Archive for Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Catalogs plant seeds of hope for gardeners

January 16, 2002


Now that we gardeners have our seed catalogs piled before us, a word about how to use them efficiently and economically is in order.

As someone who has gone off the deep end more than once and ordered enough vegetable seeds to plant a quarter section, I speak from the wisdom that comes from doing something absurd, then doing it a few more times, and finally realizing that it was, well, absurd. I now know better.

The allure of seed catalogs, as well as the danger that lurks within them, is the sense of immense possibility that they engender in their readers. After a winter evening of browsing catalogs filled with photos of perfect veggies, we impressionable gardeners want to plant it all. Reading seed catalogs is an empowering experience that can convince the lowliest patio gardener that he can feed the planet.

Egging us on are sexy descriptions of a cucumber's crisp flesh and thin, tender skin, or an ear of corn bursting with creamy, mouth-watering golden kernels. I often wonder if the people who get paid to write such stuff, who must be compensated by the adjective, aren't doubled over in their office cubicles in hysterics.

Indecision about which varieties to order can be resolved by ordering several varieties of the same vegetable. This can be good if the gardener exercises self-restraint and only orders a couple of varieties for the purpose of prudent experimentation; bad if the gardener orders all the varieties in the catalog and the vegetable in question is Brussels sprouts. Remember, you have to be able to give away what you can't use, can or freeze.

The best way I have found to avoid overbuying is to map out my garden on paper and to buy seeds for specific locations in the garden. If it won't fit on the map, I don't buy it. Usually.

Seed catalogs do provide a valuable service both for their customers and for gardeners who buy nothing from them, and I have trouble imagining a gardening life without them. Packed within their pages is an elaborate inventory of growable vegetables with descriptions that include very optimistic growing times, details about growing habit and disease resistance. Through side-by-side comparisons of catalogs the thrifty gardener can determine what seeds should cost in various volumes.

For those who never buy from catalogs, the information they contain can be helpful in buying seeds or plants from a local retailer. Several catalog companies have seed racks in most garden stores, Burpee and Shepherd's being just two. For those who do place orders, studying the catalogs can pay off in savings, particularly because many varieties of vegetable seed are sold by more than one catalog company.

Some catalog companies simply charge more for their seeds, while some others with seemingly higher prices give you more seeds for more money. Seeds are relatively cheap to produce, so this makes sense from the perspective of profit. However, most home gardeners do not need as many seeds as they receive. An envelope might contain hundreds of seeds, depending on the size of the seed and type of vegetable, the majority of which will go to waste.

At least two catalog companies offer smaller portions and price accordingly. Pinetree Garden Seeds (207-926-3400; prices many of its seed packets under $1 and tells you exactly how many seeds you will get. Territorial Seed Co. (541-942-9547; features a sampler size envelope, which is smaller than a regular packet but still provides a reasonable quantity.

My only gripe with Territorial is that its quantity information is meaningless to the average gardener. A sampler packet of broccoli seed, for example, weighs 1/2 gram, while a full packet weighs 4 grams. That tells me nothing about how far the tiny, round seeds will go, and if I am concerned about having enough, I have to call the company for more specific information.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University.

Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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