The short, cold days of winter leave much to be desired for gardeners but a successful summer garden begins with the arrival of winter seed catalogs.  Today’s seed catalogs offer more than just seeds.  From stories and recipes to exquisite photos; seed catalogs offer growing advice, new and old plant introductions and welcome inspiration for the house-bound gardener.

Seed catalogs also offer an opportunity to grow new or different plants that you may not be able to find as seedlings at your local garden center. The information in catalogs can be a bit overwhelming to the novice gardener so it is important to know how to interpret some of the technical information and abbreviations.

Hybrid seed, often abbreviated as F1, is a result of pollination of one genetically uniform variety with pollen from another specific genetically uniform variety.  Hybrid seeds are produced in a very controlled manner and are often done by hand; which results in more expensive seed.  The result is to produce more desired characteristics like: disease or drought resistance, uniformity, and outstanding fruit or flower production. The only downside to hybrid seed is that plants grown from them will not produce seed that is reliably similar to the parent plant.

Open pollinated (OP), sometimes referred as heirloom (H) or standard (S) seed has more stable characteristics from one generation to the next.  Because open pollinated plants were often chosen for one or two characteristics and adapted to different regions of the country individual plants of these varieties may differ greatly in size, shape, and other characteristics. If you plan on growing more than one variety of open pollinated plants you may have to separate plants by a certain distance or utilize varying planting times so flowers are not present in close proximity or at the same time in order to collect seed that is true to type.

Pelleting is a term that you will notice on many of the smaller seeded vegetables like carrots and flowers like petunias.  Pelleting is a coating, usually of clay and other inert materials, that makes the seed more uniform in size and shape. Pelleting increases the efficiency of mechanical seeding and makes hand seeding easier.

When looking for tomatoes in a catalog you will notice a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms like “TMV”, “Vt”, and “EB”.  These are common diseases that effect tomatoes; TMV refers to the tobacco mosaic virus, Vt refers to verticillium wilt a soil-borne disease, and EB refers to early blight which is a leaf disease.  Plant breeders have worked to breed in resistance or tolerance to these common diseases.

Tomato seeds may also be categorized as “determinate” or “indeterminate”.  Determinate varieties tend to be shorter, more compact plants.  Determinate varieties are better for small gardens or container growing and are great for gardeners that don’t want to bother with a lot of staking.  Indeterminate varieties will get tall and need caging or staking to keep them off the ground.  They tend to produce more over a longer period in the garden.

Shopping for seeds is a great way to get you through the dreary winter months but it can be a bit like going grocery shopping when on an empty stomach; so don’t bite off more than you can chew.