How to Choose the Right Seed Catalog
Ordering seeds, bulbs and plants from mailorder catalogs is a good way to obtain varieties that aren’t available either at your local nursery or the big box stores. Looking for something new and different? Check out the new introductions section. Love heirlooms? There are entire catalogs devoted to them. But beware. There are dishonest companies out there who will take your money and either send you nothing in return or send you poor quality merchandise.
Research your catalogs
Weeding out these charlatans is easy when you use the well-respected site, Garden Watchdog. Garden Watchdog is like Angie’s List. People can post about their experiences using catalogs and merchants. Those posts, negative and positive, result in a rating. Companies are so proud of their high ratings on the site that they brag about them! But you don’t have to rely solely on ratings. You can read all of the reviews that people have posted for yourself. It’s really easy to find the catalog you are interested in. Just scroll down the page and you will find options to browse alphabetically, by category, by country or by state.
Figure out your unit price
Once you have weeded out the dishonest or unreliable merchants, your next criteria should be price. You will quickly notice that most catalogs offer similar seeds and bulbs, but the prices can be wildly different. Some are laughably overpriced. You can eliminate them. Others will be close in price, so you should look at seed/bulb count. How many seeds/bulbs are you getting for that price? Sometimes the price and the seed/bulb count is difficult to compare. Just like in the grocery store, you should also figure out the unit price; how much does each seed/bulb cost? You can do that by dividing the price by the number of seeds/bulbs.
Don’t forget those shipping charges
The next thing you have to look at are the shipping charges. Some companies have much higher shipping charges than others so what you save in price is negated by the cost of shipping. Or if there are only one or two items that you want to order from a catalog, the shipping charge for those one or two items may actually be more than the price of your seeds/bulbs! In that case, you might want to order those items from another catalog from which you are also ordering. By combining the orders, you may save some money.
Another good way to save money on shipping charges is to combine orders with a fellow gardener. If you and a gardening friend both have small orders, send in one order to the catalog and pay one shipping charge.
Because I grow a lot of flowers, I occasionally find myself in the situation where what I want is only available from one company and there is nothing else that I want from that catalog but the shipping charges are two to three times as much as the seeds that I want. In that case I have to ask myself how badly do I want those seeds? Are they so rare that I will only ever be able to get them from this company or will they become more widely available a few years from now? Often if I am willing to wait, the plants catch on and become popular among home gardeners and so the seeds are more widely available.
Ordering perennial plants
When ordering perennial plants, you have to consider not just price, the number of plants for that price and the shipping charges, but also the size of the plants. Perennials will often be sold by container size. Smaller plants in small containers are less expensive than larger, more established plants in large containers. The problem with the smaller plants is that they may be first year seedlings and so will not bloom until next year. If you are willing to be patient or you are on a strict budget, it is worth your while to order the smaller, younger plants. You can always fill in around them with annuals to provide color the first year. Perennials live for 7 to 9 years, so there will be plenty of time to enjoy their blooms in the future.
Keep a record
Everybody makes fun of my spreadsheets but I have found them to be invaluable. Each spring and fall, I make a workbook of all my orders for plants, seeds and bulbs. Used in conjunction with my garden journal, it allows me to keep track of how well those orders turned out. Did my seeds, plants and bulbs actually grow? What was the germination rate of those inexpensive seeds? Did the bulbs actually come up in the spring? Did the perennial plants grow and thrive? Based on this information, I have whittled down the catalogs that I order from to about half a dozen. I know that their prices are fair and their products are good. When I find myself getting suckered into a catalog, I can check my spreadsheets to remind myself of my prior experience with that company.
Once the hustle and bustle of the holidays is over, it’s time to start thinking about your garden. Long winter evenings are the perfect time to peruse catalogs and make plans for the growing season. Your mailbox is probably stuffed with catalogs filled with gorgeous flowers and mouth-watering vegetables. It’s time to plan your garden.
More on garden basics
More by this Author
You have everything on hand already to make world-class compost without spending a penny while devoting your time to gardening instead of composting.
Starting seeds indoors is easy and less expensive than buying plants.
There are quite a few bulbs that are not on deer's menus.