Archive for Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Catalog promises often go to seed

January 23, 2002


Last week, as I was making some general observations about the usefulness and pitfalls of seed catalogs, I touched a bit on the marketing strategies that catalog companies employ to get us to buy our seeds from them. I barely scratched the surface. As astute consumers of gardening merchandise, we need to be able to cut through the hype.

Every winter the catalogs show us what's new out there in seed land. It's sort of like a fashion show of the season's new styles, as if trendiness were a concern of the average vegetable gardener. Usually the new arrivals are plumper, more disease-resistant tomatoes, a cuke or squash that grows up instead of out, or a bean that can be harvested in record time.

Vegetable seed gimmicks are nothing new, however. A perennial novelty item, which appears in folksier seed catalogs, is the jack-o'-lantern pumpkin that grows so large that it dwarfs the child posing next to it and, we suppose, could sink a Volkswagen. This pumpkin is never photographed on anyone's front porch, probably because it would require a front loader or a football team to get it there.

Seeds bred to grow BIG vegetables play on the blue-ribbon aspirations of the county-fair set, as well as the desire of every gardener to grow vegetables that are somehow more distinguished than those on the other side of the neighbor's fence. Besides, in a culture where bigger is better and might is right, dinky, normal-size veggies are boring.

Enter such purported lunkers as the Park Whopper series of seeds (800-845-3369,, which covers the nightshades (tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplant), and the Goliath tomato seeds sold by Totally Tomatoes (803-663-0016, Other seed companies have their variations on the theme.

Over the years I have grown Whopper and Goliath seeds, and with good result. But I can't honestly say that the tomatoes I got were more noteworthy than beefsteak tomatoes that came with less hype. Although genetics determine what a vegetable will look like and set the parameters for size, what really makes or breaks a vegetable crop are watering, weeding, soil quality, feeding, bugs and disease.

Seed catalogs, which make a bumper harvest seem like a foregone conclusion, also can lull less-experienced gardeners into buying seeds they aren't prepared to use. Unless you are going to start seeds in a greenhouse or under lights in very early spring, there's no reason to buy any seeds but those that can be directly planted in garden soil. As a practical matter, that eliminates just about everything but carrots, corn, beans, cucumbers, okra, squash, turnips, greens and some herbs.

Cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) and the nightshades should be grown from starts. Although these vegetables will indeed grow from direct-seeding in this climate, they will be late and the yields will be disappointing. If you can't grow your own starts, it's best to buy plants for these vegetables from a local greenhouse, which also will select varieties that grow best in Kansas.

Many catalog companies market live plants, particularly nightshades, which they will ship to your door. What they are selling is convenience saving you a trip across town to a greenhouse, and sometimes offering variety you can't get locally.

For example, Shepherd's Garden Seeds (860-482-3638, prices three starts of tomatoes, peppers or eggplant at $11.95, which is steep. Live plants in other catalogs are less expensive but still don't come close to the less than $3 you'll pay locally for three plants. Shepherd's built its reputation on gourmet and international vegetables, and you won't find the same varieties in the greenhouse. That's part of what you're paying for.

Live vegetable plants can be purchased reliably through the mail, now that shipping processes are fast and efficient, so the risk is limited. When the plants do fail, reputable companies are quick to replace plants or refund your money.

However, even in the best of circumstances you give up a certain amount of control over when you receive the plants as companies ship when they are less likely to lose plants to cold weather. In the case of Shepherd's, shipments to agricultural Zone 5, which is where we are, are scheduled for mid-May to early June. The very front end of that range would be OK, but the end of May would be too late.

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

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