Seed Catalog Savvy
By: Kathy Bond Borie
Long before the soil warms and frost ceases its nightly visits, spring takes root in the minds of gardeners. The first seed catalog arrives full of the promise of summer and the temptation of varieties untried. Then the next catalog arrives with new promises, and the next, and so on, and soon the dining table is lost under the piles of beckoning catalogs and there's little room to eat. No bother, there's little time to eat anyway, with so much reading to do, gardens to be planned, and seeds to be ordered. The time has come to make some decisions.
This article is written with the overstimulated and slightly confused gardener in mind. Here are some tips to help you evaluate the differences between catalog companies, to read between the lines of catalog and seed packet descriptions, and to accurately interpret variety information so you can choose the best plants for your garden.
Whatever tickles your fancy
All seed catalogs have distinct personalities, which is part of the reason why they are so enjoyable to read. The Pepper Gal catalog evokes the taste of spicy salsa and the image of strands of vibrant red chilies hanging in the kitchen. Howard Dill's Pumpkin Guide tempts gardeners to plan a new pumpkin patch so they can grow their own 500-pound granddaddy of giant pumpkins. If you think all garlic is created equal, the Filaree Farm catalog will dispel that notion with its descriptions of the nearly 90 different strains it offers. These and other specialty catalogs, such as Ronniger's Seed & Potato Company, Totally Tomatoes, and Vermont Bean Seed Company, are practically minicourses on their particular crops.
Similarly, regional catalogs cater to gardeners living in certain parts of the country. Vesey's, in Maine, offers seed adapted to cold climates and shorter growing seasons. Territorial Seed Company produces one catalog for the Northwest, another for the rest of the U.S., and a third for Canada. Kilgore's Florida Planting Guide is one of the few specifically written for just one state.
Then there are the "something-for-everyone" catalogs such as Burpee, Ferry-Morse, Harris, Henry Field, Gurney's, Park Seed, and Stokes that offer a wealth of flowers, vegetables, and landscape plants. These catalogs often feature sections devoted to heirlooms or specialty packages, such as an annual everlastings garden and a butterfly-attracting garden, with garden designs plus seeds.
Putting the pictures in perspective
Buying seed is unlike any other type of shopping because you cannot see exactly what you are buying. It's a fantasy business. You are purchasing the promise of a butterfly garden or of an 8-foot-tall burgundy sunflower. With photos, illustrations, or descriptive words, the seed company tries to help you picture what you will be getting when the plants mature.
Photos, especially of flowers, stimulate the senses and trigger the "I have to have this" response. Photos are the most useful when they show you something you haven't seen before. Everyone knows what a ripe red tomato looks like, but "Whirligig Hybrids" zinnias are new to many.
However, images can be misleading. Our gardens often don't produce anything as picture perfect as what we see in catalogs. Our plants will be battered by wind, rain, and insects. Some colors, such as certain blues, are difficult to reproduce in catalogs, and color can vary according to the type of printing process and paper used. The same variety of morning glory may appear to be different colors in different catalogs. Photos also can make a tiny flower look much larger and showier. I've succumbed to this "photo illusion" on more than one occasion.