By Lambert Strether of Corrente
As readers know, the current iteration of my garden doesn’t require me to study the seed catalogs that, at this time of year, will have arrived in the mail; I have several pounds of wildflower seeds — some for shade, some for pollinators, some for the Maine climate — that I intend to sow on what was once the front lawn, before I turned it into vegetable beds. (I also have some clover to sow at the margins, because besides bees, deer like it, and don’t go any further in.) However, I shamefacedly confess to reading the Financial Times “Weekend” edition, in print, thoroughly — so much more informative and above all literate than the Sunday New York Times — where I encountered this article, which begins:
Seed–sowing made me a gardener and every year it keeps me keen and curious. The catalogues need to be searched now as the sowing season is beginning.
Home-sown sweet peas are far better than those bought pre-grown in a tangly box in April and May. Separate colours are available in seed lists but seldom as bedding plants. If you sow your own, . Once again my mainstays will be King Size Navy Blue from Thompson & Morgan and April in Paris from Unwins and other online suppliers. Navy Blue is a truly dark blue with a good scent, plenty of strong flowers with up to five flowers per stem and an exceptionally long season. I was picking Navy Blues in late August last year when other varieties had fizzled out. April in Paris also flowered on into autumn and I renamed it August in Oxford. Its flowers are off-white, tipped with a thin edge of purple blue. They are in segregated bunches indoors and their . I picture them painted by a French Impressionist master, but they arrived too late on the scene.
(Personally, I like masses of color, especially self-seeded masses; I don’t like “clever combinations” of color at all, because I prefer my garden to appear artless.) Clearly, however, those “catalogues” evoke a very strong (though stiff upper-lipped) reaction in the author: “keen and curious,” indeed. An American writer is somewhat more… carnal, I suppose the word would be. From the Chicago Tribune:
The of the garden catalogs that through the mail slot in January can and lift the soul. For more experienced gardeners, it doesn’t even take pictures: adjectives are enough. New! Double! Disease-resistant! Heirloom! Chartreuse!
It can easily to a kind of , in which we order 25 times as many varieties as we have space for.
That’s good marketing! (Among other things, perhaps, as we shall see.) And who among us has not succumbed to it?
So pause before you order. Step out back for a breath of bracing fresh air. Take a look at where you’ll be doing the actual growing, bare though it may now be. Apply a little methodical thought to the situation and you can bring that down.
Good advice! Let me pause here to insert an image of the cover of Philadelphia’s Landreth Seed Company, who brought the first zinnias to the United States in 1798. (I love zinnias.)
If anything is calcuated to bring on catalog fever, that cover is!
As a sidebar, the business history of the seed catalog is intriguing as well; mail order began with them. The Post Office having been established by the Continental Congress in 1775, this from Bloomberg,
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first enterprises to embrace mail order in the modern sense were seedsmen and nurserymen, whose customers were scattered across the U.S. and in its unsettled territories. Small and relatively non-perishable, seeds could be sent almost anywhere.
The Financial Times also has a potted history of subsequent developments:
During the first quarter of the 19th century, Shaker communities became the most trusted American source of seeds and important innovators in consumer-friendly marketing. They guarded the purity of their stock, introduced small labelled packages of seed instead of barrels and cloth bags, and conducted a mail-order business.
And now come those colors:
Escalating investment in mail-order operations coincided with a surge of pictorialism in American publications of all kinds during the last three decades of the century. Illustrated gazettes and magazines generated a new corps of commercial artists and printmakers who turned their talents to advertising.
In seed catalogues, figures of plants became more numerous for the practical purpose of identification as well as commercial allure, occasionally filling a page by 1860. As processes such as chromolithography and electrotyping became more affordable, captivating imagery became an essential element in selling products. Colour made its first appearance in seed catalogues in the 1850s and took hold as a competitive innovation immediately after the civil war during the mid-1860s.
Allure… But where, exactly, does the allure — the “beautiful,” the “billow” that “warms the bones,” the “delirium” — come from? For one answer, we can turn to Michael Pollan’s wonderful Botany of Desire. While planting a potato, Pollan experiences an epiphany:
The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classic example of what is known as “coevolution.” In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes. Consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side, and the traditional distinction between subject and object is meaningless.
Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different; we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago. Like the apple blossom, whose form and scent have been selected by bees over countless generations, the size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations by us—by Incas and Irishmen, even by people like me ordering french fries at McDonald’s. Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness in the case of the bee; heft and nutritional value in the case of the potato-eating human. The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in this arrangement. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
So the question arose in my mind that day: In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog.
I think it was the tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. Yet evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalog on a particular January evening counts as one of them.
That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. .
It would certainly be a novel — innovative? disruptive? — version of economic history that imagines the zinnia, the potato, the apple, wildflower mixes, and all the other subjects of the horticultural kingdom driving the invention and implementation of an enormous clamoring metal construct like the four-color printing press. But if Pollan is to be believed, it is so. Certainly, such a version of historical causality is just as sensible and true-to-life — perhaps more so, since it includes a co-evolutionary perspective — than that profferred by the version of economic history taught in the schools, which regards humans as rational actors.
 The article also includes a really excellent series of checklists, based on the following questions, especiallly useful if you are thinking of gardening for the first time:
Question No. 1: What kind of gardener are you? (‘Newbie,’ ”Been At This Game a While’, ‘I Love Details and Juggling’… )
Question No. 2: What are your conditions? (Sun, soil, exposure….)
Question No. 3: What kind of garden do you want? (Vegetable, flowers, container, children….)
 True fact: Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General, was dismissed from his post as Parliamentary Postmaster in 1775 for abusing his franking privileges!
 Looking at the graven image of that lovely apple… Was it the snake who really did the tempting?
 Surely the co-evolution of plants and humans began before the invention of agriculture, if the thesis of James Scott’s Against the Grain is to be accepted. I don’t think that invalidates Pollan’s epiphany, however.
Q1: I’ve been at it awhile and it runs in the family blood, my dad could only plant so many trees in suburbia and boy did he, I have about 49x as much land to play with, in comparison. He liked odd trees, such as Cherimoya & Macadamia nut (they ought to make black boxes for airplanes out of the shells, it’s practically indestructible) along with the usual suspects. Back then there was no drip watering-which is easy peasy to set up, so it was a lot more laborious.
Q2: Conditions are downright pleasant in the fall to early summer, hot as hades thereafter for the horrible hundred (my record here was 118) days to follow. It’s ideal for early summer stone fruit, apples seem to do ok as long as you plant the right varieties. I have 10 citrus trees and they’re doing fine, but i’m worried about HLB showing up, it’s just a matter of time.
Q3: I’m all about fruit trees, up to 86* mostly different now. Mother Nature supplies the wildflower show, which is running late this year, should’ve had the vanguard of millions of golden Fiddlenecks already, but a no show so far. I’m heavy on apples, as they live the longest of all fruit trees, and it’d be great if the home owner of 2097 here is eating my work.
* just planted a Coral Champagne cherry tree today
I love to get Raintree Nursery catalogs, even better than the Sears xmas catalog, circa 1971.
i *strongly* endorse succumbing to catalog fever. i end up with far more tomato starts than i can possibly keep myself. with this enormous surplus i can give them away freely. to friends, neighbors, and complete strangers.
and as any good student of Mauss knows, the hau in those gifted starts will inevitably return to me. sometimes in the form of a new ‘mater buddy, sometimes in the form of some strange seedling gifted to me at some point in the future. and sometimes–especially with novices who have abandoned the $75/season community garden plot i helped them plant mid-season because of their new baby–more garden square footage under my care, and a portion of its produce on my plate.
most important of all, however, is when the hau in those fragrant and babied little tomato starts returns to me in the form of fame. for my small little rental house with the raised beds in the front in which, by August, are filled with enormous fruits of striking colors, is known by the whole entire neighborhood as the home of The Tomato Lady*
we are no different than those Trobrianders and their yams
*i’m actually a 31 year old guy but for some reason everyone thinks my wife is responsible, a notion she deviously plays along with
Yes and amen.
I would also suggest the possibility of over-ordering open-pollinated seeds and contributing the surplus to a local seed library, or starting one. That’s on my agenda this year, though I may get no further than interesting the officers of the local public library. Thanks to Arizona Slim for mentioning this concept some months ago.
February 4, 2018 at 3:26 pm
I drool over the rose catalogs – I admit it, I have a rose porn problem….
all those glossy pictures of voluptuous full petals – I think they’re airbrushed…..
submit! cultivate! and gift to the others!
And his son was an active loyalist.
Primarily in temperate zones, fire was being used to clear forests for the benefit of preferred prey species by hunter gatherers. Grasslands support species like bison while in forests you get squirrels. Also, domesticated grasses would become the nutritional cornerstone of densely populated, settled, socially complex human populations.
I am a chaotic gardener with a preference for California native plants. Part of the garden is devoted to edibles. We like to let plants go to seed, and cultivate the volunteers, in the belief they are better adapted to our dirt. Right now the entire garden is covered in oxalis (lemon grass). I used to weed it until I noticed how well it keeps the Bermuda grass down by denying it sunlight. The clover-like leaves and little yellow flowers are rather nice and it produces a tartly tasty stem. I think my my lawn-cultivating neighbors hate me for harboring this weed. I don’t mind. I hate them right back.
I plant food in my 75 ft^2 space, enough to nearly eliminate produce from our shopping list.
Garlic already in the ground. Patio arugula is self seeding. Planning currently underway, coordinating with the kids, considering a metal rabbit fence.
Hopefully this spring is warmer and dryer than last year’s April snows. All three bean plantings sprouted at the same time in June only to be devoured by the rabbits that chewed a hole in the plastic fence in the one place I couldn’t see it due to hydrangias.
I wonder if rabbit tastes delicious with arugula?
I suspect it does. If it doesn’t, I have a solution:
1) bite of rabbit
2) chug of beer
3) bite of arugula
4) chug of beer
5) return to 1, repeat until satiated.
I have a tiny urban back yard facing north east and an even tinier front yard facing south west, both heavily shaded for part of the day, and infernally hot for part of the year
I just ordered Dianthus superbus alba (sic should be albus for the pedants among us) and Phacelia tanacetifolia (a California wild flower that is supposed to attract pollinators), from a firm in Ireland called Seedaholic, which has wonderful instructions. Also from Johnny’s seed some double feverfew of the cut flower variety called Magic Green and a Black-eyed Susan with quilled petals. Not to mention a lot of other things from other places, including wild Monarda fistulosa & Ratibida pinnatata to give to friends in the country who have a meadow. I also ordered some Royal Navy Sweet peas that I ought to plant today. This is a second, third, or even fourth try with these. I really don’t have the right conditions. But one lives in hope.
In addition to seeds, just finished up an order for rare some perennials that sell out quickly — one is Ranunculus aconitifolius, a white double buttercup, also known as Fair-Maids-of-France, that hails from the Vosges Mountains and is not often offered.
As far as the seeds go, buying them is the easy part. The tricky thing is to get them planted in time. I have accumulated many old packets of seeds never planted from God knows when. I gather I am not alone in this.
No, you certainly aren’t (alone in that).
I rarely order seed, but I just received a packet of seed for pyrethrum – the insecticidal flower. It’s technically a chrysanthemum, and rather pretty, with silver leaves and white daisy flowers. The central yellow part contains pyrethrin, deadly to insects but not warm-blooded animals. Used to be used as a vermifuge.
I plan on a decorative row of insecticide. I also make an extract from it using Citra Solv, a cleaner made from citrus peels. Also non-toxic, except to insects.
And if I’m really virtuous, I’ll start a lot of the wild seed I’ve collected over the years.
I’ve been a gardener/horticulturalist for some thirty plus years, and in that time, especially the last decade , I and my current garden have both evolved … somewhat less rigid in structure, and am more inclined towards allowing volunteers to be given a chance (many flowering perennials/insectories) … at least where open space is concerned. We don’t have any more space for fruiting plants, but what is there means plenty of work thru the growing season, in addition to my bee keeping (just ordered a bee package … to keep the two colonies company, that so far, have survived from last fall … fingers crossed !)
Northwest climate .. somewhat protected from wind, and precip. due somewhat to the Olympic Mountains rain shadow (Port Angeles), but not as dry as Sequim. Great for growing some varieties of grapes, berries, blueberries, cherries, apples, and pears, as well as root, cole, and onion type crops.
The garden I want, is the garden I already have !**
**Although it would be icing on the cake if citrus were viable, zone wise.
Would also like to give an endorsement of Raintree Nursery, as per mr. Wukchumni above, having purchased almost all of our fruit trees & grape vines through their catalog, two of which (Medlars) finally bore fruit last season (tried to can Medlar jelly … got Medlar syrup instead, lol !)
Territorial Seed Co. has a great catalog for veg/fruit, herbs, and flowers annual & perennial !
There is a citrus relative I have read about which may be viable in your area. The fruit is supposed to be so sour that it cannot be eaten straight, but only used in/for other things.
Trifoliate orange used to be planted in all the back yards in Philadelphia when I lived there years ago. Trifoliate orange and the little orange and yellow rose, ‘Masquerade”, which was so ubiquitous that people used to sneer at “that horrid Masquerade”. But it grew so willingly in neglected, dank and unpromising locations that one sort of misses it. Anyway, Trifoliate orange has unbelievable, long, needle-sharp thorns — more dense, abundant, & formidable than barbed wire. It is deciduous but the twigs and branches are a brilliant green in winter. I believe the inedible fruits are pleasantly fragrant. It can be kept very small by pruning.
Recently I have read that there is another aromatic (thorny) citrus relative called the Prickly Ash, which, unlike the Trifoliate orange, is a native plant. It also has aromatic berries, so they say, and is a key food source for giant swallowtail butterflies. Don’t know if it is in commerce,
Speaking of thorns, I am growing a Yuzu as a houseplant. I have had to clip its three-inch thorns when they appear or I wouldn’t be able to get near it. My tree is several years old but has never born fruit — or even blossomed. Maybe this year.
It turns out that thornlessness is a trait existing in some trifoliate orange plants, for those who simply must have thornless trifoliate oranges.
And I have read that poncirus fruits are not inedible by virtue of being poisonous. They are merely so very sour as to be unbearable to eat straight. But I suspect they could be used as an ingredient in things.
If you are in Sonoma County I can wholeheartedly recommend LeBallister’s in Santa Rosa for seeds.
My big purchase last year ( For a property coming on the market next month) was 3,000
Not heirloom, but the colors are right, they are vigorous and they naturalize.
They arrived 2 days before the fires and the workers I thought would be available weren’t…I had more shovel time than I expected.
Another positive thing about seed catalogs is that by reading them and making notes on possible purchases one painlessly acquires a surprising amount of botanical and other information, Latin binomials, countries of origin, etc.
True that !
Like perusing a thin plantcyclopedia … with testimonials and miscellaneous items !
Any Hawaiian gardeners on this thread who care to share what seed catalogues they like other than university of hawaii CTAR?
I LOVE to garden – although being in the NYC area, I only have a small terrace. I do a lot of vertical gardening and get a surprising output on my little space. I am hoping to move this year to a small house/bigger yard and my goal is to grow and preserve a good portion of vegs and fruit. I’ve been reading about John Kempf and regenerative farming….
An old school American catalog is RH Shumway, has lots of great old illustrations, particularly of the vegetables.
We’re on Eastern Vancouver Island, about 70 to 80 kms north of Victoria. We share a up/down house with an unmarried daughter who would not be able to get a mortgage otherwise. Home is compact, on a 50 X 120 foot lot. In the front my daughter grows shrubs and small flowering trees. In the back we grow a small veggie garden (about 400 sq ft) along with a separate row of herbs. We also have 4 trees, a plum, a cherry–both old heritage–and an apple (five variety) and a pear, which we planted and kept small.
Att’n polecat: my wife has a cousin in Sequim.
We are still eating from last years garden: butternut squash, garlic, onions, a few apples, kale. Seedy Saturdays started in January on Vancouver Island. The ones closest to us are during the next month. The ones we attend have netted us some very good results, from seed savers and small commercial growers like Salt Spring Seeds. The best Florence fennel my wife has grown came from a local seed saver. We also have Mason bees.
We get catalogues from West Coast Seeds, Salt Spring Seeds, and from Vesey Seeds on Prince Edward Island, a remnant from when we lived in Nova Scotia. We have been planting veggie gardens since we bought our first house in 1973, even on rented property with permission. Landlords always loved how we improved their properties.
The soil in our current garden was mostly heavy clay almost to the surface, but eight years of amendments has improved it dramatically. We conserve water; our climate is going from West Coast Marine to Mediterranean (summer droughts), with water conservation measures imposed by towns and regional districts.
I don’t know if Pollan emphasized it enough, but of all the things I’ve grown, “the” potato – which seemed really stupid, ’cause you know Idaho will sell you 50# bags of potatoes for nuthin’ – was the most different from anything I had ever bought in a store.
I grew it just for fun. Liked the thought of reusing old tires. I did not expect the difference.
And by different, I mean an unholy step up. I put “the” in quotes because I’ve tried a bunch of different varieties, and the least of them exceeded the best store bought potato* like it wasn’t even the same species. And unlike the also awesome tomato, you can keep them around for months.
*should I add an “e” in honor of Mr. Quayle, or Quail as I spell it?
Who would have imagined!
My wife’s been ordering from this old school seed bank out of La Honda, CA for many years: J. L. Hudson, Seedsman
In Maine, I use Johnny’s Seeds and MOFGA. Both are co-ops, both come out of the back-to-the-land movement when the hippies moved to Maine and bought cheap land. The MOFGA catalog is a wonderful newsprint throwback with a ton of information.
In addition to Johnny’s, we also purchase from these Maine nurseries:
and these Oregonian nurseries:
Medicinal plants come from this Oregonian nursery:
Strictly Medicinal Seeds
Superstar always has done most of our gardening. She’s become such a big deal at a distant health foods company, hope eventually we’ll get back into it in a few years. I tend the critters food plots, apple & pear trees when time permits, but nowadays it’s mostly cleaning up messes. Have you ever watched a Kudzu seed pod get airborne? They’re light as a feather with tiny hairs that catch the wind assisting them to get carried off. That’s the stuff nightmares truly are made of!!! Oh, and Elon Musk’$ flamethrower$ are not adequate for Kudzu control. There are less expensive and much more efficient options for you firebugs!
Thank you, Lambert, for a wonderful column – and thank you to all who comment.
[lambert blushes modestly].
The key point, though is at the end: historical causality….
Yes, and I am such a sucker for the history behind what I am interested in (not to mention the art and poetry).
Yes Yes. Great stuff Lambert.
I wonder if (Soros’ (egads)) concept of Reflexivity isn’t relevant?
–Running the causality in both directions.
I order seeds from Seed Savers. There are so many heritage seeds and the catalog gives a history of each one so the catalog is a treat even if you do not order seeds from them.
Great post – one of my favorite topics.
This has been recognized by biologists lately under the name eco-devo. If you are interested in reading something about it, I recommend Sonia Sultan Organizm & Environment.
It contains amazing details from epigenetic dna methylation, the plastic expression of proteins, control structures and feedback systems, niche construction, habitat choice and modificaion, etc.
Kind of technical, but well worth the effort.
We are high desert–Zone 5–and so hotter and drier than most Z5 areas, but cold enough for some excellent apple varieties. (On this subject, Fedco Trees, in Maine, started by the venerable John Bunker, is a treasure. We have a nursery nearby run for 25 years by a like-minded preserver of heirloom varieties).
Gusty winds in April, monsoon season July and August. Our biggest issue is the hard frosts (-28 degrees) in late April that hit the blossoming/budding fruit trees. That said, I have this (factually-unsupported) theory that our fruit tastes better than anywhere else because the trees have to struggle.
This year, all of our veg seeds are coming from Territorial. I clip the planting guides from both their catalog and that of Johnny’s. Local nursery buys are a couple each lemon verbena and stevia plants. The former for a wonderful herbal tea and the latter for sweetening all teas.
This year, the weather IS going to be splendid and everything will work out!
Reading this and the comments in the middle of the first real snowstorm in central Iowa this winter. It’s exactly the kind of day, in the evening after school, that is, that I would have spent hours poring over stacks of nursery catalogs. We would get quite a few in the mail at our house; they started coming in early- to mid-December. They were tempting, but I learned to save them until after Christmas, to savor in the really cold, dark days of January and February.
So many mentions of specific nurseries and their catalogs, some of which I am familiar with and others which I’m going to check out. I’m almost hesitant to mention another source of information, a kind of meta-site, that has sucked me in for hours at a time. It is a kind of plant-junkie paradise. OK, you have been warned: check out Plant Information Online from the University of Minnesota. It’s certainly not visually impressive itself, but the descriptive text gives a hint of the wonders to be found there. With links to the websites of the indexed nurseries (when they have websites), it is a kind of gateway. A gateway drug, even, for gardeners.
Seed catalogs are the best! Territorial has the most vigorous seeds I ever bought, but a bit pricey for postage. Years ago, we discovered Cherokee Purple tomatoes at a festival, and I’ve raised them ever since. I find our particular tomato is better even than other Cherokee Purples I have tried. Raising plants from seed is a fun science project once one gets the hang of it.
I’m partial to heirlooms so the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog hooks me like no other. There’s something in it for everyone and they ship internationally. If you’re looking for zinnias, Lambert, they have some truly unique varieties.
I find the paper catalog especially gratifying. I don’t know how the online store compares, but here’s a link to it, should anyone ‘desire’ it. ;)
Best part of seed buying is it feels like a charitable donation and they send me the *best* gifts.
Rareseeds & Fedco are favs. Two local Colorado companies are good, Botanical Interests and Lake Valley Seeds (inexpensive). I also like territorial, plantsofthesouthwest & Seeds of Italy. http://www.leereich.com/ is dabomb for all you fruit growers.