How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 2

by Pegi Groundwater, WSU Master Gardener

In this three-part series, Pegi helps us decipher the sometimes confusing language of the gardener’s favorite “wish book”, the plant catalog. Part 1 — covering hardiness zones, soil types, and more — begins back here.


Plant Spacing.  This is a guide to how close together seeds and plants that are similar should be planted to provide maximum plant health and good crop yields under normal growing conditions for that plant. You may need to make adjustments to these guidelines if you are using an intensive planting method or if your conditions are less than ideal for that plant.

Plant Height.  This is an indication of how high a plant is likely to grow in your garden if you provide the plant with its preferred growing conditions.

Planting Time.  Some seeds and bulbs, such as tulips, need a hibernation period in the cold earth before they will grow and bloom while tender plants are extremely frost or cold sensitive and cannot be sown outdoors until all danger of frost has passed (generally March 24 in the San Juans) or the soil temperature has warmed up. Some catalogs provide this information in their plant descriptions, while others print that information on the seed or bulb packets.

Bloom or Harvest Time.  This may be expressed in terms of the month in which plants can be expected to bloom or produce fruit (e.g., May-June) or days to harvest (e.g., 85 days) from planting or transplanting for seeds that are generally started indoors.  These dates are based on the growing conditions in the location where the company is located, unless their explanatory material indicates other-wise.  This means that a tomato that fruits in 85 days in Galveston, Texas seedling 2 flip
could disappoint in Friday Harbor because our days are cooler.  The American Horticultural Society produces a “heat days map” which shows the average number of days per year when temperatures rise above 86˚ F.  Friday Harbor is in zone 3 with 8 to 14 days, while Galveston fall sin zone 9 with 121 to 150 days above 86˚ F.  That is why gardeners generally have better success with seeds from growers in the Pacific Northwest.  “Early” varieties of fruits and vegetables generally do better in our climate.

Pollination Type.  If you want to collect seeds from your garden for next year’s plants, you will need to know whether a particular seed you are looking at is an heirloom or open pollinated (OP), self-pollinating (SP) or a hybridized plant (F1) which is created from cross-fertilizing two different plants.  OP and SP seeds will generally grow true to type while the seeds of F1 plants will not grow true, but will produce progeny that exhibit tremendous variation, displaying various characteristics (good or bad) of the plants they were created from.  Certain plants (e.g., sweet cherries) are self unfruitful, which means they will not set fruit and seed unless they are pollinated by a different cultivar of the same species.

Male and Female Plants.  Plants have evolved a number of different ways to procreate.  Some (dioecious) produce “perfect” flowers that contain both male and female parts, so they are self-fertile.  Others (monoecious) produce some flowers with male parts and others with female parts, so they are also self-fertile. some plants, however, produce flowers with only male parts (androecious) or female parts (gynoecious), so they need to be planted with other plants of the same species to produce fruits and seed. A few plants (parthenocarpic) do not require any form of pollination to bear fruit.

Disease and Pest Resistant.  Plant breeders select and hybridize plants for certain traits such as taste, color, vigor or disease resistance.  For certain plants (e.g., apples which are subject to anthracnose, apple scab, and powdery mildew) where resistance to common diseases or pests is very important, disease resistance may be a primary fact in making plant selections.  Some catalogs provide minimal information, specifying that plants are disease or pest resistant, while others provide detailed in-formation as to which pests and diseases a particular plant may resist. A few catalogs also provide information on plants that are more resistant to deer damage. This does not mean that deer will not eat those plants, only that they are likely to sample them, but prefer other plants in the area when they are available.

seedling 2

In Part 3, Root Stocks, Code Words, Tomato Types, and more!


One thought on “How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 2

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

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