Nurseries, home improvement stores and even grocery stores may have racks of seeds available when it’s time to start gardening, but there’s nothing like looking through seed catalogs, especially when it comes to choosing edibles. They’re filled with a dizzying array of vegetable varieties, more than you would find on a seed rack, and enticing descriptions, all backed up with colorful photos and illustrations.

These catalogs can also be filled with abbreviations and jargon. If you’re new to this, don’t despair. This information is pretty straightforward. It’s also invaluable when it comes to choosing what will grow well in your garden and please your taste buds.

The Basics

While “seed catalog” is the generic term for those often hefty volumes that arrive in your mailbox in the early months of the year, don’t be fooled into thinking they only sell seeds. You’ll also find fruit trees, berries and edibles, such as asparagus, grapes, onions and garlic, available as plants or cuttings — plus other garden supplies. You can order these catalogs from the companies themselves, and you will certainly continue to receive them once you order from them.

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Seed catalogs vary in the amount of information they provide with each listing, but some information is standard, such as the name, sun and water needs, and the number of seeds per packet. Most catalogs include additional information such as descriptions of each variety, days to maturity, type of seed and advantages specific to climate or growing condition. Look for legends to alert you to specific abbreviations the grower uses.

Because these catalogs can be large, you may feel overwhelmed when you first look at them. Take a deep breath and relax. They’re usually divided into categories: vegetables, trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and so on. Once you’ve found the category you’re looking for, plants are listed in alphabetical order.

You can order seeds well before you’re ready to plant. Most companies will start shipping in January, although you need to check to be sure. Some seeds might not be shipped until later, but that will be noted with the plant description and ordering information.

Plant name. Catalogs and garden encyclopedias list edibles by their common name, such as beans or corn. Some may include the botanical name as well, but unlike with most ornamental plants, this is not something home gardeners usually worry about. If you know you want to grow green beans, you’ll look for the listings for beans.

Once you’ve found the main page for the edible you want to grow, you’ll find the individual varieties or cultivars, which are individually distinct plants within that particular plant family and which can number in the dozens. If you’re looking at the different types of beans, “bean” would be the common name (or last name, if you will) and “Blue Lake” would be the variety (or first name).

Tomato varieties alone can take up a good amount of space, and other common vegetables, such as peppers and summer squash, aren’t far behind. Each variety or cultivar has its own strengths and disadvantages, such as adaptation to climate conditions or exceptionally large fruit, so you can browse through to find ones that work best for you.

Sun and water needs. While some catalogs spell these out, many have sun and raindrop symbols to indicate the amount of sun and water you’ll need to provide. Most edibles do best in full sun, six to eight hours a day, with moderate water at least once a week and more during hot or dry spells. But that’s not true of all of them, so you’ll want to check to be sure you can meet a plant’s needs.

Seeds per packet. This can vary widely, depending on seed size and how it’s planted. You’ll get far more carrot seeds, which are tiny and need to be sown in a group and then thinned, than bean seeds, which can be planted individually.

Beyond the Basics

You’ll find most catalogs include descriptions of each variety, days to maturity, type of seed and advantages specific to climate or growing condition, in addition to the basics.

Days to maturity. This is the number of days between when the plant starts growing and when you can start to harvest. For gardeners who live where summers are short, this information is vital to ensure the harvest will be ready before the frosts hit.

Climate zones. Most edibles do well to some degree in every climate, though some won’t thrive in areas that don’t get either sufficient heat or chill time and others may need to be started indoors before the last frost date.

While this data isn’t always included with the individual plants, most catalogs include links to the USDA climate zone map, which is the starting point for determining the optimal growing season where you live and a guideline for expected first and last frost dates in your region.

For more information on exact frost dates, check with local county extensions or consult the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Type of seed. The terms “open-pollinated,” “hybrid,” “heirloom” and “organic” are often used to describe seeds. There isn’t necessarily a price difference of any great note, and common hybrids such as Early Girl tomatoes may be even more readily available than open-pollinated or heirloom. But it’s usually a mix in most catalogs unless they specifically cater to a specialty type of seeds. Frankly, a good portion of plants out there are hybrids, especially in the edible world.

  • Open-pollinated, or OP, seeds are from plants that have been pollinated the old-fashioned way, by wind, insects, birds and other natural interventions. If you have the seeds for use the following year, you will get the same variety and plant characteristics as the original plant.
  • Hybrids. The term “hybrid” can often scare people away, but hybrids are simply seeds from plants whose pollen has been deliberately crossed when growing to produce specific characteristics, These might include an ability to grow in a specific climate, such as a tomato that does well in foggy San Francisco, or a desire to create a specific characteristic, such as a dwarf eggplant. While the word “hybrid” may often be included in the name, you might also just see an abbreviation such as F1 or F2. F1 hybrids are first-generation hybrids; F2 hybrids are second-generation hybrids. Hybrids can offer many more options for home growers. Unlike open-pollinated seeds, hybrid seeds can’t be saved for the following year as they won’t replicate the characteristics of the parent plant. If you’re growing a hybrid variety, you will need to purchase new seeds every year.
  • Genetically Modified Organisms. Hybrids are not the same as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Those are produced in labs by manipulating the DNA of the plants. They aren’t necessarily creating a separate category of types of characteristics as much as enhancing certain characteristics for agricultural advantages. Critics of GMOs object to the altering of the plants’ DNA.  GMO seeds are not generally available to the home gardening market and would likely be prohibitively expensive if they were.
  • Heirlooms have become more and more popular as people discover their flavor and hardiness. There isn’t an official date for when a plant is old enough to be designated an heirloom, but most people consider anything that was grown before World War II to be an heirloom, while others say any seed that has been around for at least 50 years qualifies. By definition, heirloom seeds are from open-pollinated sources. Heirlooms are sought after for their flavor and their hardiness as well as their historical interest. They’ve also usually adapted naturally to different growing conditions, so finding heirlooms that originated from or adapted to where you live means they will continue to do well in your garden. You’ll find more sources for heirloom seeds and plants from Seed Savers Exchange, which is usually considered the starting point for the growing interest in heirlooms, and also newer companies that specialize in these plants.
  • Organic seeds must be officially certified to be both pesticide and chemical-free and not genetically modified.

Disease resistance. There are a number of persistent plant diseases that can affect edibles, especially favorites such as cucumbers and watermelon. If certain diseases are prevalent in your area, search for hybrid seeds that have the following notations, which mean they’ve been bred to resist that particular disease: powdery mildew (PM), verticillium wilt (V), fusarium wilt (F), tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), tomato spotted welt virus (TSWV) and late blight (LB). Seeds with the (N) designation have been bred to resist nematodes.

Growth habit. While not all catalogs include this, it can be helpful to know how tall the plant will grow, especially if your space is limited.

Additional Info

Garden catalogs also may offer complete growing information, including when to start plants indoors, when to plant outdoors, times to transplant, planting recommendations and even advice on when to thin, water and harvest.

Suggestions for companion plants also may be included in the catalog. These are plants that may provide support or pest control for your edibles, or plants that enjoy the same growing conditions. They also might be plants that are ideal if you want to grow a specific type of garden, such as a salsa garden, a “three sisters” garden (the classic Native American combination of beans, corn and squash), a Mediterranean garden or an herb garden.

Finally, take a look at plants rated as customer favorites. If many people enjoy a particular variety, it probably has some desirable characteristics, including tasting great and being easy to grow.