In the Dirt – December (Seed Catalogs)

Peas are sprouted indoors using peat pots and then planted out in the garden.

Cold-weather months are a great time for scouring catalogs for seed-starting purchases.

Making grand plans for spring is invigorating thinking of what might be once the weather breaks.

Those of us who extend the season are still enjoying the fruits of our labor. Cool weather veggies are tucked away under glass, plastic or floating row covers, and flowering kale is in peak color. Even though they help fill a void for us, dreaming of spring simply can’t and shouldn’t be avoided.

It’s the seed catalogs that always bring hope and, like holiday advertising, seem to arrive sooner each year.

Growing from seed has become more popular over the past few years as gardeners look for inexpensive ways to grow plants and also because so many people want to know where their food comes from.

Arugula seeds sprout inside and then are transplanted to the garden in early spring.

It’s also the only way to grow many of these new cultivars. There’s something wonderful about starting a tiny seed and seeing it come to fruition. That’s something longtime gardeners have always known, and it’s great to see more people enjoy seed starting.

The catalogs tease us with claims of new varieties that are bigger, better, prettier, more productive, longer lasting and maybe even having the ability to cure some diseases. That’s OK, because sitting inside under gray skies during short days through frigid weather, we’ll believe just about anything.

It’s always fun to try some and see if they live up to the claims. Some might surprise and actually overachieve while others might disappoint. Finding a jewel is part of a gardening treasure hunt.

Much of my winter tradition has stayed the same. It begins sitting in my easy chair watching a movie I’ve seen 100 times with a stack of catalogs and a highlighter for company. Each page is systematically examined, with every “must have” variety marked with the yellow pen. Then I’ll fold the page and move on. What’s changed is the ordering process, which I do online. Being old, I need to have that catalog in hand, but the ordering is so much easier with the computer. Even an old dog can learn new tricks. I’ll also get lots of seeds locally when they become available at the nurseries.

I’m often asked where I order my seeds from. I’ll include a list of a bunch of different places I like, but every seed catalog offers something cool and different.

I don’t start my seeds until March, as I don’t want the plants to get too big before planting time. If you must start something (I know the feeling), plant small seeds like begonias and impatiens under light in late January.

Sit by the fire and dream of walking barefoot in the garden nibbling on warm cherry tomatoes as you search through catalogs for just the right thing for next year’s garden.

Some of Doug Oster’s favorite catalogs

There are lots of other great places to find fun things to grow this year. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites. Many will be familiar, but others are off the beaten path, and that’s the way I like it. This list just scratches the surface; every catalog offers something unique.

Heirloom Seeds is a local company offering a wide variety of quality heritage seeds. I’ve been ordering from them for nearly 20 years. Check out “Djena Lee’s Golden Girl” tomato. The family heirloom dates to 1929 when Djena Lee won first prize at the Chicago Fair for a decade straight.


Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was founded by Jere Gettle when he put a catalog together as a teen in his bedroom. Since then, the company has grown into one of the most popular seed houses in the country. He travels the world with his young family in search of fascinating seeds and plants. “Pusa Asita Black Carrot” is dark purple, filled with anthocyanins, and is said to be richer in flavor than an orange carrot.

Contact: or (417) 924-8917

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman catalog might not have any photos, but it’s filled with amazing seeds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. If you’re in the market for something different, take a look at this catalog. I love methodically searching through the entries with highlighter in hand. The “House” tomato is interesting, and it’s easy to grow. Small, red cherry tomatoes are produced on very compact plants. The seeds date to 1893, from Tbilisi, Russia, via an old sailing ship. This tomato can be taken inside during the winter and set back out in the garden in the summer. Get a hard copy of the catalog – the website uses early 1990s technology and can be painful to navigate.


W. Atlee Burpee & Co. is probably the most popular seed catalog in the world and often the first for many gardeners. The company continues to introduce wonderful varieties, and I consider its tomato-breeding program to be one of the most innovative. Chairman and chief executive George Ball thinks eggplant is the new kale and has introduced a variety called “Meatball.” It was specially bred for texture, flavor and to be used as a meat substitute.

Contact: or (800) 888-1447

Good Mind Seeds is another local company that offers some really interesting varieties including a tomato called “Queen Aliquippa.” The tomato is a mid-season, pear-shaped, green-when-ripe tomato. It’s tasty and will grow seven feet tall.


High Mowing Seeds offers all organic seed. I order a lot of seeds from them every year. They have some different arugulas and other greens. “Astro” arugula is a great one with big round leaves that last for months in the garden as is slow to bolt.

Contact: or (866) 735-4454

Here are a few more:

Seeds from Italy — or (785) 748-0959

Seeds of Change — or (888) 762-7333

Johnny’s Selected Seed — or (877) 564-6697

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at (412) 965-3278 or See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at