Seed  Catalogs 101

Seed Catalogs 101

  • By Cleve Campbell
  • /
  • January 2015 - Vol.1 No. 1

The seed catalogs started to arrive at my house in mid-November and will continue into the late spring and early summer. Some seed companies also publish a “special” fall catalog offering seeds and plant material for the fall and early winter growing season. In addition, if you provided your email address, on a previous seed order form or a line order, your email box will soon be flooded with weekly, monthly and/or seasonal opportunities and sales.  But what better way to spend a cold, windy, snowy day in January than with a seed catalog, dreaming about the bounty of the harvest to come and the neat rows in the garden, with of course, no weeds. Can spring and planting season be far away?

The catalog descriptions are amazing: “…. the loveliest fruits and plants”,  “attractive plants will produce an abundance of shiny bright fruit,”, “ high in antioxidants”, “All America Winner”, “Exclusive”, “Bursting with flavor”, “old fashion flavor”, “ One of the best tasting of all time”, “luscious, savory flavor”, “Vigorous plants produce enormous crops of large, firm, deep-red fruits with thick walls. Fragrant, juicy flesh has outstanding flavor”, and naturally “new and improved.”. Wow, all the descriptions sound wonderful, and one description described a tomato as: “…. will remind you of those visits to Grandpa’s garden when you were a kid. Huge meaty tomatoes are safer held in two hands than one. The 1-pound red and yellow streaked tomatoes look beautiful cradled in a long-tail shirt. One taste will transport you back in time with that great old-fashioned, full bodied tomato flavor.”  HOLY COW!!!  How can I possibly resist purchasing a couple of seed packets after reading that? After I finish paging through the first couple of seed catalogs, I notice that I’ve checked far more varieties than I’ll ever be able to plant. Two realities hit: there isn’t enough garden space to plant everything I have checked, and the descriptions aren’t designed to provide the kind of information, to aid in making an informed purchasing decision. In short, a seed catalog is a marketing tool to motivate me to make a purchase. However; if you know how to interpret their technical shorthand, seed catalogs offer a wealth of useful information, including seed germination rates (the percent that will actually grow into seedlings), graphs depicting the soil temperatures that allow optimum germination rates, plant culture, planting times, dates to maturity, how close to plant the seeds or plants, harvesting and storage. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that many seed company web sites offer instructional how-to videos, often produced by reliable agriculture colleges, and covering a wide range of topics, such as “Grafting Tomato Plants” and “Identifying Late Blight” on tomato plants.

Seed companies not only want to sell you seeds; they want you to be successful but also repeat customer. However, in order for the gardener to make an informed decision, they need to figure out how to decipher some of the catalogs’ technical code or shorthand.

One of the first things that I noticed when reading the seed description is one of the following: Hybrid (F1), Open-pollinated (OP) or Heirloom.

Hybrids are often denoted as F1 or Hy (first generation).  On rare occasions, a seed variety is labeled as F2 (second generation). Hybrid seeds are derived from two or more different plants, with traits that improve on the best characteristics of both parents. The plant breeder attempts to improve various attributes such as yield, uniform crop production, quality of the fruit (appearance, taste, storage life), disease resistance, speed of maturity and overall vigor. Saving seeds from hybrids and replanting them will not guarantee the same plant in future years. It should be noted that hybrids are not necessarily genetically modified (GMO). Hybrids are simply seeds bred from different parents to exhibit certain traits.

Open Pollinated (OP)- The seeds produced from these plants will be genetically identical to the parent. The parent plants were pollinated by natural (bees and or wind) means rather than being self-pollinated or cloned. Seeds may be saved from open pollinated plants, as they will pass on the traits of the parents to future generations.

Heirloom- Seeds are Open Pollinated (OP) varieties that have been passed down generations through families or communities and may have distinctive colors, shapes, and flavor. Often heirloom varieties are accompanied by a fascinating story. The tomato variety Mortgage Lifter comes to mind. There is no hard rule as to how old a seed variety must be to be labeled an heirloom, but heirloom gardeners generally disqualify seed varieties induced after World War II.  Since by definition Heirloom varieties are Open Pollinated, the seeds may be saved for future plantings. Heirloom plants may not always have the benefit of resistance to disease or fungus as their hybrid counterparts.

Organic Seeds, often denoted as (O), have been harvested from plants grown organically, without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Treated Seeds are seeds that have been coated with a fungicide or insecticide to increase the seeds’ ability to sprout without rotting or being attacked by insects in the soil. Many seed companies add color to the treatment to make them distinguishable from untreated seeds. For example, yellow corn seeds may appear pink.

All American Selection (AAS) is often used in the description of a particular seed variety. AAS is an independent nonprofit gardening organization that tests new plant varieties. only the best performers are recognized as AAS winners. Additional information, including a list of  the 2015 winners, is available at the AAS web site,

Tomato varieties include a description indicating whether they are Determinate or Indeterminate.  Determinate tomato varieties have fruits that ripen at the same time and have a bush-like habit. Often they do not need to be supported by staking or caging. Many of the determinate varieties were developed by or for tomato processing companies, to facilitate the harvest by having all the fruits ripen at the same time. Indeterminate tomato plants ripen throughout the growing season, and the plants continue to grow up until frost. For healthier plants and increased performance, staking, caging or trellising may be required to support indeterminate tomato varieties.

Some tomato varieties have a series of letters after the variety name. An example I came across was “BIG BEEF VFFNTA HYBRID”. These letters mean the variety is resistant to certain diseases and pests.  Planting resistant varieties improves the odds of a successful tomato crop especially if you live in an area where disease is a problem.

The following is an abbreviation key for these resistant varieties:  

V-Verticillium Wilt- Starting at the base of the plant, leaves develop yellow blotches in a v-shape that will later turn brown and die. Plants may not actually wilt until later in the season, but they will have stunted growth due to poor nutrient uptake through the stem.

F– Fusarium Wilt  — The main plant stem becomes infected with fungus that blocks water and nutrients. Leaves may turn yellow and die, while fruit size and quality suffers. Plant may wilt during the day, even with moist soil. FF denotes resistance to two strains of Fusarium.

N– Nematodes –Nematodes are roundworms that prefer sandy warm soils. Some will feed on plant roots from the outside, and others actually colonize inside the root. Plant growth is stunted and leaves may become stunted or look wilted or discolored due to poor water and nutrient uptake.

T-Tobacco Mosaic Virus –ToMv is transmitted by people and tools that come into contact with infected plants. Leaves may have a light and dark mottling, and at colder temperatures may become spindly. Fruit may ripen unevenly and develop brown lesions.

A – Alternaria Leaf Spot  –Plant stem becomes infected, especially on wounded areas, and develops dark colored lesions. The fungal infection may completely kill stems or produce toxins that can cause lesions on leaves as well as fruit.

Addition information on vegetable diseases and control is available in the Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-563, “Selected Vegetable Diseases”

There are a few points to remember when placing seed orders. Order early. Not only will you avoid the disappointment of requesting a sold out item, you may be rewarded with a free bonus seed packet for ordering early. Also, ask other gardeners to share information on their favorite varieties and success stories. The Virginia Cooperative Extension folks have also complied a list of recommended vegetables in Virginia Publication 426-480, “Recommended Vegetables for Virginia”

Another tool I have found helpful is The Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 426-331, Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates,, which not only tells you when to plant a particular vegetable, but also provides the number of seeds or transplants required for a 10 foot row. Also, if you want to have the first ripe tomato in the neighborhood, you’ll need to look at the “days to maturity or days to harvest” of the individual varieties, selecting an “early” versus a “late” variety.

As you are turning the pages of your seed catalogs or visiting a seed company website, don’t forget to check out the garden supply and gadget sections. New tools and supplies are often available from seed catalogs long before they make it to your local gardening center or big box store.

Additional References:

Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication No. 426-316, “Seed for the Garden”

A number of web links for various seed companies has been compiled by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and may be accessed at the following link: