MADISON CO., N.Y. — If it weren’t for seed catalogs this time of year, would you just up and move to Florida? The vibrant pages that come bound in your mailbox are a feast for the eyes amidst our snow-covered and sleeping landscape. Whether you grow vegetables or flowers or both, catalog publishers know how to tempt you with their photos of mouthwatering produce (could that store-bought tomato look any more orange?) and swoon-worthy blooms.
So how do you sort through all these temptations and make good, solid choices for your home garden? In the midst of the flurry of catalogs in your inbox, keep these things in mind:
- Not all seed companies are created equal. Get advice from friends or Cornell Cooperative Extension. Learn from the experience of others.
- Use companies that don’t mind chatting with you on the phone and do test their plant knowledge; give them a call and ask them about what they sell.
- Trust common names but be careful. This is especially important with ornamental plants. The common name of a plant is what we commonly call it, for instance: Lavender Hyssop. Know your common names, but to be very sure you get what you want, learn their Latin name! It’s not hard and very good seed companies will publish a plant’s Latin name as well. Common names are not well regulated and can be chosen by just about anyone. Latin names are regulated by entities such as the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (www.itis.gov) and are not changed without good reason. For example: Lavender Hyssop’s Latin name is Agastache foeniculum. It is also called Blue Giant Hyssop in some regions. But no matter where it is grown, the Latin name Agastache foeniculum remains the same. Familiarizing yourself with Latin names ensures that you get the plant you expect to get when you place your order. If a catalog doesn’t provide Latin names (for ornamentals), I am usually very hesitant to use it.
- The photos in the catalogs are meant to feature the plant in the best way possible. Seed companies are great, but they are still companies that are trying to make a living and really great photos help their sales. Look for additional photos online or in books (suggestions for both are down below) to have a more well-rounded idea of the plant you’ll be growing.
- Try to keep your orders to a maximum of three companies. There are so many companies out there, by the time you sort through all your choices in all the catalogs you may receive, your seed selections may very well be sold out!
- If you are a veggie grower, try at least one new variety every year. We all have our favorites that outperform others we’ve tried but if you don’t try some new varieties, you may be missing out on some great veggies!
It’s going to be a great growing year. Enjoy those seed catalogs! The coming year is likely to be tough for many in our community. If you are looking for a way to give back, contact our office about an exceptional volunteer opportunity through the Seed to Supper program. CCE Madison was awarded a grant from Cornell’s Garden Based Learning and we will be working with local entities through this program to help those in the community who are looking to start growing their own food and must do so on a budget. Contact our office for more details at 315-684-3001.
Sources for online photos of plants: try Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder at www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx or The National Gardening Association’s Plants Database: https://garden.org/plants/ or Dave’s Garden (https://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/) a combination discussion site with user uploaded photos from around the globe, a great site to browse this time of year!
Recommended books and authors to try: Allan Armitage has published several on herbaceous plants, Stephen Still authors books on trees and shrubs that are lovely. Barbara Damrosch (wife to the famous Elliot Coleman, cold-season vegetable gardener extraordinaire) has a Garden Primer which is my go-to reference. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith is a very nicely formatted, easy to use book with nice photos.
Cornell Cooperative Extension Madison County
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