Shopping for Plants and Seeds

Dr. Leonard P. Perry
Extension Professor
University of Vermont

One of my favorite means of getting through a long winter is to start this coming year’s gardening by looking through catalogs, books, and shopping online.  Several considerations when shopping early for plants and seeds will make the process fun and less overwhelming.  You’ll end up with more garden successes this season, and fewer disappointments.

Whether ordering plants or seeds, keep in mind they will seldom look as spectacular in your garden as they do in the catalogs.  Thanks to photo technology, just as with models, plant photos are often “enhanced”.  Plus, they are usually taken under ideal conditions or at professional display gardens.  The printing process, if not done properly, may alter colors somewhat.  Consider the photos as a useful guide, just don’t despair if your plants aren’t quite the colors shown, and the plants aren’t as tall or wide, nor the flowers quite as large.  I often find this the case in my North Country gardens where the light isn’t as bright, nor are my beds as ideal and fertile as those where those “model plants” were photographed.

Another warning for both plants and seeds is to only order what you can manage to plant and care for.  Remember, you don’t just plant and walk away until bloom or harvest time.  The more you plant, the more time will be needed for watering, weeding, and other care.

Speaking from experience, it is too easy during a long winter to end up ordering a bit here and a bit there.  The final result is way more plants and seedlings than you have time to plant and care for, or even space for.  I try to figure just where plants will go in my gardens when ordering.  Of course all may not germinate, or be available, but you can always buy others later to fill in.  Chances are you’ll end up seeing some plants this season you “must” have, and having a few extra spaces in beds or the garden for these unplanned purchases is always handy.

Especially with seeds, order only enough 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, as seeds are so much easier to get too many of than plants.  But, if so, at least you can store leftovers of most seeds for a year or more under cool and dry conditions ( a jar in the refrigerator works well).

When ordering seeds, 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 (

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 plan now but buy locally this spring.

Catalogs and online websites also may 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!

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.

(author’s note:  Any videos or ads appearing here, added by WordPress, are not in any way related to nor have been approved by the author.)



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