Garden catalogs begin to show up in early January and will continue for the next few weeks. Each picture looks better than the next and promises to be bigger or better than last year. Those photos and headlines are exciting, but as you pour over the pages, it is helpful to know how to decipher the information provided so you can make a more educated decision.
Vegetable descriptions will often include a number of initials following their name. These signify that the vegetable has disease resistance, or tolerance to a disease, specific to that variety. A tomato, for example, may have several initials V, F, N, or TMV to show resistance to Verticillium and Fusarium wilt, Nematode resistance and Tobacco Mosaic Virus.
Another term frequently used to promote a variety is the designation F1. This means that this variety is a first generation cross and contains the best genes from the male and female parent plants. This F1 hybrid will be a better performer, provide a higher yield, and be more disease resistant or tolerant than its parents. Vegetables, just like flowers, also can have the All-America Selection designation. The AAS designation signifies that this variety has performed to a high set of standards to ensure it will perform in your yard. Testing and evaluation occur in a number of locations throughout the United States so you can be comfortable knowing that you can purchase the seed or a transplant and have a quality plant.
A growing trend is to purchase heirloom, antique or open pollinated vegetables. These vegetables can provide fruit with a lot of visual character and when eaten, different texture and flavor. If you have problems in the garden now with diseases, and in particular the soil diseases, it is best to stick with the hybrids since you cannot treat for these diseases and save your vegetable plants. Gardening in a different spot in your yard is a way to grow these kinds of vegetables for several years before diseases become a problem.
If you are a flower gardener, similar terminology exists for perennials. If Phlox is on your shopping list, see if you can find one that indicates a resistance to powdery mildew (PM). If roses are your thing, then look for resistance to black spot and powdery mildew. If you are shopping for dwarf apple trees, apple scab and cedar apple rust are diseases you want help with to manage properly.
Other information provided in the plant description will be days to harvest and growth habit. For example, vine crops listed as a "bush type," means the plant will not vine out but rather stay compact. This is especially good for a small garden. Tomato plants can be either indeterminate or determinate types. Determinate varieties limit their mature size while still producing tomatoes. Indeterminate varieties will just continue to grow in size while they produce fruits.
Starting this early allows you to plan the garden, and figure out the varieties you will need to order from the catalogs that are not available locally at your favorite garden center, and by understanding the descriptions in any catalog or on a plant tag, you get to make the best selection possible for your garden.