How to Read a Plant Catalog, Part 3

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 begins back here, and Part 2 is here.


Tomato Types.  Tomatoes are classified as either determinate or indeterminate.  Determinate tomatoes are bush types that grow to a relatively compact 4-foot height, then set fruit on their terminal buds, ripen all of their fruit at about the same time, then die.  They need little staking or pruning. Indeterminate or vining tomatoes can grow up to 10 feet tall, need substantial staking, and set fruit throughout the growing season until they are killed by the first hard frost.

Peas and Beans.  These come in 2 major types, bush and pole.  Bush plants can be grown on short trellises or mounded while pole plants require a fence or tall trellis on which they can grow.

Root Stocks.  Fruit trees and grapes are generally grafted to increase plant vigor, fruit size and disease resistance and to limit the plant’s ultimate size.  Most catalogs provide information as to whether plants are grafted, but the degree of information varies widely.  Some tell you only that the plants will be dwarf (5-12 feet), semi-dwarf (10-15 feet) or standard (15-20 feet), while others identify the specific rootstock used. If the stock is identified, information about the stock can be found on the Internet to help you make your selection.

Plant Patents.  Many Hybridized plants are patented (PP), which means that propagation of the plant for sale is restricted by law.  PPAF means that the plant is not yet patented but a patent has been applied for.  PVR is the Australian and New Zealand equivalent of PP.  CPBR refers to the consortium of Biotech Research.

Award Winners.  “AAS” plants are All American Selections. “RHS” plants are Award of Garden Merit winners from the Royal Horticultural Society in England.  Fleuroselect (FL) are winners of European gold (G), quality (Q) or novelty (N) awards.  NIAB plants have won awards from the National Institute of Agriculture Botany in England.

Code Words.  “Vigorous” plants may become rampant in your garden if you don’t watch out.  It is best to do some research to find out if they are aggressive and if seedlings are easy to pull out of places where they are not wanted.  “Fast growing” plants can easily outgrow their neighbors and their location.  “Inoculant” coated seeds (primarily beans and peas) have been coated with a substance to promote nitrogen fixing in the roots, which increases plant yields.  “Cut and come again”, “everbearing” and “reblooming” plants will yield multiple crops if the first and subsequent crops are harvested before seed sets.  “Moisture loving” plants will need substantial water during a long, relatively dry summer while plants for “dry” areas should not be planted near a spring, lake or stream.  “Winter keeper” or “keeper” fruits and vegetables can be stored for several months for later use.

Now that all of that is clear, draw up your favorite easy chair, grab your catalogs and start dreaming of garden days to come.  Your only remaining problem will be deciding which if all the wonderful seeds and plants on offer to buy.


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