Seed catalogs are the new robins

First sign of spring arriving in mailboxes

February 04, 2013|Susan Reimer

If the Super Bowl is over, can spring and the gardening season be far away?

Well, yes. If holidays are the markers on the highway to warm weather, we still have to get through Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and this year's early Easter. Not to mention an unexpected snowstorm or two.

But the inveterate gardener is sustained during this time of year by catalogs. Lots of catalogs, which start arriving just after Christmas, covers bursting with gorgeous tomatoes or dahlias or foxglove or peppers.

Their arrival is quite practical. Gardeners need time to review last season's plans, tweak them and then order the seeds or plant material to begin again. By March, those seeds should be planted in tiny peat cups under grow lights on shelves in a room with a stable temperature (though the spinach and lettuces can be sown straight into the garden by that time).

Garden catalogs help us daydream about the harvest those little seeds will produce.

Margaret Roach, the author behind the blog "A Way to Garden" and two books about her retreat from New York City to her cottage upstate, has rules for ordering seeds. How many plants can fit into whatever sunny space she has? How many seeds are left over from last spring? And, most important, what is worthy of her garden space?

She stopped making space for eggplant, she says in a video on her blog, because she only eats one a month. She saves the room for canning tomatoes, of which she plants more than a dozen. She also saves space for vegetables or herbs that are scarce or precious, relying on the farmers market for the common staples.

That's me. The woman visiting the farmers market, I mean, to purchase what I need for that week. The markets can be found in winter now — in the parking garage at the mall in my neighborhood — so it is possible to buy local and buy seasonal all year long.

The farmers need people like me buying from them each week if they are going to survive. And I don't have the time to baby racks of seedlings in my basement, monitoring moisture, temperature and guarding against wilt. Besides, my husband, who saw his trains crowded out of that open space during our years of accumulation, would have a fit if I suddenly took up more room for indoor gardening.

But that doesn't stop me from daydreaming. "John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds," with its lovely little line drawings, is one of my favorites for vegetables. So is "The Cooks Garden," with its beautiful photographs and endless variety. Purple carrots, purple strawberries, brown cucumbers and ruby-colored lettuces. I cook with Swiss chard now because of the way the Bright Lights and Red Magic varieties look on the page, as colorful as a child's box of crayons.

These same pictures make me think that I want to grow berries or plant a small fruit tree. Do you know you can now grow corn in a pot on your deck?

My real weakness is for perennials and annuals. You can grow those from seeds, too, such as coneflower or black-eyed Susan. But you have to be patient. They take a long time to blossom — some not until the following summer. But considering how costly a mature plant can be, it is tempting.

David M. Tucker's history of domestic food growing, "Kitchen Gardening in America," records the first seeds in paper packets in about 1790, and the first catalog appeared just six years later.

He writes that catalogs became more popular after the Civil War because gardeners gave up seed saving, which is how they previously started the next year's crops.

These catalogs, some of which, like Tony Avent's "Plant Delights," offer a serving of politics as well, are in trouble, as is the case with everything that appears in print.

"They've gotten smaller," said Randy Schultz, whose public relations firm focuses on gardening. "Some catalogs have trimmed their page size, and most have reduced their total number of pages to cut down on printing and postage costs."

Still, he said, companies have found that a printed catalog is the most effective way to drive a customer to the website to place an order. Only a very few orders, he said, come in the mail.

"There are some newer, web-only companies that have decided not to print a catalog," he said. "They do all their marketing online. In years to come, we'll probably see more of this.

"Ah, but sitting with a laptop is not as relaxing as flipping through the pages of your favorite printed garden catalog."

Susan McCoy of Garden Media Group in Philadelphia said two of her clients have dropped their catalogs.

"They are outrageously expensive to produce," she said. "But they are such a nice reminder that spring is coming."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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