It does seem awfully early to be buying seeds, especially when the daytime highs have been in the single digits, but this time next month, I'll be starting my peppers and parsley indoors! To know when to start your own plants indoors, you will want to determine which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in. You can find out by entering your Zip Code HERE. Very often the back of the seed packet will tell you how many weeks before last frost it should be started, but if not, there are MANY seed starting charts and resources available around the web. Here's an example: Zone 5 (SE Michigan)
As a kid, my Dad and Grandparents always just purchased already started plants like tomatoes and peppers that couldn't be direct seeded in the garden at our local greenhouse. While it is honestly much more convenient for the average home gardener, it's significantly more expensive if you wish to grow more than maybe 6-8 plants. You're also very limited on available varieties. If we only grew what can be found at major outlets, we'd never know that there are orange, yellow, even black tomatoes! Another concern is that the starts found at big box stores have been treated with chemicals that harm beneficial insects and pollinators.
Seeds can be expensive, depending upon where you decide to purchase and the rarity of seed, but there are low cost brands available. For example, Dollar Tree sells common varieties from like Contender Bush Beans and Little Wonder Peas for $.25 per pack, but the germination rates (how many seeds actually grow) are markedly lower compared to other brands of the same variety I've grown in the past. On the other hand, I paid $3.00 for one packet of 10 seeds of the rare "Hottest Pepper on the Planet" Trinidad Scorpion Pepper I ordered from Baker Creek Seeds. However, everything I have ever purchased from them has had excellent germination rates and grew into strong, healthy plants. Their common varieties run around $2.00/pack. Regardless, a $2.00 packet with 25 seeds is much less expensive than $3 for 4 plants!
From personal experience, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing seed through the mail from a reliable source providing open-pollinated heirloom seed. This means that once you purchase that seed once, you can save seed from your own plants and never have to purchase that same one again! But that's another discussion for another time!
Here are the two catalogs I most often purchase from. You can order online, or request a free printed catalog from their website:
Baker Creek - Purchase 90% of our seeds here each year. I believe they offer somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 varieties, including herbs and flowers. Excellent germination, less expensive than some of the others,
Richter's Herbs - Specializes in medicinal and culinary herbs. Seeds and plant starts available. Many hard-to-find varieties, Great germination rates, but be mindful of your hardiness zone when purchasing perennials.
These are also reputable, but a little more expensive on the whole:
Seeds of Change - Certified Organic Seed
Seed Savers - Heirloom Seed
Mountain Rose Herbs - Seed as well as dried goods, medicine making and tea accessories
In a few weeks I'll post a tutorial on seed starting as I get my own going! In the meantime, get those seed orders going before the good stuff is sold out! ;)