How to Read a Seed Catalog

By George Kingston, Master Gardener 

It's January and the seed catalogs are piling up faster than the snow drifts.  With all those gorgeous pictures and lush descriptions, how is a gardener to choose?  Here are some tips.

First, do NOT dive into that pile and start filling out order forms.  DO put on a coat and take a walk around your gardens.  Even if there's a foot of snow on the ground, take the time to look at your annual beds, your vegetable garden, and the places where you want to put containers or hanging baskets.  Make notes on how much room you have and what kinds of things might work well in each location.  Consider where you have sun and where you have shade.  Now, go back inside, fix a hot beverage and begin.

No, don't begin with the catalogs.  Start with your garden diary.  You do have a garden diary, don't you?  If not, at least collect those old order forms and half empty seed packets from last spring.  Make a list of what worked and what didn't, which varieties you want to plant again and which you want to banish from your garden forever.  Also make a list of things you want to try for the first time.  I make it a policy to plant at least one new species or variety each year, just for the fun of it.

Now attack the catalog pile.  As you page through, make a list of possibilities noting the catalog name and page.  Look for catalogs that give you lots of information.  A great catalog will tell you all of the important things you need to know, but you may have to look the variety up in several catalogs to find out everything.  Here are some of the terms to look for:

  • Open Pollinated (OP) or Species:  This is a variety that will  come true from seed.  If you want to save seed from your plants from year to year, look for these.
  • Hybrid, F1 Hybrid, or X in the name:  This is a cross between two pure-bred parents.  Seeds from these will not come true the second year.  Note that all hybrid seeds are F1, or first generation hybrids.  Some plants may be F2 or second generation.  These can only be propagated vegetatively.
  • Height:  How tall the plant will be.  This is important for planning beds.  You want short flowers in front, tall ones in back.
  • Days to bloom, or bloom season:  How long it will take a plant to flower or what month you can expect flowers.  Note that this is based on the seed company test gardens.  If they're in South Carolina and you're in Massachusetts, you may get different results.  Still, this allows you to compare different varieties.
  • Days to harvest:  This is the same thing for food crops, and bears the same warning.  For plants that are started indoors, this is the number of days from when the plants are set out into the garden.
  • Disease Resistance:  The term "disease resistant" is relatively meaningless if they don't tell you what disease they mean.  Look for specifics, like VFN for tomatoes, which means resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilts and nematodes.  Good catalogs will explain their disease abbreviations.
  • Start Indoors:  These are seeds that need to be started under lights or in a greenhouse before the last frost date.  Think about how much seed starting space you have before buying lots of these.
  • Direct Sow:  These are seeds that can go straight into the ground.  Check for the recommended planting date.
  • Determinate/Indeterminate:  Describe tomato plants.  Determinate plants grow to a certain size, fruit all at one, and stop growing.  Indeterminate plants are more vining and continue to grow and fruit until frost.
  • Number of Seeds:  How many seeds are you getting?  Some catalogs will even tell you how much area or how many feet of row a packet will plant.
  • Light Requirements:  Does the plant need sun?  Will it tolerate part shade, or does it need shade?
  • Special Cultural Requirements:  Some varieties need high or low soil pH.  Some prefer dry soils, some like it damp.  Some tall plants are fine on their own, others need staking.  Decide if you can handle these special requests before ordering.
  • Scientific Name:  This is really important for flowers and herbs.  With all those cutesy names out there, it's sometimes hard to tell what the plant actually is.  Good catalogs give the scientific name, which will help if you want to look the plant up in a reference book or on the web.

Finally, watch out for those shipping charges.  Consolidate your orders with a few suppliers, or better yet, put together a joint order with your friends.  And don't throw those catalogs away.  It's fun to compare the pictures with what actually comes up and decide if a particular supplier is a better photographer than a seedsman.

Christmas Trees in New England
By Jennifer Tufts, Master Gardener

What is a garden?  Julie Moir Messervy describes a garden as "a state of mind; a site that resides in your imagination."  (The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, Little, Brown and Company, 1995)  Each year in December, families create a garden inside their homes when they select a tree, load it onto the roof of the car, rearrange the furniture, pull out the boxes of lights and ornaments, and generally savor this horticultural focal point of festivities.

We're surrounded by evergreens in western Massachusetts.  Pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks, hollies, junipers all can be found in our biologically diverse, Zone 4-5 landscape.   We might not even think much about these beautiful trees, except perhaps in December when we carefully select the perfect Christmas tree! 

Snowy Morning by Ann Marie Popko

I love the idea of trees almost as much as I love the reality of trees: the smells, the feel, the green, the decoration, the majesty, and the way trees symbolize both connection to the earth and reaching for the heavens.  So, I still get excited about bringing a tree into my home every year for the holidays.  I'm not the only one. 

In case you are interested in the origins of this particular custom, the Germans were the first Europeans to initiate a tradition of Christmas trees. In 1846, the popular British Royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were pictured standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Victoria was so popular with her subjects that what was done at court immediately became fashionable, not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American society. The English Christmas tree had arrived! 

On this side of the Atlantic, Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, in 1856 was the first chief executive to place a Christmas tree in the White House. President Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to teach his children the importance of conservation and reportedly forbade them to have a Christmas tree, saying, "It's not good to cut down trees for mere decoration. We must set a good example for the people of America." However, he was convinced otherwise by Gifford Pinchot, cabinet member and founder of the Yale School of Forestry, who assured the president that forests actually benefited from thinning. 

I spoke recently to Master Gardener John Barry from Gill about his experience growing Christmas trees.  I asked John what he liked most about the business.  "The best part of growing Christmas trees is the pruning part . . .taking an otherwise unruly looking tree and turning it into a well-shaped plant is great.  I do this usually in late October/November when it's cooler and the bugs are gone. If you are growing pines the pruning must be done between June 15th and July 15th. Sooner, you get erratic growth or later, you get straggly growth.  I fertilize in April with just a simple 10/10/10 application."  As for what he likes least about the business: "Harvesting and/or selling the trees is my least favorite job." John's favorite tree: the fir.  "Among the firs, Balsam and Fraser are the best.   They look good, smell good, and are easy to prune."

The best-selling Christmas trees in America are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, Virginia Pine, Balsam Fir and White Pine, all evergreen conifers from the pinaceae family of plants.  Abies (Fir), Picea (Spruce), Pinus (Pine), and Pseudotsuga (Douglas Fir), as well as Tsuga (Hemlock) are all in the pinacaea family. Joel Fowler, Master Gardener Intern, gave a talk on conifers at the October meeting of the Northfield Garden Club and explained that conifers are gymnosperms, which means they propagate from cones or berries instead of flowers.  Instead of leaves, they have needles or scales.  Joel also notes that not all conifers are evergreens (e.g. the larch or tamarack), and there are evergreens that are not conifers; the holly, for instance.

Descriptions of some of the favorite Christmas tree species follow, grouped by genus: 

The White Pine, Pinus strobus, is the largest pine in the U.S. and has soft, flexible needles.  It is bluish-green in color, its soft needles are 2 - 5 in. long in bundles of five. White Pines have good needle retention, but little aroma. They aren’t recommended for heavy ornaments. However, White Pine is known to provoke fewer allergic reactions than some more fragrant trees. Scotch Pines, Pinus sylvestris, have needles about 1 in. in length that stay attached even when dry - something busy homemakers might especially appreciate when considering which tree to pick. The tree is a bright green color, has an excellent survival rate, and for all the Teddy Roosevelt admirers out there, is easy to replant.  Its open, stiff branches provide lots of room for ornaments, and Scotch Pine keeps its aroma throughout the season.

Fraser Fir

Fraser Fir

Fraser Fir Needles

Fraser Fir Needles

Fraser Fir, Abies fraseri, branches turn slightly upward. They have good form and needle-retention, are dark blue-green in color, and have a pleasant scent. The flat needles are ½ to 1 inch long.  The branches are pyramid-shaped and strong. The tree was named for John Fraser, a botanist who explored the southern Appalachians in the late 1700s.  The Noble Fir, Abies procerais, is known for its beauty and long-lasting freshness.  Stiff branches make it a good tree for heavy ornaments, as well as providing excellent greenery for wreaths and garlands. It has 1 inch bluish-green needles with a silvery appearance.  The word balsam is enough to evoke a contented sigh in any New Englander.  In addition to its renowned aroma, the Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea, has much to recommend it for your home. Balsam needles are 3/4 - 1 ½ in. in length, round tipped, flat, and long lasting. Its dark-green, silvery appearance and pleasing fragrance will grace your holiday decor. (History buffs might like to know that Balsam resin is used to make microscope slides as well as sweet-smelling pillows, and was used to treat soldiers' wounds during the Civil War.)  Concolor Fir, Abies concolor, or white fir, is gaining in popularity as a Christmas tree variety.  Native to the western United States, concolors can grow to 130-150 ft. in height and 3 to 4 ft. in diameter and may occasionally survive to 350 years of age. It produces a spire-like crown with a straight trunk, small, narrow bluish-green needles which occur in rows (1/2 to 1 1/2 inch long).

Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, has soft, dark blue green needles (1 - 1 ½ in. in length) radiating in all directions from the branch. Douglas Firs have a good conical shape and are known to live for as much as a thousand years.  The crushed needles have a sweet fragrance. They are one of the top Christmas tree species in the U.S. 

Blue Spruce

Blue Spruce

 Last but not least, there is the popular Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, known for its dark green to powdery blue, very stiff needles and good form.  Blue Spruce will drop needles in a warm room but is best among this species for needle retention.  The branches are stiff and will support many heavy decorations. Another long-living tree, the Blue Spruce is known to live in nature for 600-800 years.

If you are planning to have a living Christmas tree this year, here are some helpful hints taken from the Iowa State University Forestry Extension Services website:

  • Plan ahead and prepare the site for planting before Christmas. Just like all tree plantings, select the species to match the site. For most conifers, good soil drainage and adequate space and sunlight are required for optimal growth. (Pick conifer species that do well, are native to the Massachusetts landscape.) 
  • Dig the hole before the ground freezes and cover with enough straw or mulch to keep the soil from freezing; also, protect the fill soil from freezing so it can be used for planting the tree after Christmas.
  • Base the selection of the tree on more than shape and color. Living trees can be balled and burlapped (B&B), container grown or potted. Small trees are almost always a better choice than large trees because they are easier to handle and move, and because you have a higher probability of the tree having a sufficient root system to support it after planting. Pay attention to the root portion of the plant; the pot or ball should match the size of the tree. B&B stock should have a solid ball. Potted stock should not be rootbound or too small to support the top portion of the tree.
  • Purchase or dig up the tree one to two weeks before Christmas, and store in a cool but not cold location. Keep the pot or soil ball cool and moist, but do not allow it to freeze; ideal storage temperatures would be from 33 to 45 degrees. A mulch of straw may be used to keep the soil ball or pot from freezing.
  • Plan to keep the tree in the home for as short a time as possible. The maximum time allowed in the house is five to seven days; the longer it is kept in the house, the greater the risk of failure. If kept inside too long, the tree begins to grow and is damaged or killed when planted outside.
  • Remember the tree will need adequate water inside the home. The soil ball or pot should be kept moist but not wet; wrap the soil ball or pot in plastic or place in a tub while it is in the house to avoid damaging the floor or carpet. Check the soil ball or pot daily, and water when it becomes dry. 


By Marilyn Wiley, MG
Photos by Diane Wetzel, MG

Amaryllis: Red Lion

Amaryllis: Red Lion

Amaryllis is one of the favorite Christmas flowers, all too often discarded after blooming, only to purchase another bulb during the next holiday season. This shouldn’t be the case because amaryllis is a perennial bulb. I remember them blooming around a cottage in Costa Rica, content in that surrounding. Amaryllis originated in tropical South America and has the botanical name Hippeastrum. They come in many colors, including various shades of red, white, pink, salmon and orange as well as striped and multicolored varieties. Some of the newer cybister varieties have thinner petals and are exotic looking, with chartreuse mid-veins, or throats.

Before planting, soak the base and roots in lukewarm water for a few hours. Do not get the bulb wet. If you are unable to plant the bulb immediately after receiving it, store it at a cool temperature, between 40º-50º F. Choose a sturdy clay pot that leaves 1 or 2 inches between the pot and the bulb. For example, if your bulb is 3 ½ inches in diameter, choose a standard size pot of 6 inches. Use a clay pot because the stems of the plant will be large and heavy and will tip over a plastic pot. Do not use a pot that is sharply tapered or very shallow because you want room for root growth.  A recommended potting mix is one part regular potting mix, one part peat humus and one part perlite or vermiculite. If you want additional drainage, add one part sand. Mix some slow-release fertilize such as Osmocote 14-14-14 into the potting mix using the directions on the Osmocote. You probably will want the additional drainage because amaryllis do not like to remain wet.

Amaryllis:  Dancing Queen

Amaryllis:  Dancing Queen

Now for the planting: trim any dead roots and remove any dead foliage from the bulb. Place a small piece of screen over the drainage hole in the pot and put ½ to 1 inch of gravel in the pot for drainage. Fill the pot with the potting mix to the halfway mark so that the bulb’s neck will end up above the rim of the pot. There should be at least an inch from the top of the soil to the rim of the pot. Fan the roots out evenly and press the soil down so there are no air pockets around the roots.

Cover the roots with soil and fill until the bulb is half to two-thirds covered with soil. Water with lukewarm water that has been standing a day or so to allow the chlorine to dissipate. Be sure the soil is damp and squish the bulb around to remove any air pockets. Remove any water that may be in the saucer and place in a warm sunny location of 68º-70º F. Do not water again until the soil is relatively dry or until foliage appears. Once the bulb has sprouted you may water more often, but remember that more plants are killed by too much water than by too little water. As the stalks appear, rotate, because the stalks will bend toward the light. You may have to stake the plant to keep it from tipping over. Bulbs will flower in 7-10 weeks. If you want continuous bloom, plant bulbs at intervals of two weeks. When it blooms, you can place it in a cooler, darker place to preserve the life of the flowers. Clip flowers as soon as they start to wither to preserve the energy of the bulb. Some bulbs put out two stages of bloom. A recent bulb of mine produced five large flowers initially and several weeks later, six more flowers. After the last flower has faded, cut the flower stalk near the top of the bulb.

Amaryllis in center of mixed pot

Amaryllis in center of mixed pot

After blooming, fertilize with water-soluble plant fertilizer at half strength every time you water. When the danger of frost has passed, put the pot outside in a sunny location. Amaryllis add interest to container plantings during the summer months and can easily be planted in the center of a container planting. They will grow leaves to provide energy for the bulb for next winter’s bloom. Keep watering and feeding your bulbs until August; start withholding watering until September. In September, bring the pots in and store them for two months in a cold dark location. Do not store in the refrigerator if the refrigerator contains apples because the apples will sterilize your bulbs. Cut the foliage only after it has yellowed, wilted and died back. Store a minimum of six weeks. Check the bulb weekly and shift the bulb to a warmer spot when you see the tip of the flower stalk. In November, replace the top inch with new soil and bring back into the light and warmth and water again to start the cycle for another year. Do not add too much fertilizer; if in doubt, use less. If you purchase bulbs already planted in containers, discard the potting medium and substitute the above mix. You will also probably have to choose a better pot. Only buy the planted containers if they are cheaper than the unplanted bulbs.

Amaryllis in center

Amaryllis in center

Enjoy your amaryllis and keep experimenting. Four of the five bulbs I planted two years ago rebloomed after spending the summer as focal points in containers.

Unfortunately, this summer, four inches of hail in late July destroyed the leaves and only one recovered to develop new leaves. The others are stored in the cool basement waiting for February when I will bring them out and replant and hopefully they will re-bloom.