Why I Keep Coming Back to Seed Catalogs - Modern Farmer

Why I Keep Coming Back to Seed Catalogs

In the cold winter months, poring over seed catalogs gives me the promise of spring.

Photography by Shutterstock

In the middle of the unforgiving Canadian winter, there’s one thing that brings me spring-like cheer: seed catalogs. 

I’ve been a seed catalog enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a child growing up on Cape Breton Island along Canada’s east coast, it felt luxurious that a company would send you a thick, glossy catalog (for free!) and I treasured my time poring over the colorful pages. The cheerful plant names, such as “Easter Egg Radishes” and “Candy Cane Peppers,” were intoxicating and heartening. I’ve kept up my catalog devotion ever since. 

I track my ideas in a gardening notebook that I’ve had for nearly twenty years (compete with grid paper to plan out my plots, row by row). When I’m feeling ambitious, I break out my online spreadsheets. Catalog pages get torn up and pasted in my notebook and I send photos to friends asking for their opinion. Sure, last year’s rose bushes didn’t make it and there’s serious evidence that I’m destined to never grow potatoes. I’m in a never-ending battle with rabbits, Japanese beetles and a family of voles obsessed with my strawberry patch. My weeding skills are abysmal. But the catalog doesn’t know any of that. 

I’m not alone in my passion; for catalog devotees, the planning matters as much as the planting. “I wish I had room to grow all the things [I see in the catalog]. I get inspired to try new varieties each season,” says Tracy Noble-Botting, a home gardener in Ottawa, ON. Even for home gardeners in warmer climates, such as Gray Chapman, in Atlanta, GA, catalogs still offer a respite from a dreary winter. “Flipping through a thick catalog of heirloom flowers and veggies is a lovely antidote [to the gray weather],” Chapman writes in an email. “It’s not just the obvious pleasure of seeing all that color, either; it’s imagining all the possibilities in my own garden and getting excited about the promise of what could be.” 

For Samantha Nobel-Black, a writer, chicken-keeper and home gardener in Piedmont, CA, seed catalogs are nearly recipe books, in a less structured format. That inspiration brings delicious results. “Seed catalogs inspire me to cook with things I would never have tasted otherwise, like unusual heirloom peppers or rare Asian greens I can’t buy at the market. They open up a new world of culinary exploration and possibility.”

For home gardeners, nothing’s cozier than a winter night dedicated to vigorous garden planning. Emily Tregunno, co-owner of Halifax Seed, knows how hobby gardeners feel. “On a stormy, winter day, there is nothing quite like making a hot cup of coffee or tea and flipping through pages of garden seed varieties dreaming of what rewards you would like to reap from your garden next season,” Tregunno said via email. 

She notes that gardening is a tactile hobby and enthusiasts love getting their hands dirty as they nurture plants through to the harvest season. Perhaps there’s a link between our love of flipping pages and our yen for scratching in the soil. No wonder we can’t resist writing all over the catalogs as soon as they arrive. Alex Chesney, a farmer with Thames River Melons in Inverkip, ON, looks forward to sharing some quality garden planning time with her family each winter. “The process of circling new varietals, adding in sticky notes, turning down corners of pages and passing them back and forth to show a new discovery—it’s a ritual that we look forward to every winter.” 

Chesney says there’s a practical side to the process as well. The information presented in seed catalogs helps her plan springtime operations, as “the characteristics of different varieties—things like number of growing days, drought tolerance, disease and pest concerns—are very reliable.”

John Barrett, director of sales, marketing and development for Veseys Seeds Ltd in York, PEI, keeps that in mind when designing catalogs. He notes that, for example, a two-page spread can showcase 14 different varieties of carrots, easily allowing the customer to compare prices, maturity dates and growing conditions. While my own gardening efforts are amateurish compared to Chesney’s operations, I love that the catalogs speak to me as much as they do the pros. The engaging, encouraging format makes me feel that I’m as much a part of the gardening community as anyone else. It’s reassuring that gardeners of all levels need help like me. 

Megy Karydes, a Chicago urban gardener, says seed catalogs are a tremendous resource for those who are tackling new projects.“[There is] great information on how to grow the seed, when to transplant, how to store your harvest of a particular crop. Want to grow eggplants? It shows a great visual with more than a dozen varieties by size, shape, color and more so you can choose which one you want to grow.”

While many companies have phased out catalogs, there is a sense of heritage in the tomes. Tregunno says that catalogs have remained a constant over the decades she’s been in business. “To be able to look back to catalogs from the 1920s and through the wartime years helps us to not lose touch of our own history.” 

Most importantly, catalogs are a way to communicate with customers. Barrett reports that 83% of Veseys’ orders come in through the internet. The days of using the old-fashioned order sheet are mostly gone. However, the majority of his customers who are ordering online are using the printed catalog to organize and compile their orders and simply go online for the final step. Barrett tracks the success of Veseys’ catalog program using methods such as monitoring customer feedback and implementing catalog-exclusive discount codes.

“At the height of winter, the catalog offers the promise of spring,” says Barrett. As I examine the gorgeous photos of tomatoes, pansies and asters, I know it doesn’t matter how many seedlings are alive come June or how many zucchinis I harvest in August. I know that there’s plenty of beauty amid the bleak winter and that inspiration is just a catalog away.”

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1 year ago

I love the catalogs too. I find them a great touch point year after year.