How To read a garden catalog

Euscaphus japonica. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Fall is one of the two main seasons for introducing new plants to your garden – if you are like me, you’re poring over the garden catalogs that are beginning to fill your mailbox. While many of these fall catalogs are devoted to spring bulb plants, such as tulips and daffodils, they can offer good suggestions in planning the perennial garden for 2024.

All this involves learning how to read the various catalogs. For information, I would place the Plant Delights catalog at the head of the list because of the plant data it contains.

Why do I recommend this catalog? In the first place, the plants are listed alphabetically by their scientific names. I know: You’re undoubtedly kicking and screaming having to learn and digest the Latin names but there’s a good reason that Plant Delights (and other catalogs) use them. The sad fact is this: the local names are just that, local. While there are some common names accepted everywhere (examples include Cast Iron Plant for Aspidistra, Century Plant for Agave, and False Indigo for Baptisia), many more vary from location to location.

A good search engine on the garden websites will help you to find the plant you are searching for. Make an attempt to at least learn the genus name (the first name followed by the species name) and soon Hakonechloa will merrily trip from your lips. Don’t worry about pronunciation as gardeners are truly a forgiving bunch.

The next thing to look at are the gardening zones assigned to the plant. This is essential for we live in zone 7a, which has cooler winters than zone 7b. If a plant comes with the description “zones: 7a to 10b,” this tells me that the plant wants a warm climate and I might hold off planting it until the spring soil has warmed up. Contrary to any doubts you might have, winter with its cold weather will eventually arrive in our 7a zone – and I want that new plant to survive.

However, if the plant is suitable for zones 5a to 9b, this tells me that the plant will relish a fall planting. If you have an unrequited need to push the envelope, my advice is to do this in the spring when a long growing season gives the plant time to establish a good root system. Therefore, plant Lady Banks rose (zone 8a) in the spring, not the fall if you want this rose to succeed.

The catalogue will also tell you the climatic conditions that are required. For the orchid, Calopogon ‘Fluffy’, the requirement is sun. Now “sun” doesn’t mean “partial sun” – it means that this orchid requires a sunny location. Don’t fudge here; if the plant needs sun, plant it in a sunny location. If you lack a sunny spot, pass over this plant, albeit regretfully.

The catalogue then gives the height dimension. In this case, this orchid grows only ten inches high so it belongs in the front of the perennial border, not the back where it would be hidden. The fact that there is no width description tells me that this plant doesn’t get very wide and can be slipped into a slender vacancy in the border. The width dimension is important if you need to fill in a gap in the border that is one foot wide. A clumping Monarda that will eventually require three feet of real estate would not be a good choice here.

A good catalogue will tell us whether – and when – a plant will go dormant. You might be searching for a plant that is evergreen as you require some winter interest. Instead of an orchid that goes dormant, disappearing in the winter, a better choice might be a carex as it maintains its leaf structure throughout the year.

The last bit of information should include its origin. Many gardeners are now turning to native plants whereas others want interesting plants that are not invasive. In the descriptive information that follows, it will inform you when the plant is at its best performance. Lots of plants flower in early May whereas fewer bloom in August. I’ve determined that I need more August and September blooming plants so this is vital information for me.

Don’t be scared to experiment but do so with reason. An example is the beautiful Heliotropium ‘Augusta Lavender’. It’s good in zones 8a-10b, it requires a sunny location and is “smothered” with blooms from late spring to Christmas before it loses its leaves. It also requires three feet of space. Now, because of its zone requirements, I would never experiment with this plant by utilizing a fall planting. I love the fact it’s a continuous bloomer but I don’t have an available three-foot sunny patch to offer it. Reluctantly and sadly, I turn the page on this plant although the picture is so beguiling.

The trick with a good garden catalog is to harness the information it gives you. Be realistic about what you can offer a plant. If your garden is mostly in the shade, don’t settle for the sun worshippers. We are fortunate to have four distinct seasons here in the Triangle so use them to your advantage. Plant the cold-loving plants, such as peonies, in the fall as they relish the cold of winter. Plant the more tropical plants in the spring.

Learning to read a good garden catalog is part of being a good gardener. Soon, you too, will eschew the common plant names I promise.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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