How to Read a Seed Catalogue: Cutting through the Jargon

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

A selection of vegetable seed catalogues from the UK

Seed catalogues are wonderful things – full of the promise of new varieties and abundant crops. Many companies schedule their catalogues to drop into mailboxes around new year and despite the prevalence of internet ordering a lot of people still enjoy browsing their favourite paper catalogues. However choosing which varieties to buy is not as straightforward as it may seem - there has been a noticeable shift in the way seeds are marketed in recent years and ever more extravagant claims are made about how wonderful each new variety is. Translating this marketing hype to discover what will work best in your garden is no easy task...

By way of example, here’s the description of a commonly grown pea variety ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ from two different suppliers here in the UK:

Catalogue 1: Medium green pointed pods in pairs, each containing 9-11 peas. Resistant to downy mildew and Fusarium Wilt; recommended for exhibition. RHS Award of Garden Merit winner. Recommended by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Second-Early/Maincrop Variety. Height 75cm (30").

Catalogue 2: Outstanding pod length - 4 to 4½ inches, with 9-11 peas in a pod. Double podded too, Pea Hurst Green Shaft is a super heavy-yielding variety. Only 28 -30 inches tall, with all the pods in the top 10-12 inches - no more backache. A second early, wrinkle seeded variety, which matures in 100 days from sowing. Pea Hurst Green Shaft resists downy mildew and fusarium wilt. And the taste! Has to be eaten to be believed.

The differences are clear with one sticking just to basic facts and helpfully mentioning independent awards while the other elaborates ‘super heavy-yielding... no more backache... has to be eaten to be believed’.

Oriental seeds and seed tin

What’s Missing from the Description

What neither catalogue tells you is why you would choose NOT to grow this variety and pick another one instead. In fact, I have come to view reading seed catalogues as more of a detective game – working out what is being missed out from each description and seeing if that applies to my garden. Sometimes the only way to tell is to actually grow the different varieties in question (I’m sure the seed companies would be delighted if we all ordered every variety to try them out) but I think there are several criteria to help shortlist possibilities:

  • Marketing terms: ‘Unique selection’, ‘increasingly popular’, ‘innovative’ etc are marketing terms and really don’t mean much since pretty much any seed company can claim these things.
  • Weird and Wonderful: Many catalogues contain varieties that are bred to be talking points: orange cauliflowers, giant pumpkins, black sweet peppers etc. Although these are great fun to try if you have been growing the vegetable successfully for years, these varieties are often more fussy to grow, don’t store as well or have inferior taste. There are exceptions to this rule - for example, rainbow chard is easy to grow and just as good as the white varieties but for beginners it’s usually best to stick with regular types of each vegetable.
  • Filler Copy: If a vegetable description starts waxing lyrical about the health benefits and vitamin content I start to become sceptical. All vegetables are highly beneficial for health and the variations between individual varieties are usually minimal compared to the benefits of eating more fresh produce. If the higher anti-oxidant content is all they can tell me about this variety then I wonder if it doesn’t have any distinguishing advantages for growing.
  • Disease Resistance: This is only important if it’s a very common disease or one which you know you have had trouble with in the past. Resistance to blight for potatoes and tomatoes is important as is mosaic virus for cucumbers and clubroot for brassicas. However, good healthy soil can have a much greater effect that particular varieties on combating plant diseases and resistance to some pests is questionable e.g. carrot fly are still best controlled by mesh netting rather than choosing a particular variety.
  • Bred for Supermarkets: Hybrid varieties (F1s) are often bred to produce uniform supermarket-shaped vegetables that all mature at the same time for a farmer to harvest. See our recent articles for advice on when to select hybrids and when to choose open pollinated types.
  • Dwarf Varieties: Unless you are growing in containers or have the time to plant an ornamental potager garden I think that dwarf varieties are generally a waste of time. Why grow miniature beans when you could select a variety that will grow 6 feet high and produce ten times the harvest?
  • Plug Plants: Surprisingly seed companies don’t make much money from selling seed. That’s why you will find many of them trying to ‘up-sell’ plug plants and garden accessories - the profit margins on convenience gardening products are so much higher. Plug plants are great for new gardeners who need a helping hand but for most people it’s much cheaper to use seed or grow your own plug plants for transplanting when the weather warms up.

All Hype and No Substance?

There’s no doubt in my mind that some companies have let the marketing department have too free a rein. Here’s a few exaggerated claims I spotted this year:

  • Blood-veined sorrel: ‘New colourful salad leaf innovation’. Really? Red veined sorrel has grown wild for centuries and although it’s only recently become a regular addition to salad leaf bags it has been possible to purchase seed for many years. The description made no reference to useful facts such as red-veined sorrel being less vigorous than traditional green French sorrel.
  • Basil: ‘Companion plant: reputed to improve the growth and flavour of tomatoes and keep most insects and bugs off most of your vegetables’. I’d agree that it’s good to grow basil with tomatoes but keeping most bugs off most of my vegetables is a rather far-fetched claim for a common herb!
  • Mangetout pea: ‘this is the way peas will be eaten in the future’. I like mangetout peas in stir-fries and salads but will they really replace all other pea types? Somehow I doubt that!

I hope you enjoy perusing the seed catalogues that drop through your door this year as much as I do but remember to do your detective work and discover what they’re really saying. Please do share your own tips for cutting through the hype and any amusing catalogue quotes by adding a comment below.

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Comments

 
"How right you are,im afraid, gardening like so many other things today,has to be popularised,with regard to the new "good life" type of gardeners,the type that think it cool to have an allotment for a season, then give it up,because they find it does get a bit muddy"
jon david on Saturday 1 January 2011
"@ jon...You are so right in what you say.Bandwagon comes to mind.. We have had 3 (to my knowledge)people give up cos they "didn't realise it such hard work".Well you can guess my answer to that (unprintable!). Thanks to Jeremy for yet another good article.Just goes to show you're not too old to learn.I've been gardening for ??? years and didn't know about some of the jargon that's in the seed catalogues. Also may I take this opportunity to wish all fellow gardeners here and our friends "over the pond" a very Happy New Year and have a great growing year."
Melboy on Sunday 2 January 2011
"I usually want to know about taste, productivity, hardiness, and keeping ability (if applicable). If one of these is NOT mentioned in the description, I know that it may be because the variety is lacking in that area. I may try the variety anyway if it has other qualities that are important to me. It's definitely important to pay attention to what is not being said."
Melanie on Sunday 2 January 2011
"Thanks for the great article! As a new gardener (first veg garden last year) I am in love with the whole shebang mud, bugs, and all and drool over my catalogues. Thanks for the heads and the helping hand."
Betsy on Friday 7 January 2011
"Betsy...welcome to the world of veg gardening ! You will NEVER regret it.A lot of people will tell you one of the best things about veg growing is the taste..VERY true,I also think when eating the veg "I grew that,thats why it tastes so good" ! Oh so modest ! lol......Again welcome and enjoy yourself....."
melboy on Friday 7 January 2011
"Thanks Melboy! My grandmother grew her own tomatoes. When I told my husband I was putting in a veg garden he kind of laughed indulgently. But I will never forget the look on his face when he tasted the first ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peppers and melons. He got it then, and now can't wait 'til this year. Not only was it all delicious but I didn't buy any produce all summer and well into October."
Betsy on Friday 7 January 2011
"Even in the Highlands of Scotland I am getting a wide variety of produce from end of June to mid September - grown in raised beds not a polytunnel! Just some fleece and a few cloches for the courgettes and cucumbers. It's a revelation what will grow. It's just wonderful eating your own home-grown, organic produce. I did spend a year getting the soil in good heart and my horse was a huge help - LOL..."
Dot on Sunday 9 January 2011
"In ref to catalogue descriptions- this is from the website of The Real Seed Company: "Here are a few examples from 2004 catalogues that we found: How about 'really uniform fruit' - which often means 'inbred for the supermarket, narrow genetic base, may not adapt to your soil'. Or 'straight long shanks' usually means 'bred to fit the packing machine.' Or the best one yet - 'Leafless peas - easy to find the pods' translates as 'much smaller yield (the plants have no leaves !) - but at least now we've got rid of the leaves we can harvest them with a combine.' What a sad situation this is, with marketing people rather than gardeners writing the descriptions in modern seed catalogues." That words it much better than I ever could! Mimmee "
Mimmee on Sunday 9 January 2011
"@Mimmee - Thanks for the additional info! Just another reason I like to look at reviews that some websites have of seed varieties from people that have tried them. You get a real first hand idea of how things may go. Excellent article especially since I've been perusing all the catalogs I've received and my browsing online. Now I'm going to go back over the ones I thought I wanted to really pick apart their descriptions!"
Kim on Tuesday 11 January 2011
"I was sorry to see the Real Seed Company was picked out for high flown descriptions because I have found them to be probably the most honest of all seed suppliers - have a look at TandM for OTT descriptions! Personally I look for what has not been mentioned. If it doesn't say highly scented (thinking of roses admittedly)then it won't be scented - if it doesn't say disease resistant, then it almost certainly gets everything that's going. "
Jane on Sunday 8 January 2012
"I have one question can you tell me what are the advantage of using both category 1 and 2? "
Harrisondeep on Tuesday 30 June 2015
"I love johnnys and baker seeds because they DO tell you both pros AND cons of different varieties. Love Baker, esp."
Kim on Wednesday 9 December 2015
"On our allotment the best advice about varieties usually comes from other allotmenteers. "
Dave Pole on Saturday 6 January 2018

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