Ordering seeds in the dead of winter might seem like jumping the gun, but the days are getting longer, and it's almost time to start the garden. If you aren't picky about the varieties you want to grow, you could skip this step and buy your seeds at the grocery or garden store, and get seedlings at the farmers' market. For many people, though, gardening is as much about process as product, and ordering seeds is an integral part of the experience.
The adventure writer Tim Cahill once wrote, "I am a man who sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people peruse seed catalogs or accounts of classic chess games." Cahill followed that observation with a story about a lost hiker who survived a cold night by using the pages of his wilderness survival guide to start a fire.
The pages of a good seed catalog can start a fire of a different sort: a fire in your belly for a kick-ass garden. Most seed catalogs have online counterparts, but many people enjoy the act of leafing through the dog-eared, tea-stained pages of a hard copy. Most outfits will send you one if you call. And if you've ordered seeds in the past, the companies you bought from have probably sent you their new volumes by now.
There are so many good seed catalogs out there, and the numbers are growing, so it's nearly impossible to name all the worthy ones. But here's a list of some favorites.
Johnny's Selected Seeds of Albion, Maine, is the 800-pound gorilla of the garden and small-farm seed business. The part of me that roots for the underdog feels wrong about plugging Johnny's at the expense of lesser-known outfits. On the other hand, not mentioning Johnny's would be like omitting The Rolling Stones from a discussion of rock and roll. Many of the farmers I know use Johnny's as their main supplier, only going elsewhere for the odd variety they can't get from Johnny's. Others use Johnny's as a last resort, because it's more expensive, getting what they can from smaller outfits.
Beyond growing and selling seeds, Johnny's maintains research farms where new crop varieties are developed. Sunshine squash, Bright Lights chard, and Carmen peppers are among its most popular in-house breeds. That same innovative spirit has been applied to hand tools, including a game-changing collinear hoe designed by gardening luminary (and Johnny's board member) Eliot Coleman. Johnny's also sells record-keeping software for small farms.
All of this, combined with accessible customer support and lightning-fast order processing and delivery has earned Johnny's a place in the hearts of those whose livelihoods depend on farming, and gardeners who like being treated like farmers. This year will mark the completion of a change in ownership, years in the making, from company founder Rob Johnston to his employees. Let's hope the legendarily tight ship doesn't spring any leaks in the transition.
While the values behind Johnny's align with what most people consider "organic," the company sells both conventional and organic seeds. In a letter to a customer published on the Johnny's website, Johnston praises Vermont's High Mowing Seeds as a great option for all-organic seeds. Like Johnny's, High Mowing also has a breeding program, focused exclusively on developing traits of value to organic growers.
Another New England outfit is the co-op Fedco Seeds, of Waterville, Maine. It's on my list for its whimsically illustrated catalog, spunky activist spirit, and great selection of heirlooms.
New Mexico's Gourmet Seeds has a special place in my heart for its impressive selection of imported Italian seedsin particular those for bitter greens like escarole, endive, and radicchio. As my packets of smuggled Italian seeds are running low, I'll soon be running to Gourmet Seeds for reinforcements. Like many other seed companies, Gourmet Seeds is following Johnny's lead in becoming a one-stop shopping destination for seeds and supplies, including Italian hand tools.
Totally Tomatoes of Wisconsin isn't, in fact, totally about tomatoes. The company sells a fair selection of other plant seeds, especially peppers. But its collection of tomato seeds, both heirloom and hybrid, is second to none.
Speaking of specialists, Willits, California-based DripWorks is your go-to source for water-wise irrigation. Gardens can be gluttonous consumers of water, but cutting back on irrigation can be hazardous unless it's done right. A well-designed irrigation system can drastically reduce water waste while delivering the right amount where it's needed. DripWorks' 72-page catalog has all the gear you need, along with technical support that includes an array of instructional videos posted to YouTube.
Bountiful Gardens, also of Willits, has carved out a specialty niche by offering a big selection of grain crops like barley, amaranth, millet, and oats, and oil crops like oilseed sunflower and oilseed radish. It even stocks a home oil press for the serious homesteader.
America's oldest seed company, D. Landreth, has a legendary catalog filled with detailed histories and descriptions of heirloom and vintage seeds, and historic information from an archive of Landreth catalogues dating back to 1839. Unlike most catalogs, this one comes with a $5 price tag due to its unusually high production costs.
In a perfect world I would also have space to discuss Southern Exposure, Park Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, Jung's, Peaceful Valley, Territorial Seed Company, One Green World, Seedlisting, and many others.
As you peruse, don't let the fire in your belly exceed your time or skill level (not to mention the size of your plot). One easy way to keep it simple is to limit your purchases to seeds that can be direct-seeded, i.e. planted directly in the dirt, like spinach or carrots, and stay away from plants that are best started in trays, like tomatoes.
Raising seedlings isn't rocket science, but unless you have a greenhouse and the required supplies, they probably won't be as robust as what you can buy from the farmers' market in spring. After many lessons learned the hard way, I've reluctantly put seedlings in the same category as hanging sheet rock and changing the oil in my car. Yeah, I can do it myself, barely. But the results are better if I leave it in the hands of the experts.