Gardening Etcetera: Starting the new year with seed catalog dreaming

Gardening Etcetera: Starting the new year with seed catalog dreaming

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Glass Gem corn

'Glass Gem' is a rainbow-colored flint corn that grows well in Coconino County. It can be used for cornmeal, popcorn, and ornamental purposes, and can be purchased from many mail order seed companies.

One of my favorite things to do early in the new year is take a pile of seed catalogs, spread them out, and go through them, page by page. I love seed catalogs like some people love ice cream or chocolate tastings. Thirty-one flavors are never enough for my palate. Each new colored picture, seed shape, and description is like a sugar explosion rolling around on my tongue. And though there may not be the calorie guilt involved, I certainly have guilt from liking to have so many printed rather than electronic catalogs in front of my face. It’s a sensory experience and I can’t help the joy I feel from this annual ritual.

I love seed catalogs because they’re an endless possibility of what might be. I envision to what glories my garden might attain given the diversity and bounty offered with so many seeds. For me, the greatest joy is in the planning. And to be fair, nothing is as grand as what I imagine, but going into the planting with that in mind keeps me from being disappointed.

Reading the descriptions of each seed makes it easy not to be disappointed. They make each plant sound like a smorgasbord of manna from the gods. You’d think every seed was a foolproof way to have a lush garden merely by throwing seeds onto the ground. Some of them can wax eloquent about the precise color, texture, or flavor of the proffered product. But if you can read between the lines of the flowery prose and get to the basic facts listed, you can make a proper selection. For vegetables, I look for things like hardiness, days to maturity, approximate produce size, and water requirements. Since we live in a cold and dry climate, care must be given to these options. But I also pay attention to what the catalog writers say about sweetness, ease of growing and sun requirements. Sun requirements are specifically varied in the Flagstaff area, as some sites are shaded by our Ponderosa Pines and other areas like Baderville and Doney Park, get more sun than some plants appreciate. Verbiage indicating disease resistance are only important if it has been a problem in the past for the area you’re planting.

As you may have guessed already, not all seed companies are equal. Seed companies often rely on outsourced seeds and seed patenting is also becoming an issue for both large and small organizations relying on seed sales for their livelihood. Beyond the fancy catalogs, look for companies committed to quality seeds meant to grow in your type of climate. Not only will they try to grow as many seeds of their own at their location but will also contract local growers to produce quality vegetable, fruit and flower seeds for them.

Also be aware federal government standards only dictate that seed germination rates (depending on the species) be around 50% to 75% positive germination, but most good companies are far higher than this. They want to give you less duds and more buds because it is in their best interest and yours. Seek out those who bank on fresh, quality seeds. They usually have an excellence commitment in their catalogs or on their website. Read it and see what their own standards are, which nearly always exceeds those set by the government.

Some of my favorites seed companies I have always had good luck with are Terroir Seeds, Miss Penn’s Mountain Seeds, Snake River Seeds, Native Seeds SEARCH, Siskiyou Seeds, Seeds Trust, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Saver’s Exchange, Botanical Interests and Farm Direct Organic Seeds.

However, there are many, many wonderful seed companies diligently growing out seeds to meet localized gardening challenges. And speaking of challenges, even more satisfying than choosing seeds from a catalog is selecting for your own, favorite seeds from your garden produce and spent flowers… but that’s a topic for another day.

Jackee Alston is the co-editor of Gardening Etc., a Coconino Master Gardener, founder of the Grow Flagstaff’ Seed Library, and has been growing food in Flagstaff for 14 years. If you have a gardening topic you would like to hear about, please send your question or topic to

The next Master Gardener class starts on January 27. For more information, go to:


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