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Avoid common mistakes when buying seeds from catalogs or online

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Certain do’s and don’ts will make you a smarter shopper when buying seeds online or through the mail.
Certain do’s and don’ts will make you a smarter shopper when buying seeds online or through the mail. Tribune News Service

With all those newly delivered, luscious seed catalogs staring us in the face, what are we going to do with them? For many, the answer is not much. They’re nice to look at, but we never get around to buying anything. Yet even if that’s all you do, there’s a wealth of information between the covers.

Then there is the other extreme. Catalog-crazed purists find it preposterous to consider actually buying run-of-the-mill seeds at a box store.

For anyone buying seeds online or through the mail, there are certain do’s and don’ts that will make you a smarter shopper.

Two of the most common mistakes gardeners make when catalog shopping:

▪  Overbuying. It’s like going to the grocery store on an empty stomach. When it comes to gardening, even the most disciplined can find themselves impulsively adding seed packs to their virtual shopping cart. And at just a few dollars per packet, they seem so affordable. But beware. You’ll be surprised how quickly your order adds up.

The common justification for over-ordering is the assumption that you can use the seeds in following seasons. And while seeds can be stored and saved successfully under the proper conditions, eventually they lose much of their viability. The best germination rate occurs on seeds that are packaged for the current year.

▪  Buying without regard to appropriate conditions. A common but avoidable mistake is purchasing seeds (or plants) simply on the merit of their beauty and without regard to the appropriate zone or conditions. It’s great to experiment, but no matter how good they look in the catalog, lilacs won’t thrive in the Deep South, nor will blueberries prosper in non-acidic soil.

The photographs and artwork you see in catalogs are intentionally irresistible. The pictures used to seduce you are grown under ideal conditions by professionals. In the garden of your mind, the seeds you plant will look just as good. But in reality, your true garden may not produce similar results.

The best way to give yourself an opportunity for similar results is to order seeds and plants that are appropriate for your growing conditions, and do all you can to provide the best growing environment.

What you should do

▪  Plan ahead. In order to avoid the mistake of biting off more than you can chew, do a little planning. First, try to calculate how many plants you can realistically add to a given space.

Next, consider how much time you have to devote to planting and maintenance. Even if you have unlimited room, there’s still work to do in planting the seeds and subsequent care. Gardening should not be a burden or chore. Avoid the pressure of feeling like you need to plant everything you buy. By keeping it manageable to fit your schedule and lifestyle, you’ll likely order less than otherwise.

▪  Find reliable catalog companies. There are plenty of companies out there, and seed quality can vary from one to the next. In addition, freshness matters. Companies that offer bargain basement prices may be able to do so only because of inferior quality or stale seeds.

If you are unsure as to a company’s reputation, consider making your first order small. You can always buy more later. But don’t bet your garden’s success on an unknown company to supply the seeds. If possible, find gardeners you admire or trust and ask them whom they use. Firsthand testimonials are always a great place to start.

▪  Investigate shipping and handling cost. Some companies offer a minimal flat rate for shipping, while others base the rate on weight or by the size of your order.

▪  Make sure customer service is for real. Call before you buy if you’re unsure. If you do have questions before or after the sale, a responsive service department with real people to talk to can resolve your problem and answer your questions.

Although this list is not exhaustive, it will give you some guidelines and remind you to look beyond the pretty pictures. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new varieties; just be realistic with what you’ll be able to do before you spend your money.

Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television.

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