In the mail in early December, along with the overachiever Christmas cards, sale fliers, and ever-present bills, come the seed catalogs for the following year. Oh the possibilities! A world of choices is opened up! How in the world do we choose?

On days that look like this, studying seed catalogs makes summer seem possible!

My first reaction is always, “YES, all of it! Let’s get everything!” I love the flower colors, the vines, the delicious looking vegies, the funny shaped gourds…Did you know you can grow pumpkins filled with seeds already shelled? That multi-colored corn can be dried and ground for cornmeal or popped for popcorn? How about the 17 pages of different tomatoes? There are heirloom and hybrid varieties, new hybrids that are crossed with heirlooms, tomatoes that are resistant to tomato ailments I didn’t even know existed. Don’t even get me started on the peppers!

Then reality sets in and I begin the scientific process of elimination that I have honed over the years to arrive at the order that fits in the budgets of time, money, and space.

What do I have? What do I need?

The common sense order of our gardens has always been to take care of our needs first. We get the vegetable seeds before we get the flower seeds. We get the old standbys that we know everyone will eat before we experiment with new vegies or new varieties.

The easiest way to keep track of all this is to put it down on paper. I keep a notebook (just an old one that someone didn’t use all the paper in at the end of a school year). It contains all my garden notes. The first notes from each year is a list of the seeds that I have on hand. I keep the seeds that are left over in boxes in a cool dry place. Most seeds will last longer than one season under those conditions. If I do use all the seeds in a packet, I usually leave the empty packet in the box until the next January.

The next page for each year lists the seeds that I need. The next pages list what and how many of each plant that I started in the house. On the rest of the pages for the year, I make notes throughout the growing season about things that worked well and things that I should have done differently or planted more or less of. I also make notes of things that need to be fixed before the next growing season.

In January, I sort through those packets and take inventory of everything that is there. As I go through the seed packets, I put each on either the have list or the need list in my notebook, depending on the amount of seed in the packet. The need list at this point are the things that I always plant. In our case that is green beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, pumpkins, and several other vegetables. Packets that have enough seeds in them for this next season go on the have list. Packets that are empty are listed on the need list and then go into the garbage.

Completing the “need list”

In addition to the packets that are empty, I need a variety of most of those seeds. As I was devouring those seed catalogs, I was turning down pages of things that I found interesting. We always plant a variety of tomatoes, squash, and peppers. We usually plant the same number of plants every year but all the seeds don’t come out of the same packet, so I don’t have to replace all of our seed every year. That means I can budget the same amount of money each year and still have room in the budget to try something new.

Try something new every year

The “something new” is a new variety or a new plant altogether. One year, we tried growing dried beans. We left them on the plants until they were dried and when we harvested them, we had enough beans to make soup. Another year we grew blue corn. The kernels really were blue. We left the cobs on the plant until they were dry, picked the kernels off the cobs and ground them for blue cornbread. In both cases, we found that the time and space weren’t worth the effort so we still buy our dried beans and cornmeal just like most other folks.

The adventure was worth the effort though, because my little folks understood where more of their food came from. In some cases, the adventure has resulted in a love affair with a new vegie we didn’t know anything about before. If we really don’t like it, we can be sure the chickens will anyway.

One thing that I pay very close attention to is the number of days to maturity. This is an important number because if it doesn’t have time to get ripe, I have wasted my money, time and space. Our last average frost date is about the 15th of May and our first average frost is around the 26th of September. That gives us right around 115 frost free days. You can either google those 2 dates for your area or ask your friendly neighborhood extension office.

Making sure we don’t go over budget

Now that I have a list of everything that I need to buy, along with a list of things I would like to try, I start to juggle the numbers in order to stay within the money budget. In our home, the rule has always been needs before wants and food before flowers. Many of the catalogs have special offers. Free shipping on orders over $x or save $x on any order of $x or more. Check those carefully. Shipping costs are important because it has to be included in my budget. Most of the save $x on orders of $x or more do not include the shipping. I choose which catalogs to order from based on which of these offers will benefit me the most, how much they charge for shipping, and which ones carry the varieties I just cannot live without.

My need page is the messiest in my notebook. Next to each item, I put the price from each catalog that I have decided to possibly order from. I choose the lowest price of each item and put that item on the order for the corresponding catalog.

When I have done this with each item, I add up the order for each catalog, add in the required shipping and apply the offer. Did I fall short of the amount needed for free shipping? Is it cheaper to take something from another catalog and add it to that catalog or cheaper to change my order altogether?

Maybe I even change my mind and don’t order anything from that catalog at all. Maybe I put all my order on other catalog orders instead. Whenever I change something in my order, I add all the orders up again to see if I saved any money.

Here is the technical part

This is a hassle. This is the part that works my powers of concentration the hardest. I could just throw out this whole step and just order all my seeds from the one catalog that looks the cheapest and carries almost everything I want. I could, but this is the part that makes it so I find the money I need for the seeds I really want not really need. Because I do it this way, I can have those expensive wave petunias in my deck boxes and still make sure I’m not cheating my family out of canned green beans or pickles or pimentos for Chicken a la King. To me, it is worth the time that this step takes. It’s better than finding $20 in someone ELSE’S jeans when doing their laundry (well, maybe not better but it ranks right up there)!

My mom told me a story about doing the laundry for her brother and his son after her sister-in-law passed away. As she searched through the pockets before washing the jeans, she found $20 in her nephew’s pocket. When she returned the clean laundry she also returned the $20. Her brother made her keep it, telling her that it would teach his son to be more careful with his money.

A few weeks later, she found $50 in her brother’s pocket. Her nephew laughed until tears came to his eyes as he told her to keep it, it would teach his dad to be more careful with his money. The father had to agree, so she kept it. It seemed like a fair deal to me, so if I do your laundry, I will also keep you change. Always remember that, lol.

Finally narrowed it down. I still really want all of it (sigh).

The choosing garden seed steps again

Back to serious business! Here are the steps that I use for narrowing down all my seed choices each year.

  • Peruse the catalogs. Mark all the pages as if money, time and space were not an issue.
  • Take inventory of current stock.
  • Assess needs and wants. Decide on budgets of time, space and money.
  • Starting with needs, make a list of desired items.
  • Narrow down the catalogs. I base this on pricing, the varieties I want, shipping prices and special offers.
  • Make notations next to each item on the need list indicating the price from each catalog.
  • Start an order for each catalog based on lowest price.
  • Add up the order for each catalog, including shipping and discounts.
  • Make needed adjustments to each order, including adding in the wants from the money just saved.
  • Submit the order and the payment to each catalog and wait as patiently as possible for your orders to arrive.

Make room in your budget of time, space, and money to try something new!  Let us know what you chose and tell us how it turned out.


Rhonda Brown lives in rural eastern Montana, surrounded by her family, chickens, gardens and dog. When she isn't writing or weeding, she loves spending time with her family, baking, and all things CHOCOLATE.


carolee · January 12, 2019 at 9:39 am

Your process is the same I follow. I’m always surprised at the number of seeds already in the box! I always order from Pinetree during their Black Friday sale for free shipping. Plus I like their smaller packets/smaller price which allows me to trial unusual plants, or just have the small number of seeds I need since we’re only a family of two. I also try to spread my orders, in order to support various companies, especially the small independent ones, so I may order from this one this year, and that one next year.

    choclady9 · January 12, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Awesome information! Thank you. I didn’t know about the Black Friday sale. I guess my life has time slots and that time is filled with my other passions. Thanks again for stopping in.

Steph · February 14, 2019 at 7:20 am

I’m so ready for spring and planting. Of course, I’m busy looking through my catalogs myself as we have a never-ending amount of snow outside. We’ll be planting soon, hopefully.

Suzan · February 14, 2019 at 9:33 am

I am like a kid in a candy store when those catalogs start arriving. Looking forward to trying a couple new heirloom varieties that are new to us: Evergreen Bunching Onions and Yellow Pear Tomatoes are a couple that come to mind.

    Rhonda · February 15, 2019 at 7:42 am

    Thank you for your comment. We love the little pear tomatoes. We often plant them in the herb beds outside the back door. A wonderful little treat on the way to the garage and the chicken house. We have a puppy that likes tomatoes too so we pick them as soon as they are ripe to get our share.

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