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Winter's silver lining: seed catalogs in the mail

On one of those particularly cold and blustery wintry days, I like to gather up all the seed catalogs that have arrived in my mailbox and settle down for a good read. Even if you don't plan to buy from them but buy locally this spring, you can learn much from catalogs if you understand a few key terms and all that may be packed into the descriptions.

Of course it helps to have a pen and paper, or perhaps a laptop, handy to note all your choices and plans. If you have a laptop computer or other internet access handy, you might want to check out the seed catalogs online, too. Many offer web-only specials.

Ordering from seed catalogs is both convenient, and a good way to get a wider selection than usually is available locally, especially if you are looking for quite new or unusual varieties. Yet most catalogs offer a lot more than just an order list for seeds and plants. I like to compare several catalogs, as they usually emphasize different points.

The first item that should catch your eye in catalogs, other than photos, is the name of the flower or vegetable. The words "New" or "Improved" aren't just selling points, they often mean the variety has been changed in some trait, perhaps substantially.

Icons are used to highlight key traits, such as a sun for heat tolerance, a snowflake for cold tolerance, or a pot meaning good in containers. Look for the key to these icons, which vary among catalogs, at the beginning or often on the bottom of each page. One icon used for most is the red, white and blue All-America Selections shield, indicating this variety won this award, being judged by professionals nationwide as superior (www.all-americaselections.org).

Letters you may see by some crops are F1 and OP. These refer, respectively, to F1 hybrids (first generation) and Open Pollinated. The former are crosses between two parents, to produce a variety with hybrid traits and vigor. If you collect seeds of these F1 hybrids, they wont give you the same variety. Open pollinated plants, on the other hand, will come "true" from their seeds when sown.

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