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Understanding Your Seed Catalog

Nothing can put pep in a gardener’s step like receiving seed catalogs after the holidays are over and cabin fever has set in. The vibrant and colorful pictures are enticing and can make you want to plant everything you come across; however, when thumbing through your catalog, there are some things you need to keep in mind.

Scout Ahead

When you start to dive into your crisp new seed catalog, where do you start? Where else but the beginning. Pull out your records from your past garden experiences. Be sure to consult your notes on what varieties grew well and what varieties did not. Consider even trying a new variety or two.

As you flip through the catalog, try to locate key symbols and wording that will be used throughout. You might find symbols that represent groundcovers, organic seeds, plants that attract pollinators or their sun requirement. You also might find different abbreviations for each variety of seed. The meanings of these abbreviations are found near the front of the catalog. For example, “PM” might mean that it is resistant to powdery mildew. Keep in mind that key symbols may vary in different catalogs.

From there, move on to the organized sections. You will find headings like vegetables, fruit, flowers, herbs, live plants, bulbs and more. They will be filled with articles, garden equipment, recipes or other items of interest to new and seasoned gardeners. Familiarizing yourself with symbols, terms, abbreviations and headings will assist you in finding the right information to grow a successful garden. 

Common Terms and Abbreviations

Days to maturity: The number of days to harvest that is expected after planting transplants.

Direct sow: Seeds may be started directly in the ground; for many plants, this is done after all threat of frost is past.

Indoor sow: Seeds need to be started indoors under lights or in a greenhouse. Once ready, transplants can be planted outdoors once the threat of frost has passed.

Open pollinated (OP) : These plants are pollinated by another plant, as opposed to pollinating itself. These are varieties that will come from true seed, look for this symbol if you want to save seeds to use in future plantings. 

Hybrid: Seeds from a cross of two or more known varieties. Seed-saving from these varieties will result in plants not identical to the parent plants, some variance is expecting in vigor.

  • F1 - First Generation
  • F2 - Second Generation

Disease resistant: This is the degree of disease resistance exhibited by the plant. Disease resistance is often expressed with abbreviations, for example “V” for Verticillium Wilt. The abbreviations should be explained within the catalog. If you have had disease problems in the past, consider selecting disease resistant varieties; however, resistance could be compromised under high disease pressure.

Heirloom: Typically open pollinated, seeds from these plants have been passed down through many years. They tend to have a unique flavor, taste and color. These plants have poor disease resistance when compared to hybrids, and yield is unpredictable. These seeds can be saved from the harvest and can be planted and enjoyed year after year, preserving the variety.

Treated: The seeds are coated with fungicides or insecticides to protect them from disease and pests during their germination and seedling growth. It is common for companies to add color to these seeds to be able to differentiate them from untreated seeds.

Determinate plants: This term refers to the growth habit of a tomato plant. Plants will grow to a fixed, determined size, ceasing growth after flowering. They will mature all their fruits in a short period of time (usually about two weeks or so). These are most ideal for small spaces and container gardening.

Indeterminate plants: Plants continue to grow and set fruit throughout the growing season until killed by frost. These plants are vining and will need a trellis system.

Number of seeds: The amount of seeds a packet will contain. Many will indicate how long of a row in feet that a packet can plant.

Early, mid-season, late season: These terms can be used in place of “maturity.” It refers to when fruit will be yielded in relation to the growing season.

Average yield per 100 feet: This will indicate how many pounds of produce to expect for per 100-foot row.

Vernalization: The process of exposing the plant to cold temperatures for a specific length of time to induce flowering.

Monoecious: Male and female flowers grow on the same plant.

Dioecious: Male and female flowers grow on different plants; a male and a female flower must be present for fruit production.

Gynoecious: Plants that produce only female flowers; must be pollinated by male flowers to set fruit.

Parthenocarpic: Does not require pollination to set fruit. When successfully isolated from pollen, their fruit will be seedless.

USDA Hardiness Zones

This is one of the most important aspects you need to consider when selecting your seeds. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at their location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. Check out the map and determine your area’s zone. Use this zone number as a general guideline when selecting seeds.

You also might stumble across a catalog that uses the Heat Zone Map created by the American Horticultural Society. This map uses average high temperatures to assign gardening regions. Another map that you might not see as often is the Sunset Climate Zone Map. This map uses several factors, such as latitude, elevation and microclimates, to create zones.

Once you have identified which zone you are in and the map associated with the catalog you’re using, you will be able to make a list of plants that are hardy for your area and can successfully grow.

Underestimate Your Need for Seeds, Overestimate Your Need for Space

Milling through the colorful glossy pages of your seed catalog can make you want to sow a garden that will feed your whole community, but remember you only have so much space. Whether you are looking to line your driveway with flowers or you are selecting vegetable varieties for your garden, it is important to know the amount of space you have to work with and how much space is needed for the plants to thrive.

Before selecting your seeds, measure out the space that you are intending to sow. Once you have measured, create a map using the appropriate dimensions. Locate the plants you are interested in growing in your catalog and determine their mature size. Use your map and the mature sizing to lay out your garden with appropriate spacing, which will help determine the amount of seeds you will need.

Keep in mind that not all seeds will germinate. Instead of purchasing more seeds this year, consider waiting until next winter. Start with a smaller plot to see how they grow. Keeping a seed journal is highly encouraged, not only for purchasing seeds in the coming years but to keep track of the amount of produce you have grown in a season to make sure you’re meeting your needs.

Shop Around

Do not rely on one catalog to fill all your needs. If there is a variety you like, find it in several catalogs and compare. There is a good chance that the quantity of seeds in a packet will vary, but the price conversion is simple math.

For example, if a packet of 25 eggplant seeds is $4.75, divide 4.75 by 25 and you’ll get 0.19. Each plant will roughly cost 20 cents. Keep in mind that heirloom varieties and certified organic seeds typically cost more.

Common Seed Catalogs


How to Order


Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Visit Website

Call: 877-564-6697

Started in 1973 in New Hampshire. Named after the famous Johnny Appleseed (Johnny Chapman), according to their website, this company is 100% employee-owned. A favorite among organic growers.


Visit Website

Call: 1-800-888-1447


Founded in 1876 in Philadelphia, this company specializes in all varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits. Burpees is a household name, and one of the largest seed companies in the world.

Nourse Farms

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Call: 1-413-665-2658

Founded in 1932 in Massachusetts, this company sells a variety of berry plants, horseradish, rhubarb and asparagus. 

Park Seed

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Call: 1-800-845-3369

Founded in 1868 in Pennsylvania, later moved to South Carolina after George Park married one of his customers. This company is one of the largest and oldest in the country, selling just about anything needed for the garden.


Visit Website

Call: 1-513-354-1491

Founded in 1866 by Charles Gurney, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Civil War. The company was established in Iowa first and then moved to its current location in Indiana. This company specializes in fruit, vegetable, herb and flower seeds and plants.

Adams County Nursery

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Established in the early 1900s, this company specializes in providing quality nursery stock to both commercial and backyard growers. A wide variety of fruit trees and rootstock are available.

Prairie Moon Nursery

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It is excellent source of seed and very reasonably priced. A newer nursery established in 1982.

*Many more seed catalogs exist – the above are not endorsed by WVU Extension, but are reputable sources.

Who doesn’t enjoy happy mail? Order your seed catalogs today and start planning for your garden! Always select seeds and plants from a reputable source, and reach out to your local WVU Extension office for assistance on varieties, pest and disease management, storage and preservation of your garden!


Coulter, L. (n.d.). How to Read a Seed Catalog. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from

Authors: Jody Carpenter, WVU Extension Agent - Barbour and Randolph Counties; Natasha Harris, former WVU Extension Agent; and Jesica Streets, former WVU Extension Agent.
Last Reviewed: March 2021