How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 1

by Pegi Groundwater, WSU Master Gardener

This is the season when all of those gorgeously illustrated plant and seed catalogs start arriving. How can you tell if that beautiful plant will be content to stay in the area where you plant it and not try to thuggishly take over your entire yard (and maybe your neighbors’ yards too)? Will you actually get to taste those delicious fruits and vegetables or will they fail to ripen in your island garden or be attached by pests before you harvest them? Catalogs have their own language which is usually briefly explained on the inside cover or order page. These explanations are not always clear or as detailed as the home gardener could wish. Terms and abbreviations in parenthesis below are ones that can be found in many catalogs.

Hardiness Zones. Catalogs generally adhere to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zone map (but check their page of general information to make sure). The zone hardiness map shows the lowest temperatures that should be expected based on recorded temperatures between 1974 and 1986. The San Juan Islands fall in zone 8b (except for the western edge of San Juan Island which is in zone 9a) along with Galveston, Texas, wide swaths of the South, and parts of Northern Mexico. Lowest expected temperature is obviously only part of the story as our climate is certainly much cooler than these other zone 8a areas. A few catalogs recognize this fact by showing two zones ranges for their plants, one for the South and one for the West.

Light Requirements. Catalogs generally specify whether plants prefer shade, semi-shade or sun. Shade is classified as less than 2 hours of direct sun each day, while full sun is more than 6 hours of direct sun. Part shade occupies the middle area between 2 and 6 hours of direct sun. Not all part shade is the same, however. If you have less than 6 hours of full sun in parts of your garden, but that sun falls in the early afternoon when it is warmer, you will have greater luck with sun loving plants. Conversely, if you have a garden spot that receives only a few hours of sunshine in the morning, shade-loving plants will be more likely to prosper. Plants that receive too little light are likely to grow tall and spindly with yellow foliage, while plants that receive too much sun may burn, dry out, or shrivel up.

Soil Types. “Acid loving” plants need soils with a pH of 7.5 or higher, while neutral soils have a pH of 6.5 to 7 and alkaline soils have a pH of 6 or less. Simple soil testing kits can be found at most garden stores. The pH of the soil determines the nutrients that are available to your plantings and is a major factor in the growth of many plants.

Annual, Perennial, or Biennial. Annual plants (A) have a lifespan of a single growing season while biennials (B) grow for two years and bloom and fruit in their second year. Perennials (P) will grow for multiple growing seasons.

Hardy, Half-Hardy, and Tender. A plant that is hardy is more resistant to diseases, pests and winter cold than most plants and may be more vigorous and productive. Hardy perennials (HP) and biennials (HB) can be overwintered in the garden and hardy annuals (HA) can be sown either in early spring or in some cases in late fall or early winter. A half-hardy plant tolerates some cold and light frosts, but half-hardy perennials (HHP) and biennials (HHB) must be moved to a cold frame or other cool dry storage for the winter before the first killing frost (generally around Nov. 11 in the San Juans), and half-hardy annuals (HHA) cannot be sown outdoors until the early spring. Tender plants do not survive cold and frost and are generally grown as houseplants or in a green-house. Tender plants that are grown outdoors must be brought indoors before the first frost while tender seedlings must be started indoors and transplanted to your garden only after all danger of frost has passed.

In Part 2, we’ll define Pollination Types, Disease & Pest Resistance, and more!

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2 thoughts on “How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 1

  1. Pingback: How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 2 | The Perennial Post

  2. Pingback: How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 3. | The Perennial Post

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