January is National Mailorder Gardening Month, and the mailboxes of gardeners will soon be stuffed with tomatoes and melons, peas and perennials.
Although most of these catalogs are photographic wonders, few will have the graceful and historic beauty of the catalog the D. Landreth Seed Co. has produced to celebrate 225 years of teaching people how to garden.
"Starting in the 1840s, the Landreths educated Americans about gardening - and about more than gardening," said owner Barbara Melera. "With this catalog, we've come full circle. There is a real need to educate a new generation about gardening. That's part of the purpose of this catalog."
In researching this historical treasure, Melera learned that everybody who was anybody in American seed trade spent a year's apprenticeship at Landreth, beginning in the 1790s and including members of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Every president from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt had been a customer.
In the 1840s, David Landreth Jr. realized that Americans moving west would have to live off the land, and they would need more than a list of seeds to purchase. So his catalog became a kind of almanac/newspaper/gardening manual, and included such information as the names and salaries of elected officials, capital cities, the countries on the continent and scientific discoveries.
"All the information that a responsible citizen should know if he was going to be a responsible gardener or farmer," said Melera.
This catalog, which took more than a year to assemble, is the result of seven years of study by Melera of the company archives. "I was so taken by the charm and the relevance of what I found that I would store it in the back of my head. Just for me, I think."
Much of that research has now found a home in the 2010 catalog, including old photos, seed lists and even a "sports story" printed in a local paper about the outfielder who lost a ball in a field of Landreth onions and fired home one of the onions instead. The umpire never knew the difference as he called the runner out.
The catalog also includes a list of heirloom seeds available today for food grown by slaves, including varieties that were brought to this country from Africa or the Caribbean, probably by slave traders who had a financial stake in feeding their slaves.
The research for this list of 34 vegetables, grains and herbs was conducted by food historian Michael Twitty, much of it on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It is accompanied by a print of a restored oil painting commissioned by Landreth in 1909 of an African-American woman, post-slavery, peeling vegetables.
For generations, Landreth had a Baltimore location. But the oldest seed company in the country had been reduced to a warehouse on North Point Road in East Baltimore when break-ins and vandalism forced Melera, a Dulaney Valley High and MIT graduate, to move the company to New Freedom, Pa. There she has used her interests in both gardening and history to revive the company's heirloom seed lines.
The 70-page catalog, which features the cover of the 1884 centennial edition, is available online at landrethseeds.com or by calling 800-654-2407. Production costs have escalated so that this is the last year the catalog will be free, Melera said.
It is truly a collector's item.