Buying Seeds Strategically: A Frugal Gardener’s Guide to Ordering Seeds

I love it when seed catalogs start showing up in my mailbox. The delicious details, the incredible photos or drawings, and all those heirloom varieties make me want to read my catalogs like novels — word by word, with rapt attention.

Oh, the romance of it all! It's way too easy to fall in love with just about every heirloom you meet on those pretty pages.

Personally, if I don't approach my seed catalogs with a plan, I tend to get taken in by those bold beauties – big ballhead cabbages, come and cut lettuces, tomatoes that claim to pay your mortgage. Inevitably, I end up spending way more than I should on seeds that won't even grow well in my area.

In case you are also apt to be swayed by a beautiful head of cauliflower or giant golden globe beets, even when they are entirely unsuitable for your garden, then read on. These tips can help you safely select seeds that won't let you down and break your heart in the garden.

Strategic Seed Buying 101

Before You Open Your Catalogs

buying seeds

buying seeds

These first few tips will help you ground yourself in the realities of what you can and should consider growing this year before you start selecting seeds.

Tip 1: Make a List

Before you crack the binding on your first big book of seeds, make a list of what you want to plant in the garden this year. Also, calculate how much space it will take to grow everything on your list. You can write out your list and do your calculations.

Or… you can use a handy-dandy online vegetable planner that gives estimates for quantities and how much space it takes to grow what you need to feed your family.

Start with your staples. These are things you buy regularly and would like to grow at home. After staples, list your “like to have's” such as vegetables you don't eat regularly but might like to try growing. Finally, list your dream items which could include things you have never even tasted but are curious about.

Tip 2: Read Up on Plant Growing Requirements

Once you have a “working” list, the next step is to find out whether everything on it can actually grow in your area. All plants have specific requirements that must be met for them to grow well. Reading up on comprehensive growing guides can help you narrow down your list of plants.

For example, I had hibiscus for tea on my “like to have's” list because I love making my own teas. However, that plant is only a perennial in USDA planting zone 8 and up.

It also requires a long, warm growing season to make the calyxes used for tea. That meant I'd have to start it indoors, under lights, months before I could transplant it outside. That was way more work than I was interested in doing, so it came off the list.

Finding out how much time, special care requirements, and what pests and problems are involved in growing different kinds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers may influence your decisions on whether to give them a try in your garden. Particularly if you are new to gardening, eliminating plants that are marginal or problem prone in your planting region will save you time, money, and heartache.

Tip 3: Reality Check Your List

Total up the square feet needed to grow all the vegetables on your list. Can you fit this all in your garden? Do you have enough compost, mulch, and other soil amendments to provide the fertility all of those plants will need? Do you have the time to seed, water, weed, thin, and harvest all those plants?

If your answer is no (and it usually is), then revise your list. Revise as much as necessary until your list of wants matches your available space and time. Dream items and like to have's usually get eliminated first. However, sometimes you may also want to make decisions based on the cost to buy certain vegetables at the store and the availability from local farmers in your area.

Tip 4: Identify Your Growing Conditions

Every growing area has its challenges. Beyond just knowing your USDA planting zone, regional factors can impact what will grow well in your garden. Knowing your last and first frost dates and amount of rain during your growing season are also important.

Soil temperatures generally approximate air temperatures. When soil temperatures get above 80°F, cool weather plants tend to bolt (flower and taste bitter). Also, many seeds will not germinate well in soil over 80°F. So, knowing how many days you have between your frosts and 80°F weather will help you plan which cool season plant varieties you can grow.

Where I live, intermittent frost up until Mother's day is relatively normal. Then right after that, it gets hot and humid. So, based on my conditions, when I start perusing seed catalogs, I look out for descriptions like “grows well in the South,” “slow-bolting” and “tolerates heat.” Descriptions such as “requires long, cool growing season” or “good for Northern climates” are automatic no-gos for me.

Tip 5: Know Your Suppliers

Unfortunately, if you make the mistake of buying from certain distributors, your information automatically gets shared to a laundry list of plant and seed wholesalers. Catalogs from companies you have never even heard of start showing up in your mailbox.

Some of these catalogs are beautiful and bargain basement cheap. So, it's tempting to want to go with the lowest priced products. However, when it comes to seeds – quality is paramount.

Things like controlling for cross-pollination and drying, storage, and shipping methods can make a big difference in how well seeds will work in your garden. Before you buy, find out if the suppliers you are considering are known for their seed quality, plant care, and customer service.

Personally, I stick to heirloom seeds. I buy most of my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Sow True Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Renee's Garden. However, there are a lot of other great seed companies out there, and every gardener has their favorite. So, check around.

Once you narrow down your trusted sources, I suggest you toss those non-preferred seed catalogs into the compost to avoid unnecessary temptation. Trust me on this! Even when you know better, the ads and prices can be so enticing that you might make the mistake of ordering against your better judgment.

Tip 6: Set a Seed Budget

If you are serious about growing your own food, then the amount of money you spend on seeds can make a significant dent in your grocery budget. I give myself a $200 budget on seeds and plant starts each year. That investment saves me thousands of dollars at the grocery store and also earns me some income at the farmers market.

Your seed budget should take into account how much of your grocery budget your seeds will replace and what you can afford. Establishing a budget before you shop can keep you from overspending and help ensure you focus on the vegetables that are most important to your bottom line.

When You Open Your Catalogs

Now that you are armed with enough information not to be taken in by every beautiful heirloom that catches your eye, it's time to sit down with your preferred catalogs.

Tip 7: Make the First Pass

I like to go through all my catalogs with a notebook, pen, and highlighter in hand. I mark the varieties that seem reasonable. I also make notes on varieties I need to research further.

Sometimes the descriptions in catalogs aren't as helpful as I'd like them to be. Going to the internet to look up more information and read reviews can help.

For example, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has an incredible catalog. But they don't always give planting zones or average days to harvest. Sometimes the descriptions focus on flavors and don't include any of those clues I need to know whether plants will grow in my conditions.

I often have to look for more details on different varieties and read the online reviews before making my choices. Whenever I do this kind of research, I keep adequate notes so that when the seeds arrive, I have a head start on knowing how to plant them.

Tip 8: Limit Your Varieties

It's hard to keep a whole bunch of different varieties of the same kind of vegetable straight. You need good labeling systems. In some cases, you have to be careful about cross-pollination issues (e.g., corn) even if you don't plan to save your seeds. Variances in harvest times and care also complicate crop rotation schedules.

Personally, for most things, I limit myself to one or two varieties of each kind of plant per year. For things like cabbage, I like to grow one purple and one green variety since those are easy to tell apart. I may also get 60-day harvestable heads for spring and 80 days to harvest for winter production.

Cucumbers come in pickling and salad varieties, so I usually grow one of each for different purposes. With tomatoes, I plant a snack kind (e.g., cherry), a slicer (e.g., Cherokee Purple), and a canning tomato (e.g., Amish paste). For peppers, I usually stick to two spicy and two sweet kinds.

For really productive plants like eggplant or zucchini, one variety is plenty. For some of my staple crops. I stick to tried and true varieties that grow well every time. For example, Detroit Dark Reds are the only beets that grow well consistently in my area. So I don't even consider other beet options.

Once I narrow down my choices for this year, I also make a list of any of the contenders I passed on this year. That way, next year I have a head start on figuring out which new varieties to try.

Tip 9: Consider Shipping Costs

Buying seeds from multiple vendors may also mean paying for more shipping costs. If you can find everything from one vendor, you can often cut down on shipping costs. You may even get free shipping on orders over a particular dollar value. Alternatively, consider sharing an order with your other gardening friends.

Seed sellers can also point you to retail locations near you that carry their seeds. Seasonally, you may be able to find your favorite seeds on racks at your local gardening stores. Gift shops at living history sites also frequently have open-pollinated, non-GMO seed racks from favorite suppliers.

After Buying Seeds

Now that you've got your seeds in hand, it's time to maximize your expenditures.

Tip 10: Store Seeds Right

Some seeds are only good for one year. For example, parsnip and onion seeds have poor germination rates after the first year. Plant all of those seeds within one year or share them with friends, so they don't go to waste.

Many seeds can be kept for several years. Keep your seeds in their packages for easy identification. Make sure seeds stay clean and dry by transferring them to an alternate container when taking them out to the garden. Store your seeds in a cool, dark, and dry location.

Conclusion

Buying seeds is one of the most hopeful and exciting parts of gardening – especially since we tend to do it in the dark of winter. Each seed contains the promise of a new plant and greater self-sufficiency on your homestead. Take some time with the process. Choose well and keep good notes for future planning.

Oh, and go ahead and get carried away by beautiful black corn or multi-colored tomato now and then. A little experimentation and risk-taking is good for the soul and for gaining skills as a gardener.

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