Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Seed Catalogue Mania

At this still snowy and cold juncture of the new year, we've thankfully gotten past the 20 daily pieces of mail comprised of caucus fliers. Caucus duties are over now and the gardening catalogues are arriving fast and furious. They actually started showing up the day after Christmas and are continuing to appear pretty regularly.

As we always do in the snowy
throes of January in Iowa (when we ask ourselves will spring ever get here?), we sat down at the table last night and took a good look at some of the newer companies who took it upon themselves to come courting me. So, I thought I'd comment a bit about some of the handsomely produced catalogues we are getting this year. Some are obviously from 'old friends' resources, such as Park Seed, Thompson and Morgan, Select Seeds and Van Bourgondien, but there are some new companies this year who have piqued our interest and will probably receive some orders from us.

[So, with a disclaimer that I have no vested interest in, nor do I earn any commissions from any of these companies, I'd like to point to a few companies who really fill a unique niche in the gardening world. But if they'd like to send me a few bucks for writing nice things about them, I wouldn't object too much! But that's unlikely to happen, lol.]

First up, let's take a look at Wildseed Farms, a catalogue I just got in the mail last week. This is one serious outfit dedicated to promoting the cause of planting regional native wildflowers. They're based in Texas (yeah, that gave me pause too) but they put out a fantastic catalogue, complete with tempting regional wildflower mixes tailored to specific growing conditions, to great references about the individual species they offer. Best of all, they offer bulk seed at incredible prices that will allow the gardener to plant up large spaces (if they have them, alas we don't) and if you have the room to broadcast a whole field, they can provide you with great choices in their regional mixes. Most of these mixes run about $9-10 for a quarter pound of carefully chosen natives to your area and should help even the novice raise a good sized plot of wildflowers for not much money ... as long as you're willing to get them planted at the appropriate time and give them sufficient care to get them established. And hey, they tell you when and how to do that as well. But I think the most impressive thing I got from this catalogue (aside from careful and accurate considerations about hardiness) is that they provide you with a picture identifying the seedlings of each plant, so that you don't confuse them with weeds. I can't emphasize how important that is when growing unfamiliar seeds the first year! I'm sure many a gardener has cursed him/herself over the years for not knowing what was coming up and inadvertently pulled up the very seedling s/he wanted to plant.

Result of our joint perusal of this catalogue? We're going to order a North Central Plains mix of wildflower to give to Fernymoss' parents to plant in the abundant spaces they have in their rural property. We're going to buy an ounce (ahem!) of Foxglove seed to try in various places chez IVG to see if we can get them happy at long last, after many failed attempts. But no matter what growing situation you may have, these folks are worth a look for an economical solution to having a lot of varied flowers for the space you have. Believe me, the prices are more than reasonable, and if you go with one of the regional mixes, I think you're probably in good shape to liven up your plantable areas.

I think I've probably already (in some post) lauded Select Seeds, but they're more than worthy of another shout out. Their primary mission is to popularize heirloom varieties of flowers that have gone a bit 'mainstream' over the years. Their sheer breadth of species, as well as their attention to growing details really sets them apart from the larger companies. They have a fantastic selection of heirloom poppies and other striking varieties of flowers you might already be planting, but where they distinguish themselves is in providing things you just won't find in the typical venues such as nurseries and mass market stores.

Consensus planning from our end? We're going to order some more of the heirloom poppies we ordered last year (but alas planted too late) and give them another, earlier chance at taking hold here at Casa IVG. The Zanzibariensis variety of Castors we got from them last year (as well as Carmencita red Castors) was a real show stopper for us in the back yard last year and even provided us with ample seed for this year. My quick take? Not many seed companies offer Castor Bean seeds these days (due to the bad rep of being a Ricinus species, no doubt ... they are poisonous after all), they are doing us all a service by preserving this historically useful species. Oh yeah, I've read in many places that if you are plagued by moles, planting Castors will deter them from hanging around. Besides, when you live in Iowa and can grow a 12-14 FOOT tropical tree in your yard in a few short months, that's something to get excited about! At least take a look at their site if you're even remotely interested in heirloom varieties of common flowers, because I'm willing to bet you'll find something that you want for your own garden. And their prices, although not rock bottom, are reasonable enough you'll want to try a few. Service and speed of delivery were impeccable for us last year, but we were just too busy to get some of them in at the right time, so I'd recommend ordering (and planting) early.

Finally, the one other catalogue I wanted to highlight tonight is the R.H. Shumway 2008 catalogue, which definitely wins hands down in the retro nostalgia seed catalogue competition. This is the kind of catalogue my dad used to scour (except for us it was always Gurney's in Yankton, ND) to order his garden seeds. To peruse this catalogue is a fond trip into the past ... there are only full colour and black and white illustrations of the seeds for sale, interspersed with plugs for handy gardening tips, tools and such ... along with exhortations about the benefits of vegetables for one's health, and a wealth of fascinating growing trivia. It's a really fun read and even if you're not interested in many of the vegetables they offer, you'll learn a lot and want to plant some of their veggies, just to see what you can get.

Consensus? We really enjoyed the retro presentation of the catalogue and may order a few things from them to try (we were impressed by their offerings of broom corn ... a really nifty plant!), the nostalgia trip was definitely the main attraction for us, I have to admit. Worth a look, and if you have the space, they have a lot of really cool options for veggies. Flowers are definitely an afterthought here, so if you are concentrating on them, you're likely served better elsewhere. I'd definitely say worth checking out though! If seed catalogues of yesteryear get you going (I'm a sucker, I admit) this is a must see!

In my next post I'll address some of the 'big dogs' in the seed world and their relative merits. There's a reason they're still around and kicking, and they do have their reputations to bank upon with serious gardeners. After all, they didn't get to where they are today by supplying inferior seeds, and now that we can see it all online only increases the likelihood that they'll be around for use for a good, long time!


FARfetched said...

Yay, it's almost time to break out the starter trays & stuff, isn't it? I've been seeing greening grass under the brown thatch on my walks, and most of my perennial herbs are doing fine — the oregano is creeping around a lot, and something chomped down the parsley but it's coming back up from the bottom. I'm thinking I might have to do some major pruning on the sage & oregano, just to keep them from taking over their respective areas!

I've got some seeds saved from last year; I'm really looking forward to seeing how the yellow pear tomato (the one that volunteered) will do but I also have seeds for Rutgers & Tommy-Toe varieties.

But I'll have to check out some of those seed catalogues. I'll also see which ones my mother-in-law likes & pass them on.

olivia said...

Hi IVG, hi FAR.

Great post IVG ... and I agree w/ you on the usefulness of having seedling photos. I've done that in the past - pulled up stuff that wasn't weed ... eek. :-)

I haven't started thinking about the garden yet ... It's way past due for an overhaul, so while I'm sick of the snow, having it cover the garden is one of the positives.

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