Garden catalogs reviewed for you
Charles Gurney, a Civil War veteran, opened his first seedhouse in 1866 (Victory Horticultural Library, firstname.lastname@example.org). Forty years later, Charles, his seven sons, and a nephew incorporated as Gurney Seed and Nursery Company. I started reading the “Gurney Catalog” from cover to cover in 1969. Not counting a failed attempt to start carnations from seed, that was the year I started gardening.
Early on, I didn’t buy seeds from catalogs, but the Gurney Catalog had other uses. It was kind of inspiring. “Make Your Own Brooms!” “Grow 50# Pumpkins!” “ Impress Your Neighbors.” And it was a fertile source of material for valentines. You could, of course, just paste a construction paper heart on a doily and add a few flower pictures from the catalog. Or you could do rebuses with words like peas and bee. But best of all was the potential for making racy valentines. Each picture in the catalog had a small white rectangle on it containing a short description of the plant. E.g., “Plump and Juicy,” “Gets Sweeter in Storage,” “Low Growing Beauty,” “Look at the Size of Those Ears!” Imagine a valentine with a picture of the recipient surrounded by Gurney descriptors. Whoa!
Unfortunately, the white rectangles are gone. Time to move from art to science. I’m inclined to order seed grown in places with short growing seasons, but I’d look to Gurney’s for a dwarf pineapple. And the catalog does inspire young gardeners; there are large, enticing pictures of the three vegetables they like - peas, corn, and carrots.
Gurney’s identifies hybrids, sells neither genetically modified nor organic seed, and does not use scientific names.
“Heart of the Highlands” is local; it’s 10 miles S.E. of Tonasket at 2600 feet. Buying local is, of course, good for our local economy. And buying seed grown locally is good for our gardens as well. Genetically, even plants of the same species are surprisingly diverse and have great potential to adapt to their environments. When the farmers at Heart of the Highlands plant a variety of open-pollinated lettuce and let it go to seed, (assuming that there is no opportunity for it to cross with other lettuce varieties) the seed they harvest produces a plant that is better adapted to their garden (and yours) than the original seed. This process begins the first season and continues as long as the variety is maintained. Magic. Some of the seed from Heart of the Highlands has been grown in Eastern Washington since 1972. Think how well adjusted those seeds and the plants they produce will be.
Heart of the Highlands seed is both open-pollinated and uncertified organic. Seed will be available at the Aeneas Valley Store, Baker’s Acres in Tonasket, Tonasket Natural Foods, The Main Street Market in Omak, and, I think, the Twisp Farmer’s Market and the Glover Street Market in Twisp.
“Irish Eyes Garden Seeds” specializes in seed potatoes. This year they’re offering forty-two varieties, all of them organic. I’m planning to grow their fingerling potatoes; they’re firm and ”waxy” which makes them great in potato salads. Irish Eyes also carries a good selection of short season vegetables including four kinds of Chinese cabbage (Make your own kim chee!) and “Kabuli Black” garbanzo beans. The beans originated in Kabul, Afghanistan and were recently released by WSU.
Nearly all of Irish Eyes’ offerings are open-pollinated, organic, and produced at their Ellensburg nursery. Their catalog is a great source of information on growing potatoes in our area.
“Territorial Seed Company” has a generous seed collection. I counted 77 varieties of tomatoes. Seventy-seven tomato varieties is not too many. Tomatoes come in many colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. It’s never too late to become a tomato snob. Or grow green tea. (Bet you didn’t know that tea plants are camellias.) Territorial carries “Camellia sinensis” which is hardy to zone seven, but you can put it in a pot and bring it inside before it freezes. The flowers are single and white. Lovely.
Territorial uses Latin names throughout their catalog. Why Latin names? Because many plants have several common names and this can be confusing. Because knowing what you’re buying may save you from getting a noxious weed. And because Latin names are descriptive and sometimes fun - e.g., quaking aspen is “Populus tremuloides.” Territorial carries open-pollinated and organic seed and provides good cultural information. They trial and evaluate all the seed varieties in their catalog.
If you’re looking for gardening tools and supplies, (or just like to read about them) note that Territorial is well supplied.
“Pinetree Garden Seeds and Accessories” carries a good selection of seed. They sell seeds in small amounts; this is nice for gardeners who like to experiment. Pinetree includes the Latin names for herbs and flowers, identifies open-pollinated seed, and provides cultural information. They trial, but do not grow their own seed.
“Johnny’s Selected Seeds” is a large company that supplies seed to both home gardeners and commercial growers. Johnny’s is the place to go if you want five pounds of arugula seed and would like to know what vegetable varieties are currently appreciated at farmer’s markets. Browse the catalog to get an idea of what’s readily available in the world of vegetable seed and to learn about the concerns of commercial growers.
Johnny’s supplies ample growing information and provides the Latin name for many of the seeds they sell. They carry a selection of open-pollinated seed and some of their seed is organic. The company has a large breeding and trial program; they consistently offer new vegetable varieties. I would like to try “Salanova,” a lettuce that has “baby” leaf lettuce on full sized heads, and comes in a variety of shapes and colors. And those who would like to do less tilling (a good idea!) might consider the broadfork on page 188.
“Fedco Seeds” publishes a unique catalog. Reading it is like reading a thoughtful and entertaining book. The cultural information rivals Johnny’s, and the seed selection is nearly as large. The catalog is rowdy, political, and funny. (Imagine a description of a book about foraging edible plants, illustrated with a picture of a pig trying to climb a tree.) And C.R. Lawn, who writes seed copy, occasionally mentions the shortcomings of various seeds and plants; for example, he describes a bean as “slow-growing and finicky” as well as delicious.
Like Johnny’s, Fedco is a good source of seed for both home gardeners and commercial growers. Most Fedco seed comes from families and small companies. Every plant or seed description in the catalog includes the Latin name. Fedco provides hardiness information when necessary, identifies open-pollinated seed, and offers organic options.
I’ve ordered seeds from all of the catalogs I’ve reviewed, and I have few complaints. It is certainly greener to peruse catalogs online than it is to get them by mail, but this is an option that many gardeners don’t enjoy very much. We like to read catalogs by the fire with a cup of tea, and we like to read them in the bathtub. And because they inspire hope and tranquility, many of us find them soothing, and like to read them in bed.
May your 2013 garden be pretty good!