For more than three months, my mailbox has been filled with seed catalogs. The first one arrived before Thanksgiving, and some companies have even sent follow-up catalogs, hoping to make my elusive order materialize.
When I first started gardening, I bought a lot more seeds from catalogs than I do now. Twenty years ago, local garden retailers had a painfully limited selection of seeds and plants. If I wanted anything the least bit out of the ordinary, I had to order the seeds and start them myself. Now the greenhouses, at least those that cater to serious gardeners, have expanded their inventories of vegetable seeds and plants.
Happily, it is now possible to harvest something other than a Rutgers tomato or a Blue Lake green bean without receiving a mail-order shipment.
For exotic vegetables and traditional varieties in less demand, catalog shopping is still a necessity. Seeds for many Asian, European and Latin American varieties of herbs and vegetables also are hard to find anywhere but in a catalog.
Even at good local greenhouses, the inventory of plants might contain just two dozen varieties of tomatoes, three or four basils, and so forth. For gardeners who want to stretch their horizons, growing plants from catalog seeds is still the most reasonable option.
Catalogs also are a window onto the gardener's world. They are a source of information about new varieties and disease resistance, planting strategies and gardening equipment. To keep them coming for that reason, it's good to place an order every now and then.
But clearly the improvements in on-ground retailing have had an impact on the catalog companies. I now see such aggressive promotions as the $25-off-the-order specials that Gurney's and Henry Field's offered to customers who did their catalog seed shopping early. The cover of a later Gurney's catalog announces sale prices on 100 vegetable varieties, most of them heavy sellers, such as Green Goliath broccoli and Clemson Spineless okra.
Other seed catalogs are expanding their inventory of live plants. Territorial Seed Co., which I have recommended as a good source for exotic garlic, has entered the live-plant market very aggressively. This year's catalog features nearly 150 varieties of herb and vegetable plants - some common, some not.
Shipping is an issue to consider when buying live plants through a catalog retailer. Territorial's vegetable plants are $2.95 each, and herbs range in price from $3.95 to $6.95. These prices are steep to begin with, at least by Kansas standards, but then you must add on the cost of shipping. The per-plant shipping rate, which declines as the bulk increases, ranges from $9.95 to 82 cents. But you have to order 54 plants to get the lowest rate.
Territorial is a reputable company with a "perfect delivery" guarantee, so you are unlikely to lose money if the plants don't arrive in good shape, but the overall cost will bust the budget of any gardener who hasn't hit the lottery jackpot.
Ultimately, this competition between catalog and on-ground retailers will be good for gardeners. It already has expanded the inventories available locally and, I predict, eventually will force down the price of mail-order plants. Maybe 20 years from now someone will write a column about how cost-effective it is to have vegetable plants shipped to the front door.
But for now, anyone who would place a mail order for a common, locally available vegetable plant, such as a California Wonder green pepper featured by Territorial, might as well be using dollar bills for mulch.