Thursday, January 15, 2009

Seed Catalogs

Early New Years day 22 year-old Oscar Grant was shot to death by a BART police officer while restrained in their custody. Video of the event was taken by a passenger on a BART train at the station stop and uploaded to YouTube among other places. In response there were protests in Oakland later that week. When I signed into Flickr photos from the protest were featured. Among those who uploaded pictures was The Inadvertent Gardener. I think that's a swell name and probably gets to the serendipity aspect of gardening that I was going for with The Incompetent Gardener. Today via Beth's Blog I discovered that The Inadvertent Gardener blogs! She's way more together than I am, so I can't begrudge her the name. In fact, the smart reader will hurry over there to that place now. That is unless of course for some reason you haven't received any seed catalogs in the mail and want to read a warmed over piece I wrote about them in 2001.


November 6, 2001

In autumn the realization that winter is coming always creeps up on me. One would think that having years of experience the fact of winter would be easily remembered, but a part of me holds out for the hope that perhaps it may not come this year. Still by the end of October the early sunsets and chilly evenings remind me that this will be another year with four seasons. Every sunny autumn day is like stealing a little summer and becomes all the more precious. As I'm going through this old post right now it's about two degrees F outside with a bitter wind.

Just before Halloween my copy of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalog arrived in the mail. Every year I spend many hours pouring over seed offerings and have many favorite catalogs. One of my favorites is Thompson & Morgan; one of the best things about the catalog is that it arrives early. They have a very wide selection and provide beautiful color photographs of most of the flowers. I order seeds from many different companies and have a fondness for them all. So I’m reluctant to single out Thompson & Morgan as my favorite company. Nevertheless, if your mailbox isn’t stuffed with seed catalogs and you plan to send for one, Thompson & Morgan is a good choice because it is such a good plant reference and has so many offerings.

Park Seed is another very good catalog and for many of the same reasons: wide selection, good cultural information, and photographs. Parks has a very inexpensive shipping charge too, which makes it easy to order just a packet or two of seeds.

Seeds are relatively inexpensive in comparison to plants, but it is still possible to spend quite a lot on seeds. I do indeed compare prices by looking at the price and also the quantity. Generally a packet of seeds will provide plenty of plants for the home gardener, but packets for some hybrids and special seeds hold very small quantities. Sometimes seeds are sold by weight and other times by the number of

Johnny’s Selected Seeds provides information of the number of seeds per a given quantities for many of the plants they sell, but figuring it out for packets is usually an academic question for flowers. Nichols Garden Nursery sells many of their seeds by weight and their packets are generous. Many of the same varieties will be found in the different catalogs, but the all the catalogs have developed a niche for themselves. Cooks Garden Seeds developed a devoted following by offering a huge selection of lettuce varieties. Renee's Garden have made their name by selling vegetable and flowers particularly well suited to backyard gardeners.

There’s faith and then there’s confidence. Seed catalogs are only exciting if one is anticipating planting seeds, and for many that seems a daunting prospect. I’ve planted many a seed packet without actually growing the plants to maturity, sometimes not even getting the seeds to germinate. Nevertheless I’ve grown so many plants from seed that I have a degree of confidence about growing plants this way. But seeds are
such a miracle that that faith is remembered in planting them.

My mother has a hard time with plant names and once remarked, “I can’t seem to remember their names unless I’ve raised them as babies.” She’s right that growing seedlings usually does mean that one is more familiar and connected to the plants. There’s nothing wrong with planting a garden from plants purchased in pots. Still there’s much to be gained in starting some of your own, and it’s not so hard.

Seed catalogs generally offer quite a bit of cultural information about the seeds and the plants they’ll become. Gleaning this information sometimes requires interpreting the code that the company provides. It is worth delving into these codes as the information improves the odds for success. Thompson & Morgan’s system for providing cultural information is well presented with a symbols and abbreviations. These
are presented in a fold out page on the back cover for easy reference. With a little practice the symbols are committed to memory making little need to refer to it.

They classify plants according to type, e.g. annual, perennial, biennial, etc.; provide the number of days from sowing to germination and the temperature range for best results; the amount of sun the plant prefers; and give a guide to both the ease of germination and the ease of after care. This is their “Green Fingers Guide” and it is helpful as they offer some demanding plants. Also they have symbols denoting special notes, e.g. that a plant is poisonous, or has edible flowers; makes a good pot or is well suited for baskets. One of my favorite symbols is for perennials that flower the first year from seed. Generally perennials take at least a year from sowing to flower, but there are happy exceptions and it’s nice to know about them.

Variety, and quality are good reasons for buying seeds by mail; you’ll simply not be able purchase some any other way. Most of the mail order seed companies do extensive trailing of the seeds they sell as well as plant development. Thompson & Morgan is a British company, but have had North American offices for a long time. Their cultural information is well documented for American gardeners. Parks trials are done in the U.S., as are most of the other catalogs listed, so their offerings have proven themselves for American gardens. Most of the companies also do lab testing to assure that their seeds have good germination rates and provide extra seed when they fall below the norm. Seed companies generally offer good service, fair prices, and superior seeds.

The seed catalogs that arrive mostly before Christmas provide me with pleasant interludes of “arm chair” gardening. The seeds themselves provide many hours of enjoyment. As a freshman in college I responded to an ad from Parks for a packet of cactus seeds. I was anticipating getting on their mailing list, but a catalog never came. The seeds did, however, and it was fascinating to have respectable looking cactuses by the end of the term. I mention this to suggest that even if one isn’t ready to commit to planting a garden’s worth of seedlings, growing a packet or two on a windowsill is easy and enjoyable. Even grass seed will provide an interesting indoor plant and nothing could be easier! Certainly too there are many seeds that will thrive by direct sowing. Requesting a seed catalog and ordering a few packets is an enriching gardening experience. Do so if your not already an avid fan of seed

The post on seed catalogs I'd write today, if I weren't so lazy, wouldn't quite be the same. The picture shows six of my favorite catalogs as of now. The choice to concentrate on Thompson & Morgan is a bit odd, but there is a certain logic to it. The catalog remains an excellent guide for people just beginning to try to start from seeds. Seeds are quite a lot more expensive than they were in 2001, and I'm more reluctant now than I was to put up the money. Pinetree Garden Seeds offers some of the best values on seeds for the home gardener. I absolutely love J. L. Hudson Seedsman and if I could only have one catalog that would be the one I'd want. Jung Seeds and Plants is very good. While the post concentrates on seeds, one of the recommendations I'll make about Jung is they have always (almost) sent plants correctly marked. As far as seeds got they are the place to get the latest introductions. Seeds of Change is an especially good catalog if you're interested in organic seed.

1 comment:

Genie said...

John, thanks for the shout-out -- I'm glad you're enjoying the blog and the photos. If I'd thought of calling myself incompetent rather than inadvertent, I probably would have taken your name right out from under you. ;-)