Planning a Garden with the Annual Seed Catalogue

Planning a garden and choosing vegetable varieties provided plenty of winter entertainment.

Sibling gathering illustration

These siblings always had an opinion about which seeds to order.

Illustration by Dennis Auth

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Winter is a mean season. It shoves us around with its icy winds, and when we retreat to the warmth of our homes, it taunts us by implying that we have let ourselves go soft. Winter is the season that’s most likely to bully us.

It seems winters lasted a lot longer when I was a kid compared to nowadays. In fact, I once endured a winter that lingered for nearly two years. Then again, time passes at a glacial pace when you’re a hyperactive boy trapped in a snowbound farmhouse.

In the old days, before the internet made everything instant, our rural mail carrier was a crucial link to the outside world. One of the most important things the mailman brought us when winter pounded on our windows was the annual garden seed catalog.

The seed catalog we received always landed in our mailbox at precisely the right moment. It would arrive late in the winter, when we had been besieged by the cold for so long that we forgot what live vegetation looked like.

My seven siblings and I would crowd around the glossy brochure, marveling over the shimmering ears of golden sweet corn and the shockingly scarlet strawberries. We secretly wondered if these things were even real. After months of nothing but stark whiteness, it was hard to believe that anything so luscious and colorful actually existed.

The catalog quickly became the center of our collective attention, and we began to voice opinions regarding which seeds we should order. We had loud discussions regarding the virtues of particular vegetable varieties and began to quote promotional material to make our points.

“I think that the Danvers Half Long has the perfect blend of flavor and tenderness!” one of my siblings might shout in the heat of such a discussion.

“Shows what you know!” another of my siblings would retort. “Everyone knows that the Tendersweet is easy to grow and is considered the tastiest on the market!”

“You kids be quiet!” Mom would interject. “Neither of you even likes carrots!”

The seed catalog became dog-eared and marked with smudged fingerprints. Its Technicolor photos of astonishingly perfect produce — cucumbers the size of a man’s arm and dewy tomatoes that were an impossible-to-resist shade of crimson — were our window to the exotic, far-away world of summertime.

Hoping to stop the vociferous debates amongst us kids, our parents would call a family meeting to decide what to order from the catalog. Its order form and the correct amount of cash and coin (counted several times by each of us) were carefully placed in an envelope and reverently placed in the mailbox.

Some weeks later, the mailman would bring us a package from the seed company. We would feverishly tear the box open and revel in its contents.

“Look at the packets of seed for these astoundingly round radishes!”

“You can almost taste this yummy, delicious summer squash!”

“Now if spring would just hurry up and get here!”

Winter would gradually retreat to its lair in the North. The soil would begin to warm, releasing the earthy aroma of trillions of bacteria feasting on dead organic matter. Dad would pick out a spot near the farmstead for our garden. He would then “volunteer” my two brothers and me into filling our manure spreader with the pungent dung from one of our calf pens. He would spread the smelly calf manure across our garden spot, then stand back and appraise the results with a critical eye.

“I think the garden could also use a dab of chicken manure,” Dad might pronounce. We boys would groan. Chicken manure was the worst of the worst, stink-wise. But Dad, our family’s maestro of manure, insisted that we scoop the coop so we could spread at least one load of super-smelly chicken manure onto the patch of land that would grow our food.

Once the garden was fertilized to his satisfaction, Dad would hook our John Deere A tractor onto his two-bottom plow and meticulously turn the soil of our plot. Hardly a speck of manure could be seen when he had finished plowing.

It was then up to us youngsters to rake the garden of the clods the moldboard had left behind. Some of these clods, we discovered, were just the right size to serve as dirt grenades. We might lob them in the general direction of a passing barn cat, making the requisite whistle and “kaboom” noises with our mouths as the startled feline scampered for cover.

When all was finally ready, the sacred seeds were ceremoniously brought out to the garden and planted in the rows we had laid out with sticks and baling twine. We would stand beside the garden and admire our handiwork, wondering how it would turn out, wishing that we were looking at fresh produce instead of a bare patch of dirt. Sadly, our garden lacked a fast-forward button.

Spring melted into summer, and we gradually lost interest in the garden. Watching vegetables grow became a low priority when more exciting options presented themselves. These included such things as filling jelly jars with June bugs captured by the porch light, or creating intricate water diversion projects in our driveway after a summer thunderstorm.

On the rare days we spent indoors, the parental admonishment, “You should burn up some of that energy by hoeing the garden!” sounded like punishment. Just a few months earlier, those same words would have been cause for jubilation.

As we whacked at the weeds, we might be heard grumbling, “Who ordered all these stupid cucumbers?” or “I know darn well what these carrots are growing in! Yuck!”

Autumn would arrive, and we would trade our unstructured farm life for the rigid regimen of school. A few flakes of snow would flutter from the sky, and we would know that our old tormenter had returned.

As winter snarled outside our windows, we took great comfort in the jars full of crimson tomatoes and golden sweet corn that had somehow made their way onto our pantry shelves.


Get a head start on spring planting by sowing before the snow is gone.


Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. He enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere A. Jerry’s new book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.