Magazine article Sunset

Seeds of Dreams

Magazine article Sunset

Seeds of Dreams

Article excerpt

Along with the facts and updated choices, seed catalogs bring visions of gardens, flowers, and food

NOTHING FUELS A gardener's imagination like the seed catalogs that arrive in the mail in winter. The latest, most unusual, and hardest-to-find varieties are there in blazing color, amid hopeful descriptions and enticing promises: "World's longest carrot" and "Best corn you'll ever eat."

Among the hundreds of available seed catalogs, old faithfuls like Burpee and Park Seed continue to offer flowers and vegetables from A to Z. But in the last 10 years or so, the number of specialty seed purveyors has burgeoned, with catalogs that specialize in everything from endangered plants to Asian greens. Now, you can pick and choose according to your passions.

While a typical nursery seed rack offers just 10 or so tomato varieties, mail-order catalogs like those from Tomato Growers Supply Company and Tomato Seed Company are entirely devoted to this beloved crop. Each offers hundreds of varieties.

Likewise, Horticultural Enterprises caters to pepper aficionados with dozens of varieties, and Ronniger's Seed Potatoes touts "the largest offering of organically grown seed potato varieties in the U.S. to home gardeners, small farmers, and hobbyists."

If flavor is of utmost importance, you can choose from catalogs that give the highest priority to fine-tasting vegetables. Shepherd's Garden Seeds and The Cook's Garden are two that list taste-tested varieties. As a bonus, these catalogs share recipes, such as mint-glazed carrots and celeriac remoulade. Both sell flower seeds as well.

A number of catalogs advocate using open-pollinated (unhybridized) and heirloom varieties. Among them are nonprofit organizations working to save varieties from extinction: KUSA champions cereal grains, Native Seeds/SEARCH specializes in traditional crops and their wild relatives of the greater Southwest, and Abundant Life Seed Foundation sells seeds for food plants and flowers that are adapted to the Pacific Northwest.

A few firms are economy-minded. They offer small seed packets for small prices. If you're gardening in a tight space or just want to test a variety, consider Pinetree Garden Seeds (edibles and ornamentals) with packets starting at 35 cents, and Le Jardin du Gourmet (mostly herbs and vegetables) with sample packets for 25 cents.

Is your garden extra-large? You'll find bulk seed available through catalogs such as Johnny's Selected Seeds and Territorial Seed Company.

BEYOND SEEDS

Besides seeds, catalog pages brim with everything from tools and amendments to kitchen gadgets and garden art. Pinetree Garden Seeds, for example, advertises more than 100 garden books. Burpee, among others, supplies garden-ready seedlings and garden designs to accompany seed packets. Before buying, peruse catalogs for the best buys.

FREE INFORMATION

Seed catalogs, like garden primers, provide plenty of specific information. It may be as basic as the planting depth for beans, or as obscure as recommended legume inoculants. And the trivia are endless. Have you ever wondered how many pepper seeds are in an ounce? (Answer: an average of 4,000.) There's also intriguing folklore--for example, scattering caraway seed at the door to keep thieves away--and no end to curious plant names: "love-lies-bleeding," "zig-zag wattle," and "weasel's snout."

However, even the best catalogs are not necessarily written for Western gardens, so cross-check items such as hardiness zones and planting dates with regional references. For instance, Johnny's Selected Seeds and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are exceptionally clear and helpful, as long as you're aware of regional differences. …

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