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  • Writer's pictureJulia Watson

Beware of Seed Catalogs ( :

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

blue flowers
Anagallis monellii in my own garden

If you love growing things, you'll soon want more than what's offered in your local nursery, so you start looking at catalogs, and that's when you can get in over your head, so I’m here to give you some guidance.

Seed catalogs! They’re so much fun, and I would never discourage you from looking, or ordering a few things, as long as you don’t break the bank. After a few rounds of this, you'll rack up a few disappointments and a few outright fails, but you’ll be an older and wiser gardener. I’ve been through it myself, so I’m qualified to give you four tips on choosing plants from catalogs.

· Take color photos with a grain of salt.

· Be wary of plant descriptions.

· Try to see the plant in person.

· Ask a gardener.

I could add “search for information and read about the plant” but I assume that was your starting point. You were probably sucked in by a something you saw on a website, on Instagram or in a printed catalog. These are great ways to find new plants, but see the first two tips on the list above. The color you see is often not what you’ll get (although the color you get still might be beautiful). Color is easy to manipulate in a photo, it can saturated so it jumps off the page and makes you click the Buy Now button. The written spiel that goes with the photo is meant to convince you that you MUST HAVE that plant. Try to filter out the hype and get to the real meaning.

“A tiny treasure with staying power! The heavenly color and refined flower form might suggest that this is a delicate plant, but the happy surprise it that it’s a vigorous grower and re-seeds for even more delight. Not fussy about soil or sun levels.”

I’ve just described ‘Grandpa Otts’ morning glory, an invasive pest that was the bane of my garden for ten years. None of that description is strictly false, but it sure is misleading. Yes, the flowers are refined and heavenly in form and color, but ‘Grandpa Otts’ invented invasiveness—he grows, blossoms and re-seeds so efficiently that it’s hard to keep up with his progeny. Morning glories are beautiful in someone else's yard, but I advise you to never, ever plant them in your own.

Here are a few red flag words and phrases you might find in seed catalogs, paired with their possible meanings.

“Vigorous” is code for invasive

“Not fussy” is code for invasive

“Re-seeds” is code for you’ll have more every year, and they’re probably invasive.

“Prune regularly” means it’s too big for your garden unless you have a ten-acre farm.

OK, these words don’t always mean the worst, but I’m advising you to be wary, especially if you have limited ground, time or funds. The best strategy is to see the plant in person and talk to someone who grows it. You can ask me by posting a question in the comment section below – if I’ve grown the plant in question, I’ll give you the straight answers.

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