varieties that are hard to get.
That’s pretty much the scoop on navigating seed catalogs.
Last, if you haven’t ordered yet, you’d better get with it or you might find that varieties you want are sold out.
Speaking of seeds: If you have recommendations of varieties (new or old) that you have grown recently in the garden, please pass them along to me, so I can share with readers.
Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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