About Garden Catalogs

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

Browsing the catalogs and planning the coming year's garden is a pleasant way to spend a winter day, in spite of the danger of setting off a massive case of spring fever. But choosing from the abundance of vegetable varieties in even a few catalogs can quickly become a challenge. Beginning gardeners, especially, may have difficulty picking varieties to plant because they don't have the benefit of gardening experience and a list of favorites.

Catalogs are full of useful information about disease resistance, days to maturity, plant habit (vining vs. bush, for instance) and other desirable traits, but so many choices -- all of which are described in only the most positive terms -- can be overwhelming.

A reliable guide is the catalog notation that a variety is an All-America Selections award winner. To win an AAS award, a variety has to perform well in side-by-side trials with proven varieties. Trial gardens are located all across the United States and in Canada, and varieties have to perform well under a wide range of conditions to earn an award.

A friend or neighbor who has the sort of garden you aspire to have may have some insights to share, also. If someone shares his harvest with you and those big, juicy tomatoes are the most flavorful you have ever tasted, ask what variety they are. Variety selection is just one step in growing a fantastic garden, but it can make a big difference in productivity and performance.

Though "new and improved" is often the watchword in the seed catalogs, not all recommended varieties are new introductions. Some garden standouts have been around a long time. Connecticut Field pumpkins, for instance, go back to colonial times. Other venerable varieties include Mary Washington asparagus, Detroit red beets, New Yorker tomatoes, yellow crookneck squash, Waltham butternut squash and early Jersey Wakefield cabbage.

Most newer introductions are hybrids that offer improved disease resistance, earliness or productivity; more compact plants; improved color, shape, taste or storability; or some combination of these and other desirable traits.

If you've been gardening for a while and you have your favorites but find yourself tempted to try "new and improved" this year, plant the new variety alongside the old favorite rather than switching entirely to the new variety. If the new variety doesn't live up to its billing, you still have your old standby to fall back on. And if it performs spectacularly, you'll have the tried-and-true variety to compare it to. And maybe you'll have a new favorite.

(This resource was added December 2004 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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