The Great Seed and Nursery Catalogue Challenge
They begin to appear sporadically toward the end of the year and increase in volume until a crescendo is reached sometime in January. Most are filled with glossy pictures of perfect, blemish-free mature fruits and vegetables the appearance of which the majority of us are not quite able to match. I have harvested very few tomatoes that even approached the air-brushed(?) quality (not that that was ever my goal) portrayed in the catalogues, and at least half my green beans have more curl to them than any I've seen pictured. However, I still read most of the dozens and dozens of catalogues I receive, and quite a few, the more interesting and mysterious, I read from cover to cover, like a T. C. Boyle novel one simply cannot put down until the end.
But, to quote John Walsh, a little out of context perhaps, time grows short and the water rises as one ages, and the frivolity and indulgences lavished by youth on even the mundane is gradually replaced by a sterner contemplation of priorities and actualities.
Twenty, thirty, forty years ago there were very few 'specialty' nurseries or seed companies that I was aware of, and catalogues from the large commercial nurseries were all that were available. Many of these companies are still very much alive, and hopefully will be for the foreseeable future, for they fill a very big niche, and offer more than enough varieties for the majority of gardeners, but, not necessarily enough for those who have evolved beyond the larva stage. As gardeners enter the pupa stage we begin to know and use, or pretend to know, the latin names of many of our garden plants, and talk of unique species, sub-species, cultivars and varieties and comment on their distinct qualities. For us the catalogues from Burpee, Parks, Gurney, Shumway's, and a host of others have grown thin and weak and we seek seeds and plants not offered by even the largest commercial seed houses. Even Chiltern or Thompson & Morgan, good as they are, offers a limited selection, albeit they are a step or two ahead of those cultivating a mass audience. I suppose there just isn't the demand for a more varied menu.
Now, in the early seventies, when we first moved onto our property, I purchased many seeds and plants from Gurney, Burpee, and Parks and a handful of other highly visible companies, and I was thankful for their presence and what they had to offer, and I was always satisfied with their products. Their offerings are still sufficient for the occasional gardener, as are the plants and seeds available at retail giants such as Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's, etc. But, if one becomes seriously serious about gardening, now more of a horticultural pursuit than simply filling a few areas with bedding plants for the summer, then a little more is required.
Today there are nationally distributed catalogues that offer a much wider range of species and varieties, some often concentrating on one or two genera. I'm thinking of catalogues/nurseries such as Totally Tomatoes, Territorial, Johnny's, or Kitazawa (Asian vegetables), . But still, these invariably carry predominantly, if not exclusively, only those genera and species generally available, albeit some of their selections are less familiar to us, but most likely you will find few if any Androsaces, Moreias, or Ypsilandras advertised.
Eventually even the most ambitious gardeners must realize they have neither sufficient space, time, money, soil, accommodating climatic conditions, or any combination of the above to grow everything they would like. That is the golden moment the hopelessly smitten gardener/horticulturalist/plantsman-plantswoman begins to narrow his or her focus and turns toward a particular type or style of garden - Rose, Heather, Conifer, Alpine, Bog, Xeriscape, Rhododendron, etc., or to focus on a particular class of plants.
It took me about fifty years to reach that point and for the past five years or so the majority of my seed and plant purchases are from the various societies that focus on a particular Genus or gardening interest. Their seed exchanges are well worth the annual membership fee, and the other resources available through membership are without parallel, not to mention the camaraderie of belonging to a group that shares many of your own interests. I belong to the American Rhododendron Society, American Primrose Society, Pacific Bulb Society, North American Rock Garden Society, Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, American Penstemon Society, and the American Conifer Society. If I could find a few more dollars I would join two or three others, particularly the Scottish Rock Garden Club.
Another phenomena that seems to be growing is the sale of seeds from individuals and small companies via the internet. I've had a few problems with such purchases i.e. wrong seed, sterile seed but such offerings have definitely broadened the breadth of what seed is available. Regionally there are many dozens, if not hundreds of unique, one or two person nurseries or seed companies that offer many difficult to find varieties the larger establishments can't afford to carry. They don't usually offer catalogues except on line but are almost always worth the search.
I still buy many packets of seed locally, 'off the rack', or from any of the previously mentioned main-line catalogues, but these are mostly annual bedding plants, Marigolds, Zinnias, Stock, Snapdragon, etc., or main-crop vegetables. Although I grow some of the newer varieties of vegetables each year, the Red Cored Chantenay, or Danvers Half Long carrot, Detroit Dark Red beet, Cherry Belle radish, Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake pole or bush beans, and any of several readily available lettuce varieties are still my mainstay, and seed is available anywhere.
Catalogues, the kind printed on paper, may they continue, and may they flourish and multiply. If only there were more like Heronswood, now sadly deceased.