Browsing through seed catalogs can be such a great way to spend a few winter evenings, dreaming of all the great veggies, herbs and flowers you will grow in the coming spring months, but before ordering I have several words of advice or wisdom. First make a plan of what you want to plant, how much of it you want to plant and inventory your old seeds! Then you can order more exactly what you want. It can be hard to resist all the great descriptions in the catalogs. Having a plan can help to curb your winter appetite and enthusiasm so that you can stick to a garden of manageable size and doable veggies. I always allow myself a few trials or experiments but avoid getting carried away! If you take on too much and are not successful it becomes discouraging and stressful to garden. Why turn your hobbies and passions into drudgery by making it too hard?!
Just for an example, lets say you want 20 heads of lettuce every month. I would suggest planting 15 to 20 seeds in short rows every 2 weeks during your growing season. For your first two planting, try this suggestion, plant the seeds closer together, say 4 to 6 inches, thin the lettuce at 4 weeks and get something to eat while waiting for the remaining heads to mature. 2 plantings in April, 2 in May, 2 in June and on through September in most climates. 6 months x 40 seeds = 240 seeds. Do you want to grow a spring lettuce like Forellenschluss, also called Black Trout or Speckles, or a summer lettuce like Sierra?and a fall lettuce like Rouge d'Hiver? Your seed company should tell you the approximate number of seeds per packet, allowing you to order what you need. This helps keep the cost of your orders down,limits the amount of seeds you have laying around taking up storage space and you can order new seed for better germination, instead of having to use up old seed that you feel guilty about not using. You can always germ test older seed by putting 20 seeds on a wet paper towel, fold the towel and place in a zip loc bag and put in a warm dark place, top of the fridge is a good spot. In 7 days, check to see how many seed have sprouted. If 10 out of 20 have sprouted, that's a 50% germination rate. Not so great, seed companies sell seeds with a 85% or higher for germination rates. Germination rates should also be readily available when ordering seeds.
Another thing I learned over the years ordering seed, I have limited the number of companies I order from. Every company will charge some fee for ordering, so one season I added up all the fees I paid for shipping and realized I could have purchased $75.00 worth of seed instead of spending it on shipping costs and fees.
Seed exchanges are getting more popular, and using local seed from other growers who have been successful with a certain crop or variety is a good place to start. This also gets you away from the hornets nest of the politics that surround seeds and seed companies. Monsanto owns a lot of seeds, sticking to heirloom, non-hybrid seeds keeps you away from using any seeds they own or produce, if this is a concern for you. Once again, a good seed company should be willing to share with you the source of their seeds. I still struggle with this when it comes to onion seeds as I can only grow good onions if I plant day neutral onions. All the good day neutral onion seeds in America are owned my Monsanto. A neighbor up north is starting to produce and sell some acceptable seed for onions, but the onions are about 2/3 the size, and lack some of the sweetness.
Check back for more ideas and advice. Happy gardening!