Gardener’s Winter Ritual: Seed Selection, Catalog Combing and Garden Planning (with List of Favored Seed Companies)

Reader Contribution by Sarah Joplin
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In January and February, with holiday traditions celebrated and New Year’s resolutions ushering in a new cycle, we collectively exhale. And despite the bleak pallet and chilled days, the clean-slate months of a new year present gardeners solid ground on which to lay plans and hopes for a successful growing season. While the garden sleeps, the gardener schemes and dreams.

Now is the time we relish the ritual of seed selection and garden planning. We watch our mailboxes and wring our hands in anticipation of seed catalogs and when they arrive, we welcome them like old friends. The spectrum of colors alone is enough to brighten our days. Striking photos of thriving plants stir our spirits, evoke visions and invite us to reminisce. Each year, despite the bounty or heartbreak of previous harvests, seed catalogs provide us with page after page of beginner’s sight. They renew us with the promise of this year’s garden.

Seed Selection Considerations

Despite the page-turning euphoria, this ritual is also serious business. As various catalogs pour in, we are charged with the task of digesting specifics on thousands of varieties. Seed selection entails comparing growing vigor, determining hybrid or heirloom, organic or conventional, verifying zone or cold-hardiness, soil and light requirements, All-American Selections winner or other accolades, annual, biennial, perennial or tender perennial, cost and seed count ratios and value, all in addition to the ownership and location of the seed purveyor we intend to patronize.

Referring to previous garden notes on seed selection and actual performance also helps us choose. In this process of figuring, our gardening spirit meets with science while our dreams meet with details.

For those of us novice or expert seed savers, the seed selection process is its own rite. Stores of seed painstakingly grown, harvested, processed, dried, cured or otherwise preserved are retrieved from safe storage and revisited. We handle them ceremoniously, making sure nothing has sprouted or rotted. These varieties have already proven themselves; the seeds likely chosen from the season’s first or largest fruit or vegetable produced from the plant. They are precious capsules of potential to be revered.

These seeds are often our favorites, having grown in our gardens year after year, having fed us, our friends and families consistently, having adapted to our soil and climate. These seeds may have originally come from a seed catalog or might have a sentimental attachment to the gardener who generously gifted them to us.

Scheming for Garden Success

As the wheels of inspiration turn, so the garden plan germinates and sprouts: first in your mind’s eye (right there in your living room by the fire), then on paper, next in your potting shed or greenhouse and in your soil by spring. Still thumbing through the sections of vegetables, herbs and flowers, though, many considerations are taken into account, all which will come to bear on eventual garden success.

Companion planting and spacial requirements factor in as you doodle and sketch a garden map. Water requirements are reviewed; soil amendments are considered and chosen. Herbicide and pesticide resources are also assessed as we anticipate the inevitable assaults on precious plants; thankfully, there are a growing number of effective organic options available including biological options.

Experienced gardeners know that despite the best-laid plans, we’re bound to face unknown obstacles as well as unanticipated bounty and joy. There will be “happy accidents” and Mother Nature will play the ultimate role in our garden’s fate. But in January, we allow ourselves to dream and follow flights of fancy, to play with possibility, in full color, without the worries and muscle ache to come during the growing season. We revel in the ritual of combing through seed catalogs and stores as we lean into the new year.

Several Favored Seed Companies

Though what follows is by no means an exhaustive listing of seed sources, it is intended to affirm tried-and-true sources and might introduce a new option or two.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (417-924-8917 Mansfield, MO)

Botanical Interests (877-821-4340, Broomfield, CO)

Burgess Seed & Plant Co. (309-662-7761, Bloomington, IL)

Burpee (800-888-1447 Warminster, PA)

Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co (513-354-1491, Greendale, IN)

Johnny’s Selected Seed (877-564-6697, Winslow, ME)

High Mowing Organic Seeds (866-735-4454, Wolcott, VT)

Jung Seeds & Plants (800-247-5864, Randolph, WI)

Living Seed Company (828-484-7283, Weaverville, NC)

Native Seeds/SEARCH (520-622-0830 x113,Tucson, AZ)

R.H. Shumway’s (800-342-9461, Randolph, WI)

Seeds-n-Such (803-663-1501, Granville, SC)

Seeds of Change (Santa Fe, NM)

Seed Savers Exchange (563-382-5990, Decorah, IA)

Territorial Seed Company (800-626-0866, Cottage Grove, OR)

The Good Seed Co. (406-471-3284, Whitefish, MT)

Totally Tomatoes (800-345-5977, Randolph, WI)

Turtle Tree Seed (800-930-7009, Loveland, CO)

Underwood Gardens / Terroir Seed (888-878-5247, Chino Valley, AZ)


Sarah Joplinhas worked in art sales and publishing for more than 25 years. Having grown up on 50 acres near the Missouri River, Sarah’s extensive travels have made her appreciate her modest farm in Mid-Missouri all the more. Read all of Sarah’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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