From Winter Planning Comes Summer Bounty

Catalogs are far more than sales tools; they prime gardeners for work in the soil

Like birds returning to roost, seed and garden catalogs drop into our mailboxes at a rapid clip this time of year. It's an annual rite of winter as gardeners and the seed industry gear up for spring.

Bright and colorful for the most part, filled with the promise of summer abundance, these catalogs offer a wide variety of seeds, plants, and tools not readily available at retail centers.

But catalogs are infinitely more than just sales tools. They are mines of information, and the gardener who goes prospecting through their pages will come up with a wealth of ideas and advice for use in planning and planting a garden.

Nationwide, there are close to 500 seed and garden mail-order companies all wanting your business. But before you can order from them, you have to get the catalogs. Garden magazines in libraries and bookstores contain advertisements for seed-catalog companies.

Once the catalogs have arrived, go to the kitchen table, desk, or wherever else you feel comfortable, and flip through them. Start by reading the company president's letter, then the table of contents and other announcements to learn what's new. Every catalog has its own personality and it generally shows up here.

Also note the catalog's symbols, the little signs indicating whether plants are sun or shade lovers, drought tolerant, frost tolerant, suited to container plantings, and those varieties deemed easy for newcomers to grow.

If growing instructions are important to you, make a note of how the catalog treats these entries. Maine-based Johnny's Selected Seeds (207-437-4301) was one of the first companies to include extensive growing instructions in its catalog, and many others have since followed suit. Johnny's "culture" comments, printed on a pale green background, stand out clearly.

Most seed companies list new or outstanding varieties in the front of the catalog. This lends excitement to the browsing, but a touch of hype can accompany these entries. But if an entry says, "possibly the best cucumber you have ever tasted," you can expect a good-tasting variety. On the other hand, if a catalog warns that a plant is "invasive" and may take over a bed if not carefully tended, accept that as fact.

Paradoxically, while surveys indicate that a majority of gardeners grow ornamentals, the bulk of mail-order seed catalogs specialize in vegetables with only a nod or two to flowers. Exceptions are the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company (800-888-1447), Parks Seeds (864-223-7333), and Thompson and Morgan (800-274-7333). The latter, which offers by far the greatest number of varieties in its catalog, has twice been featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Another company with a large section on flowers is the 140-year-old Ferry-Morse Seeds (800-283-3400), a major supplier to the retail seed-rack market, which is now returning to mail-order marketing after a 40-year absence.

The Cook's Garden (802-824-3400), now in its 16th year, began life as a market garden supplying gourmet vegetables to restaurants and private customers. So many people began asking owners Ellen and Shepherd Ogden where they could find seeds of the crops they sold, that they went into the seed business. Succulent salad greens were, and still are, a speciality of Cook's but a whole range of edibles, including edible flowers, along with ornamentals, are now features of the catalog.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds (860-482-3638), one of the few companies founded by a woman, also concentrates on gourmet-type varieties. Along with extensive growing advice, Renee Shepherd includes a dozen recipes for the vegetables you might grow.

One of the most informative catalogs is put out by White Flower Farm (800-411-6159). The company ships plants throughout North America and even overseas and calls its catalog "The Garden Book" - rightly so, given the amount of information it contains. All plants are listed under the botanical name, followed by the common name.

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