Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings Chicago

Demystifying Seed Catalogs

Dec 27, 2016 10:03PM ● By Lisa Hilgenberg

Winter days spent plotting and planning our vegetable gardens can chase away the winter blues. The arrival of seed catalogues ranks as one of the most hopeful times in a gardener’s year, as it provides us with a welcome link to spring. January is the perfect time to plan next spring’s vegetable garden.

         One of the first considerations is deciding what to grow. This can be answered by simply listing the veggies or asking the family to name the veggies they like to eat. There are a few other considerations before placing an order for next year’s garden, such as deciding if we should plant seeds or transplant vegetable starts. Seeds of many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden, including root vegetables like carrots, radish and beets. Peas, beans and squash are also best directly sown. Cabbage, tomatoes and peppers are better given a head start inside first, and then transplanted into the garden as small plants, because they need a long, warm growing season.

         The best seed catalogs will help decipher a gardener’s questions and help plot, measure and sort out the seed math needed to get started on a vegetable garden. Most seed is available in organic and non-organic options, with the latter usually the least expensive. Good catalogs provide keys to help decipher the icons (vegetable-resistance codes) in plant descriptions. After all, a seed company’s success is based on the gardener’s success with their products. As our nutritional consciousness rises, the taste and the health benefits of growing our own organic produce is a pursuit worthy of winter afternoons spent planning. 

         Timing is important, and knowing that our growing season has approximately 170 frost-free days helps guide decisions about which plants to plant and when. Our risk of frost is from October 15 through April 27, but can vary two weeks in either direction. Understand that vegetable varieties have varying tolerance to frost. For example, very hardy plants like broccoli, lettuce, kale, spring onions, pea, spinach, turnip and cabbage can be planted four to six weeks before our last frost date, and those called half-hardy or frost-tolerant such as beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cauliflower, radish and mustard must be planted a bit later, two to three weeks before the last frost date.