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Over the Garden Fence

Ordering seeds from garden catalogs

January begins the annual flight of vegetable, flower, and fruit tree catalogs to your mailbox (or your email inbox). Depending on your level of gardening, the catalogs may arrive frequently and in mass.

It used to be you received a vegetable catalog or a fruit catalog or a flower catalog. Many catalogs now contain something for everyone, including the garden gadget addicts. These catalogs (print or digital) now often offer an array of choices, like annual and perennial flowers, fruit trees, and even heirloom vegetables.

These heirloom seeds can produce some of the best tasting and more unusual looking fruits and vegetables we get to eat. They are called heirloom since they have had no or very little traditional breeding. Although this also means they will have more disease problems too.

On the flip side, with all the breeding work going on, our vegetables can take on new colors that are a bit outside the lines. Consider a blue potato or perhaps pepper colors beyond green, such as yellow, red, purple, orange and even multicolored. These look great in salads and other dishes, giving a bright new look to your meals. It used to be that Swiss chard was green, now it is found in shades of pink, orange, yellow, gold, white, and purple. Newer varieties have more slender stalks and can be used to raw in salads or cooked as you would use spinach. You will find heirloom and new cultivars of our perennial vegetables. Rhubarb and asparagus are great additions to the garden. Even strawberries come in a variety of shades of red now.

Small fruits can be other plants besides strawberries and raspberries now. Plant breeders have had good success transforming the smaller fruiting shrubs like currants, gooseberries and Aronia into great performing plants for the home garden.

We should not throw caution to the wind and order every new variety out there. We might get away with that on annual flowers and vegetables, yet long-term perennials, small fruits, and large fruits will be with us for years! Be sure your research reveals disease resistance along with winter hardiness to fit your growing region. With annuals, be sure you have enough growing days, from seed to producing flowers or vegetable production.

If you start your own seeds, gardeners will find a source of pots, seed starting soil mixes, markers, and more in these catalogs. You can start your seeds in flat, individual cell packs like you see when you buy your annual flowers, or even expanding pellets. Pots can be out of plastic or an organic fiber. Some of the accessories that make starting your own seeds easier include warming mats in sizes from one six pack to a full tray. Other items you will find include plant stands with growing lights and self-watering trays. You also will be able to pick from a variety of temporary structures for outdoor use to grow out and harden your vegetable plants before they go into the garden.

Try not to order everything you see! This can be hard when you’re looking forward to spring, but there is a lot offered in these catalogs and proper planning (before purchasing) is key.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.