Courtesy of MARION OWEN

A screenshot of the USDA plant hardiness zone map for Kodiak.

It was in the mid-1980s when I ordered seeds for the first time. What a mess. I was overwhelmed by the many variables and terms that I didn’t understand.

So I developed a system, a simple one that took me from overwhelmed to overjoyed. It’s a system I taught in all my gardening classes and workshops, which are now online.

I must be doing something right because one student later told me, “No more pulling my hair out. Now I look forward to ordering seeds.”

Let’s give it a go, shall we?



Arrange the following tools on a table: Seed catalogs, computer or smartphone, pad of lined paper, and pencil or pen. You might be wondering, a pad of paper? What gets written, gets remembered. Plus, I find it helps to write things out on paper before placing orders online. I call it a pre-order. More on that in a minute.



Have a conversation with yourself. What do you like to eat? What are our favorite flowers? Do you want fresh herbs to cook with?

Review last season. What worked? What didn’t? (Ask yourself why so you can fix it).

Take a  seed inventory. We’re all guilty of going to the store and buying food, only to realize later that you already had it.

Do you have seeds left over from previous years? If so, how old are they? Seeds are alive and they have a shelf-life. For example, onions and voila, 1 year; broccoli and cilantro, 3-5 years; lettuce and nasturtium, 5-6 years.



Don’t skip this step! Your pre-order is a draft order which streamlines the entire process. Which means you’re on the way to stress-free seed-ordering.

Grab your pad of paper. On the left side, create a column, write main categories, such as broccoli. Under each category, list varieties. In this case, varieties of broccoli such as Arcadia or Packman.

Across the top, make a column for each catalog. Now as you flip through catalogs or visit websites, write the page number and price (optional) for the variety in the catalog column.

TIP: Several companies might offer Arcadia broccoli, but now you know where to find it. This is handy when you go back to compare pricing, how many seeds in a packet, costs, days to maturity, and so on.

Research. Write. Repeat.



As you research keep the following parameters in mind. They will help you select the right seeds for your growing conditions and climate.


Which Plant Hardiness Zone are you in?

Plant Hardiness Zones, as they’re called in the US, are not a perfect science. Sometimes when I conducted workshops at the prestigious Seattle and San Francisco Flower and Garden Shows, I was the curiosity from Alaska and was often asked, “What’s zone are you in?” Sometimes I’d reply with, “The ozone,” and the audience would chuckle.

Hardiness Zones are meant to be the standard by which gardeners and growers determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. From my experience, these zones are moving targets, thanks mostly to micro-climates and climate change.

For example, you might live in Zone 4, but your garden faces south so it benefits from full sun and no shade. You might be able to grow varieties listed as Zone 5 or 6.

If you’re not sure which Plant Hardiness Zone you’re in, Google “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.” Enter your zip code, address or location in the search bar in the upper left. Then compare the colors in the map to the legend on the right.


How are the zones created?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the map (updated in 2012) is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. 

Remember, it’s not perfect science here. When I entered our zip code of 99615, the map showed that we were in Zone 6a (6a (-10 to -5 °F/-23.3 to -20.6 °C. Same as Louisville, Kentucky and Carson City, Nevada. Local 


Be aware of pest and disease resistance

Catalogs are getting better at listing which varieties are prone to certain pests and diseases. After all, seed companies want you to be successful and come back for more. For example: Potatoes (scab), lettuce (gray mold), summer squash (blossom end-rot, tomatoes (fusarium wilt).


Check for days to maturity

This is the time from sowing seeds to when you can expect to begin harvesting.


Decide on plant parenting

How important is it to you if the seed is open-pollinated (OP), hybrid (F1, etc.), GMO, heirloom, or organic?


Seed characteristics

Are they annuals, perennials, biennials? Treated or pelletized? Read the fine print to avoid surprises.


Ask for guidance

Gardening is not an exact science. Get on forums or Facebook groups. Ask questions. Talk to local gardeners. 



Here’s where the beauty and power of your pre-order comes in.

Refer to it as you shop online or fill out the paper form. There is such freedom in doing something with a clear mind!

My favorite seed catalogs

Here is a list of my favorite seed catalogs. (Your climate and day length might require other sources):


Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Territorial Seeds

Baker Creek Heirlooms



West Coast Seeds

Others: Reimer Seeds, Harris Seeds, R.H. Shumway’s, Renee’s Garden Seeds

If you’re new to garden catalogs (print and online), don’t be discouraged by the lovely pictures in the catalog are of mature plants at peak perfection. So if your don’t look like the pictures, keep trying — that’s what gardeners do best.

Finally, while growing your own seedlings is a rewarding challenge, we have in Kodiak a rare find in the form of Strawberry Fields Nursery. That’s because worldwide, the industry has move away from local plants and depend on mass, regional growers as their seedling suppliers.

Support local! 

I’ll see you next week.


Hey there! You might enjoy my new YouTube channel called, “It’s Never Too Late” at Got a garden question? Speak up!

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