I have always loved the arrival of seed and garden catalog season beginning just after Christmas. (Didn’t you know it’s a separate season?) Nowadays some catalogs arrive in early December, and some companies have dispensed with paper catalogs both to save money and reduce paper consumption. Could there be a time they all go electronic? I hope not because to me and many others it is a cherished tradition. For the smaller “mom and pop” seed companies, (there are some great ones out there), the costs of production and mailing aren’t worth it.
I can’t wait to pour through the pages of descriptions, ogling over the perfect full color tomato photographs, rows and rows of impossible flowers, the new releases and their wondrous resistance to an army of plant diseases. I was first inspired by Burpee’s, probably the only seed catalog we received in our suburban New York home, with its enticing offer of hard cash for developing the first white marigold.
I imagine the flavors and the smells at harvest time, planning which old friends I will grow, which new ones I’ll sample, where they will live in the garden. I go over this planning and dreaming in my mind, expanding and contracting with myriad garden ideas, until finally at some point I settle in to some semblance of realism, and place a few orders. If I’m really rigorous I’ll see what seeds I’ve got from the last couple of years that can be planted this year or unbridled frivolity will find me ordering more than can fit into my small garden.
A few disclaimers: I have no interest in any seed company nor gain anything by promoting them. I do know or have talked to some of the people involved in these seed companies. Generally I prefer heirloom and open pollinated varieties and I also grow hybrids. I have ordered seed from most of these companies. While I have grown a couple of thousand varieties I am not familiar with everything in these seed catalogs. I have grown, harvested, processed, and sold seeds in the past.
I am not intending a comprehensive survey or review, and will try to cover some of the major “home” seed catalogs, and especially the heirloom and open pollinated print catalogs that I favor. As time allows I will review some on-line only sources.
I’m starting with a few non-glossy seed catalogs—catalogs that don’t have lots of full color photographs, and are, in theory somewhat more environmentally friendly because of this.
One of my favorite catalogs is The Redwood City Seed Company, Catalog of Ecoseeds, from Redwood City, CA. Everything they offer is open pollinated. While their list is not huge they have some very interesting varieties and a few of my favorites. Some of the varieties they offer are relatively common, such as Sugar Pie Pumpkin, Cherry Belle radishes and Bloomsdale spinach. Their selection of peppers, especially hot peppers is terrific and has become a specialty of theirs. Redwood features some rarities such as the wild Pequin or Tepin both of which need extremely long growing seasons and make great potted plants brought inside for the winter. They still carry one of my favorite hot peppers, Puya which I have grown for over 20 years and has great taste fresh and dried. If you are really into hot try the Scotch Bonnet Fatali—quite rare though more widely offered now--they’re so good they are sure to make you cry along with plenty of endorphins. If you have never grown it try Couve Tronchuda, one of my favorite Kales from Spain and Portugal. Can be initially slow growing in cool climates and not nearly as hardy as other kales. It’s a great plant with broad leaves and thick midribs, and sometimes prominent white veins. Quite tender for a kale and makes a great soup!
2011 is the one hundredth anniversary of the J.L. Hudson Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds. The company is originally from Michigan and now hailing for the last 38 years from La Jolla, CA. Most of the catalog is a large collection of common to quite rare plants from hardy to tender, ornamentals, herbs, medicinals, flowers, annuals and perennials alike. Some are easy to grow annuals, others require care and patience. Where else would you find 25 types of morning glories with an equal number of Salvias, and 19 tobaccos for ornament and inhalation? Yes they have number of excellent smoking tobaccos and they also sell the Sweet Scented White or Jasmine tobacco.
Their vegetable list while only 20% of the total catalog offers plenty of variety.
Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon, “the exploding melon” is white fleshed, thin skinned, and only possible to experience its delicious sweetness if you’ve grown it in your own backyard as they are highly prone to cracking. Their corn selection is mostly southwestern and includes the oddly primitive podcorn and Golden Bantam one of the great old time sweet corns, remarkably unsweet to modern tastes and remarkably delicious. The list continues with nice heirloom selections of melons including one they describe from India as Snap Melon which explodes when ripe, tomatoes, and some of everything else.
Next on my list is the Sand Hill Preservation Center catalog which represents a stupendous seed and poultry preservation effort by Glenn Drowns and family, resulting in one of the best catalogs of things rare and heirloom there is. The list of available day old chicks and eggs is phenomenal, close to 200 breeds. If you want rare breeds that are true to type these guys work really hard to get it right.
If their list of rare breeds is phenomenal I don’t know what you call their seed list. They are now certified organic for seed and a high percentage of what they grow originates on their farm, much of it hand pollinated or separated by isolation, a lot of the rest is grown nearby. A tremendous amount of work. The catalog offers hundreds of varieties, many of them offered by few if any other companies, so most are quite rare. They do offer some more common varieties, all of them open pollinated and untreated. Sand Hill deserves your support.
Their selection of corn is terrific, including dent, flint, flour, popcorn and sweet. Many of the dents are only suitable for hot long season locations and include Bloody Butcher, Cherokee Gourdseed, Hickory King, and Reid’s Yellow Dent. A variety of authentic Native American corns are represented including Mandan Red Flour, Mohawk Round Nose, Seneca Blue Bear Dance, New England corns such as Longfellow and Rhode Island White Cap. Many classic sweet corns are offered including Country Gentleman, Golden Bantam, Stowell’s Evergeen and Pease Crosby, one of the dominant canning corns in the later part of the 19th century. None of these are very sweet compared to our modern hybrids and if sweetness is what you want add a wee bit of sugar. The taste of corn though is powerful.
While there’s only 30 cucumber varieties, melons and watermelons total about 75 with a wide range of ripening. A few of my favorite watermelons are here including Will’s Sugar, Sweet Siberian, both Oscar Will varieties, C.S. White Flesh and Cole’s Early, a late 19th century introduction. The squash list is just as stunning --the varieties too numerous to do them justice here and includes such maxima rarities (some not available this year) as Boston Marrow, Arikara, Golden Hubbard, Quality, and Essex Turban. The list goes on….
FEDCO is a unique seed company because it is a worker owned cooperative and sells seeds in multiple sized seed packets great for the small home gardener, and for the farmer. They make no pretense that they are selling only open pollinate or heirloom seeds, rather supply a wide choice of seeds suitable for a variety of needs keeping both commercial growers and gardeners in mind with lots of organic seed choices. They are adamantly opposed to genetically modified seeds There’s lots of great information and old time illustrations in the catalog. They also sell potatoes as a separate order, trees, shrubs and other plants, fall bulbs, supplies and books. While a Maine company with emphasis on varieties for the north, they offer plenty for most of the country and some rare varieties that would only do well in warmer climates
Many open pollinated varieties, both new and old are featured including many of Frank Morton’s new introductions, or for example Ice-Bred Arugala, a recent cold hardy introduction, that does seem a bit tougher than its competitors, although plenty of mine did not over winter as advertised. They carry a wide range of squashes including rarities such as Sibley, collected from Winnebago Indians and introduced by Hiram Sibley of the Massachusetts based Marblehead Seed Company in 1887. Other great squashes offered are Lower Salmon River, Winter Luxury Pie, Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert, an excellent buttercup selection, Paydon, and Seminole a rare variety cultivated by the Seminole Indians in Florida, requiring a very long season.
Other interesting selections include collards Cascade, a reselection of the Heirloom Green Glaze, and variegated Florida Family heirloom. Lettuces abound in every size shape and color with a mix of heirlooms , older varieties and more recent introductions. Two of my favorite old time melons are here, Jenny Lind, named for the famous Swedish Nightingale in the 19th century, and Rocky Ford--just don’t pick them overripe.
There’s plenty of tomato selection too. FEDCO's list goes on and on. While I ‘d like to see an even greater emphasis on heirlooms they have cherry picked some of the best ones out there, which offers growers opportunities to eat, sell and promote heirlooms while keeping some every rare varieties going because of commercial demand. Their prices are excellent and they provide a lot of accessibility for a wide range of garden needs.
You can’t patronize every seed company, and please keep in mind when you buy the rare heirlooms you are creating an economic demand which is one form of conservation.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening Arts. He's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on Google+.