Navigating Mail-Order Seed Catalogs

Here are some tips for navigating the world of mail-order seeds.
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A seasoned mail-order gardener will tell you that the gardening year begins in the dead of winter when seed catalogs start arriving, long before local garden centers open their doors for spring.

wasabi arugula

I have finally joined the ranks of those who will be growing from seed this year—in the new greenhouse we built off the back of our house. And I’m discovering just how companionable a good seed catalog can be when I'm curled up in a comfortable chair by the fire on a cold day.

After reading through my stack of catalogs and talking with a few seed company representatives, here are some tips for navigating the world of mail order seeds. I plan to order seed packets from each of the companies mentioned.

If you have an iPad, you can curl up with the catalog produced by Renee’s Garden, because it’s digital-only. I have always admired Renee for building a successful business from scratch that has earned such a reputation for quality. She chooses varieties that grow well in different climates, and then tests them in three disparate regions of the country. She takes advantage of what the Internet offers by letting you drill down to detailed growing and planting instructions, as well as photographs, for each plant. Lovely hand-watercolored illustrations and crisp copy that bespeaks a lifetime of gardening knowledge accompanies each seed packet, also shown online. When I spoke with Renee she was excited about the full-time horticultural advisor they have on staff. “When considering what seed companies to buy from, be sure you can get someone on the phone if you need help,” says Renee. She describes her mission as “to sell seeds that grow." I am going to try Wasabi Arugula (shown above) and Edible Landscape Lettuce, two new seeds she is offering for 2012.

If you are wondering about the differences between traditional, hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinated and organic plant breeding and seeds, the catalog produced by Bountiful Gardens in Willits, Calif., provides the clearest explanation I found. (Some of these methods are not mutually exclusive.) Bountiful Gardens is a project of Ecology Action, which promotes the biointensive method of growing. Like most seed companies, Bountiful Gardens sells seeds purchased from seed suppliers all over the world, and some that are developed at their own organic research farm on a “steep, southwest-facing hillside at about 2400-feet elevation.” Of note, they also sell mushroom-growing kits. This catalog is interesting to read and full of educational information. It tells you which seeds were produced without chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.

mushroom

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, member-supported network of plant collectors whose mission is to save and share heirloom seeds. Many of their seeds are certified organic. I think I am going to try their Parisian Pickling Cucumbers because I love cornichons. The Parisian Pickling Cucumbers are a French heirloom from the late 1800s. They also sell heirloom flower seeds.

I found a local seed company online, the Turtle Tree Seed Company in Copake, N.Y., about 40 miles north of where I live. They practice organic, biodynamic gardening, which is a very particular system of growing (and not the same as biointensive, mentioned above). Their seeds are grown at their farm and other farms around the country that practice biodynamic gardening. They employ people with developmental disabilities to help grow, clean and pack the seeds. I like supporting local, but I was curious about whether it makes a difference where the seed comes from geographically. Most seed companies, even small, local farms like Turtle Tree, don’t really say from what breeders they get their seeds, so it’s a moot point. The important thing is that the seed companies have tested them in a climate similar to yours, to be sure they will grow where you live. Look for this information in the catalog or website of any seed company you are considering.

turtletree

The D. Landreth Seed Company of Philadelphia is the oldest seed house in the country. It’s exhilarating to read the 1899 poster commemorating 115 years in business, reproduced in their catalog. Yes, they were founded in 1784! I ordered the catalog when I read on Facebook that they were facing extinction and needed to raise funds to produce a catalog this year. I sent in my $5. The catalog is beautiful, with lots of graphics reproduced from old seed packets and posters. My only complaint is that the type is so small I cannot read a lot of it. Of note, they have an African American Heritage Collection.

landreth seeds

A note about genetically modified seeds (GMOs)—I’m told that GMOs, made by giants like Monsanto for crops such as corn, soy and cotton, are developed exclusively for the commercial market. No GMOs have been developed for the home-gardening market because it’s simply too small a market with no demand for them. Nevertheless, to ward off confusion among consumers, many seed companies have signed the “Safe Seed Pledge,” which promises they don’t buy or sell genetically modified seed. All the seed companies mentioned in this article and the list below have signed the pledge. One company noticeably absent from the “Safe Seed Pledge” list is Burpee. Like the other companies, Burpee promises they do not buy or sell GMOs, but perhaps because they are the industry leader they feel their customers will take them at their word. Burpee does buy some non-GMO gardening seed from Seminis, a subsidiary of Monsanto. (Read George Ball's views on GMOs and the truth about Burpee and Monsanto. Ball is the chairman and CEO of Burpee.)

Womanswork carries some supplies, such as plant labels for seedlings, in our online catalog. For help with planning your garden, see our flower Garden Wheels on GardenersHub.com, or our Vegetable Garden Wheel.

Below are links to other recommended seed companies from around the country:
www.territorialseed.com
www.burpee.com
www.selectseeds.com
www.johnnyseeds.com
www.nicholsgardennursery.com

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Dorian Winslow, the president of Womanswork, is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors.

Horticulture publishes the free weekly e-newsletter, "Smart Gardening Tips," and "The Curious Gardener," a free monthly e-newsletter with more tips and articles by Dorian. Subscribe to our e-newsletters.