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Making the most of your seed catalog selections in the Midwest

Seed packets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Seed packets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Photography by Jeffery Cross

Midwinter in the Midwest is a quiet and rather lonely time for gardeners.  Between the frigid temperatures and drifting snow, there is little more to do than dream of spring's thaw and budding greens.  And then the seed catalogs arrive to tantalize the starved gardener with full-color photos and alluring descriptions.  Before you break the bank and the mail carrier's back by ordering every variety that tickles your fancy, remember a few helpful tips.

First, try to order plant varieties that have been proven to grow well in your climate zone.  In Northeast Wisconsin, plants for zones 1-4 should thrive.  This generally applies only to perennial plants, shrubs, and trees that must be able to survive the winter months.

When selecting annual varieties, particularly vegetables, check the number of days needed for the plant to reach maturity.  Choose varieties that require about 100 days or less for maximum success in Wisconsin.  Some plant descriptions may say, "x number of days from transplant."  In these cases, you must start the seeds indoors (typically 6-12 weeks before the last frost date) and start the count on the day they are planted outside.

Finally, consider how much space is available for the plants you wish to grow.  If your area is limited, you may want to stay away from large plants, such as corn or pumpkins.  Many seed descriptions will include the mature size of the plant.

Some seed companies actually grow their own stock.  Seed Savers Exchange and Sandhill Preservation Center (both in Iowa), Johnny's Selected Seeds and Fedco Seeds (both in Maine) produce the bulk of their plant offerings themselves, and are located in climates similar to Wisconsin's.  This will increase your chances of gardening success.  These and many other seed suppliers also post their catalogs online, often with updated availability information on individual varieties.  Happy ordering!