The Do’s and Don’ts of Ordering from Garden Catalogs

Article and Photos by ELIZABETH FIEND


Although there’s still a chill in the air and a bit of winter to come, if you want to do a garden this year, start now. That’s right. The key to gardening is to be on top of everything. Gardening is based around the weather and the weather waits for no man — or woman.

You probably have a growing mound of garden catalogs by now. A few arrive in my mailbox every day.


Overwhelming! If you don’t have catalogs, try buying a mail-order plant ONE time, and you’ll be flooded with garden catalogs for the rest of your life.

What I do is just thin out from the very beginning. If you try to look through every single catalog, you’ll be paralyzed by too many options. So you must weed out from the start.

Divide the catalogs into categories like flowers, seeds, landscaping, accessories. I grow a lot of soft fruit, so I set aside catalogs that sell fruit as well.

After you’ve divided the catalogs into categories, start with the Buy Local philosophy. Sure, buying local helps dollars grow in your own neighborhood economy, but there’s another reason why this is a good idea. Buying a plant from a nursery located in an area that has the same ecology as where you plan to plant the plant is some extra insurance that it will grow happily in your yard. Yes, that plant from the nursery in New Mexico is gorgeous but face it, it’s just not going to take root around here even if the phrase “hardy enough for colder climates” is tossed about in the catalog’s description.


I live in Philadelphia and there are some big nurseries right here in my state. You can’t get much more local than that. Plus by buying local, you’ll be kinder to the environment by saving fossil fuel with a shorter transport to your garden. There is one major downside to the buy local thing when it comes to mail order. The Feds. When you make a snail mail or Internet purchase from a company located in your home state, yikes, you’re going to be charged sales tax. Still, I do it.

Of course, not all the plants I desire can be obtained from Pennsylvania nurseries. So I move out geographically, just not too far.  I also make a political decision and NEVER buy from a company associated with evil GMO company Monsanto. Instead I look for companies that have good work conditions, and care for the environment. Check out this article from the Organic Consumers Association for more info.

You know about the hardiness zones right?

The hardiness zone, or just zone, was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. Zones are based on the average annual minimum temperature over a five-year span. Numbers are assigned and graphed, they make undulating bands across the map, much like you see on a weather forecast map. Zone 1 is the coldest, here in Pennsylvania, we’re Zone 6. (Yeah, the zone thing is starting to get a little thorny right now due to global warming, but we won’t get into that today.)


A good, reliable catalog will list the hardiness zone of each plant. If it doesn’t, I’d ditch that catalog right from the start and move on to a more informative and honest supplier.

The zone is a great indicator, but it only tells one part of the story. The hardiness zone only talks lowest temperatures. Plants are also picky about the high temperatures. And they care deeply about how much rain there is, or how long between rain, or what the snow cover is and how likely an early or late freak frost is in your ‘hood. And let’s not forget the number of hours of daylight. So think about the big picture too.

Code words.

The catalogs can be sneaky with their wording and descriptions. Buying plants that are inappropriate for your area is one of the top reasons for garden frustration and failure. It wastes a lot of lettuce too. So be on guard.

There are a ton of code words in garden catalog land. “Woodland” equals shady, we know that, but it’s also a code word for wet. If the area under that tree out back isn’t a moist environment, forget about it, it’s not suitable for that plant. Go for the plant labeled “shade” or “part-sun” instead.

Other code words like “needs winter protection” mean that the plant probably won’t do well in Pennsylvania even if it says hardy up to Zone 6. “Plant along pond or stream” is code for “needs lots of water,” while “drought resistant” indicates the plant will probably die if there’s too much rain. “May bloom first year” means it won’t bloom until the second year. And phrases like “self-seeds readily” and “a good neutralizer” imply that the plant has the potential to be a garden pest, plant with caution.

Also consider your soil and the location of your garden when selecting plants. Clay soil? Sandy soil? Full sun, partial shade? Which do you have? Choose plants accordingly. You’re doomed to failure if you try to force a plant into an inappropriate location.



You have to be realistic about selecting seeds as well. Unless you’re an experienced gardener I would recommend staying away from trying to grow perennial plants from seeds. Stick with annuals and you’ll be a lot happier.

As for food from seed, one of the main things to look for when selecting seeds is the length of the growing season. I stick with vegetables seeds that will go from being in my hand to ready to eat in the range of 120 days. Plant May 1, eat Sept. 1, that is of course if everything goes according to your plan, which it never does.

My order this year:

Plants: Songbird Cardinal columbine; Southern Charm verbascum (a cascade of sherbet-colored blossoms, so lovely!); D. Agatha dianthus (aka carnations, spicy, edible flowers!); Mt. St. Helens, H. Regina and Dale’s Strain coral bells. This order is larger than most years for me. Total cost = $55.00.

Seeds: Four packs of various lettuce; greens: chard, kale, bok choi, (the Fiends are green inside and out!); cucumbers; sweet and hot pepper mix; summer squash mix; tomatoes: Brandywine, Genovees and Sun Gold Cherry; basil: Siam Queen, Bounty, Mammoth; parsley; nasturtium mixed (these edible flowers and leaves turn a bagel and cream cheese into haute cuisine); cosmos; and for the birds, sunflowers. Total cost = $65.00.

Right, gardening is not cheap. But the yard will be lookin’ good, and yum, we’ll be eatin’ good this summer!

Categories: Gardening, plants, plant catalogs

4 Responses to “How to Order From a Garden Catalog. Article by Elizabeth Fiend”

  1. Shamika Browing Says:

    Hi i read your blog frequently and thought i would wish you all the best for 2010!

  2. miss fidget Says:

    do you sow seeds directly into the ground or do you usually start indoors in trays?

  3. Elizabeth Fiend Says:

    it’s actually a LOT of work to keep seedlings alive indoors. i used to do that and decided the ‘pay off’ wasn’t worth the effort. basil is one exception, i usually start a few plants ahead of time inside. lov,e

  4. Rukia Kuchiki Says:

    Thanks for the , I’ll keep checking back for more stuff, bookmarked!

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