University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

One of my favorite mid-winter hobbies is getting my garden ready for spring-time planting.  Actually, what I do is to plan my garden and then order seeds and plants from catalogs.  I think it makes the winter go faster, and I think you will too.

When ordering seeds, keep in mind some general guides.  Order only enough seeds for your needs.  Otherwise, you will be faced with entirely too many plants or with storing the unused seeds.  Ordering just what you can use and handle is one of the toughest problems most gardeners face this time of year.

First figure how many plants you'll need.  Then consult the catalog description to find the percent germination, and how many seeds per packet.  The germination is important, since if the packet has enough seeds, but the germination is low, you'll want to order more.  Some packets such as geraniums may only contain 5 seeds, as they are quite choice and harder to produce.  Others may contain hundreds of seeds and be enough for several years!

Choose varieties that will bear fruit or flowers in our short northern growing season.  This is especially important for vegetables, such as tomatoes or corn.  Days until harvest are usually given in the descriptions.  For instance if your growing season is about 90 days, and you pick a variety that takes 120 days to bear fruit, you may be out of luck!

When ordering seeds, consider the All-America Selections.  These are new introductions that have been judged best by horticulture professionals nationwide.  These selections are one reason to start your own plants, as many are quite good, and can't be found at many garden stores or even greenhouses.  You can learn more about this program online (

Catalogs, and especially now online websites, may also be used for ordering plants that arrive in the mail later in the spring.  This is a good way to find many new and unusual perennial plants that may not be available locally.  This is especially true if you are interested in a certain genus, group, or niche of plants such as hostas or aquatic plants.
If you have some complete garden centers and specialty nurseries in your area, you may wish to check their listings first before ordering from catalogs.  More than once I have found and ordered a prized plant in a catalog, only to find it later cheaper locally, and without having to pay shipping!

There are many new annual plants, often called "specialty annuals", grown from cuttings rather than seeds.  You can read about these in catalogs and online, but an increasing number are available at local garden outlets so you may wish to check with these first.

When ordering plants there are several important points to remember.  Order from reliable sources in order to get good value and plants that are shipped properly.  Such sources are ones you may have used before, or heard recommended by friends and neighbors. Beware of inexpensive plants.  Price is often a good indication of quality and lower prices often reflect poor quality.  These plants seldom resemble those in the catalog, and they often die.

Finally, with perennial plants make sure and check their hardiness. Hardiness zones are often quite variable among catalogs, so look at several for a particular plant. Then take an average or use the more conservative (warmer) zone figures if you want to be more assured of a plant surviving.

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