Burpee's 2001 catalog of heirloom plants is a trip down memory lane. It's filled with reproductions of watercolors that graced earlier garden "wish books": Golden Bantam corn (1902), Brandywine tomato (1886), Crego's Giant Pink aster (1913), and Spencer sweet peas (discovered at Althorp, ancestral home of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1901).
Although the heirloom catalog is being issued as part of the company's 125th anniversary, it isn't simply an exercise in nostalgia. It's the result of several trends in home gardening. One is that old plants are new again. After decades of snapping up the latest hybrids, green thumbers are again turning to plants their ancestors grew: Dragon's Tongue Bush Wax bean, Big Rainbow tomato, and fragrant, ruffled Chalon Giants pansy.
But the 49-page throwback isn't Burpee's only offering this year. Gardeners on the company's mailing list (800-888-1447) will also receive a catalog touting the latest plants and garden accessories, just as customers of Wayside Gardens (800-213-0379) will find a glossy guide to roses in their mailboxes, besides the usual roster of shrubs, trees, and perennials.
This proliferation is a reaction to specialization in the garden field. Once home gardeners ordered all their seeds from one all-purpose catalog. Then firms specializing in one type of plant began sprouting faster than zinnia seeds on a warm June day.
If you're a fan of tomatoes or peppers, why settle for the dozen or so varieties available in a general garden catalog when Tomato Growers Supply Co. (www.tomatogrowers.com) and the Pepper Gal (954-537-5540) offer hundreds?
And the specialization isn't confined to vegetables. Gardeners can choose from catalogs that concentrate on flowers like dahlias, daylilies, peonies, hostas, and irises. The same is becoming true of roses. Get the latest hybrid teas from Jackson & Perkins (877-456-8800), fragrant Mme. Alfred Carriere from Heirloom Roses (www.heirloomroses.com), and big, blowsy English roses from David Austin's new US operation (www.davidaustinroses.com).
Color Farm (1604 W. Richway Drive, Albert Lea, MN 56007) sells nothing but coleus.
I thoroughly enjoy all of these catalogs. I put aside Christmas shopping to pore over the first ones to arrive. I pull my chair closer to the fireplace in January and chuckle over Tony Avent's latest exploits at Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com). By the time fall rolls around, the Etera catalog (www.etera.com) has become an indispensable reference, dog-eared and flagged with multicolored Post-It notes.
If you're interested in expanding your garden repertoire, you'll find a list of catalogs - which carry everything from berry bushes to water lilies and wildflowers to wisteria vines - at the Mailorder Gardening Association's website, www.mailordergardening.com, and 1,500 more at www.qnet.com/~johnsonj.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society