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How to select the right seeds for your garden

Graphics of seeds and seed packets
Graphic by Madeleine King

Looking at colorful seed packets, a gardener can feel like a kid in a candy store. Faced with so many exciting options, it's easy to get carried away. We've got some things to keep in mind so you can seed shop like a pro.

This content originally appeared in IPR's Garden Variety newsletter, which brings together Iowa's gardening community for expert advice and timely tips for gardeners at all levels year-round.

Plan ahead

Like going to the grocery store without a list, buying seeds without a plan can get overwhelming. It’s easy to get distracted by junk food — before you know it, you’ll have a cart full of potato chips but no cabinet space for them. It’s important to make a plan for your garden before you buy your seeds to avoid the same fate for your plant beds. Make a map of where you’re going to plant everything and a list of the exact seed you need.

A good rule of thumb: Unless you know where you’re going to put it, don’t buy it.

If you’re just starting out, stick to tried and true seeds you know will work well in your space. As you gain confidence, you may find yourself wanting to branch out and experiment with new seed varieties. This way, you can learn and grow right alongside your garden!

To seed or not to seed

Starting seeds can be a fun challenge for a gardener, but sometimes buying transplants from the garden center makes more sense.

Start from seed if there’s a certain variety you’re itching to plant, and you can’t find it as a transplant locally.

Transplants may be a good option if the plant has fine, or small, seeds like a begonia. Small seeds are much harder to germinate. Older seeds can also be hard to germinate, and it may be best to get fresh seed or buy a transplant if you want to ensure your seedlings take off.

What to plant in Iowa

A note on Zone 5: Most of Iowa lies within USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5. Nursery and seed catalogs will often indicate what zone(s) certain plants can survive in, however this only applies to perennials, shrubs and trees, which live longer than one year. Most flowers and vegetables are annuals, which have a one-year lifespan, making zones irrelevant.

Seed Savers Exchange, just north of Decorah, is a great local resource for seeds in Iowa. If you’re not sure what to plant, their most popular — and creatively named — varieties might serve as inspiration.

  • Leafy Greens: Lacinato Kale, Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, America Spinach
  • Great Gourds: Waltham Butternut Squash, Black Beauty Zucchini, Chelsea Watermelon
  • Roots and Fruits: Dragon Carrot, Danvers Carrot, French Breakfast Radish, Wapsipinicon Peach Tomato, German Pink Tomato — one of the Seed Savers founding varieties
  • Wild Card: Stevia — pick a leaf off for a sweet treat!

If you’re still averse to eating your veggies, try planting these common flower varieties instead: petunia, snapdragon, verbena, vinca, zinnia, pansy, geranium, wax begonia, impatiens, marigold and salvia.

Where to get your seeds

After you’ve narrowed down the shopping list, it’s time to purchase seeds for the upcoming growing season. Flower and vegetable seeds can be purchased at local garden centers and other retailers, and there are many online options that will mail your selected seeds to you.

Gardening GardeningHorticulture
Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.
As the newsletter product manager, Madeleine (she/her) coordinates and writes for Iowa Public Radio’s newsletter portfolio, including The Daily Digest and Political Sense.
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