One of the great winter pleasures of gardeners is planning and dreaming about what to grow next season. And one of the best ways to transform those dreams into reality is to browse through some of the wonderful, mail-order seed catalogs. As a seasoned catalog junkie and garden journalist who has been writing about seed companies for the last 12 years, I always look forward to this time of year.
With a stack of catalogs and a cup of steaming tea in hand, I kick back in front of the fire and dream. It isn't visions of sugarplums dancing in my head: I imagine harvests of luscious tomatoes ... nutritious squash ... spectacular sunflowers ...
Here are profiles of 29 of my favorite mail-order companies. In most cases (except where noted), their catalogs are free - all you have to do is ask. These seed catalogs offer an unbelievable selection of enticing varieties you simply cannot find elsewhere. The folks at these companies are on the cutting edge of bringing the newest and best to home gardeners everywhere. In many cases, they also pack lots of great growing advice into their catalogs. You easily can learn as much browsing through these catalogs as you would studying many gardening books.
The personal, knowledgeable service you can get from most mail-order companies can be priceless. Whatever question or problem you may encounter, there is usually expert help just a phone call away. Many of these companies are small and/or family owned, and customer service is a matter of pride, as well as a key to the continued success of their businesses.
Mail-Order Garden Seed Companies
Abundant Life Seed Foundation
Port Townsend, Wash.
Abundant Life Seed Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to preserve genetic diversity and support sustainable agriculture by promoting the conservation and use of heirloom, native and rare seeds. The foundation's catalog offers open-pollinated seeds of vegetables, flowers, herbs, grains, Northwest natives and uncommon crops, such as amaranth, millet and Andean tubers.
Bountiful Gardens *
Bountiful Gardens is part of Ecology Action, a nonprofit group dedicated to teaching biointensive gardening - a technique that emphasizes soil fertility and high yields. Bountiful Gardens' catalog offers open-pollinated organic and nonorganic seeds, specializing in rare medicinal herbs and supernutritious varieties of plants.
Ecology Action's director John Jeavons is the author of the best-selling and wonderfully titled book, How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine.
W. Atlee Burpee Co. *
W. Atlee Burpee first planned to sell baby chicks by mail and turn his childhood hobby into a career. In 1876, the 18-year-old borrowed $1,000 from his mother to start a mail-order fancy poultry business, but he quickly realized his customers would also want seed for vegetables, flowers and grains. By 1915, Burpee was mailing over a million catalogs to American gardeners. The Burpee company's breeding program has produced many American classics, from `Iceberg' lettuce (which, because it shipped so well, enabled diners in big cities to have salads), `Golden Bantam' sweet corn, 'Burpless' cucumbers, and `Big Boy' tomatoes. Today, Burpee offers more than 500 varieties of vegetables and herbs and 600 varieties of flowers in a full-color catalog.
The Cook's Garden *
For salads, Cook's is an undisputed leader, with more than 50 kinds of lettuce and custom blends of mixed salad greens (mesclun) chosen especially for American climates. The Cook's Garden founders Shepherd and Ellen Ogden travel the globe in search of specialties, such as Italian chicories and varieties to add to their burgeoning collection of sunflowers and annual flowering vines. They com bine this with hands-on trial plots in their own Burlington, Vermont, gardens to determine whether each variety will per form under American growing conditions.
William Dam Seeds Ltd.
Dundas, Ontario, Canada
William Dam founded his seed company after immigrating from Holland, where he had been a manager of a Dutch seed company. In Canada he began his business delivering seeds by bicycle to fellow immigrants. Now in its 52nd year, the third-generation, family-owned company mail orders more than 900 varieties worldwide. All of the seed is untreated for the safety of the employees who handle it each day and to encourage organic gardening. This policy has been in place since the 1960s, when Dam suffered from skin rashes he linked to chemicals used in seed storage. William Dam Seeds is one of the first registered seed companies in Canada to feature a line of certified organically grown seeds. An important part of the business is the research, conducted on five acres of trial grounds that are open to the public.
Fedco Seeds *
Fedco is one of the few garden-seed companies in the United States that are organized as cooperatives. Consumers own 60 percent, while worker members own 40 percent. Because the cooperative doesn't have an individual owner, profit isn't its primary goal, and substantial savings are passed on to customers. The catalog is divided into three divisions: seeds, potatoes and organic growing supplies; bare root trees, perennials and ornamentals; fall-planted bulbs and garlic. Fedco evaluates hundreds of varieties at multiple sites, identifying ones that are particularly productive, flavorful and suited to the northeastern U.S. climate. They offer a discount for large orders — worth taking advantage of if you can pool orders with a group of people. The black-and-white newsprint catalog written by C.R. Lawn is entertaining and highly informative. The seasonal seed division ships January through April.
Johnny's Selected Seeds
Established in 1973 by Chairman Rob Johnston Jr., Johnny's Selected Seeds is one of my favorite companies because it offers fast service and highest-quality seed, and pays special attention to the qualities a home gardener is looking for: flavor and ease of growing. Just reading Johnny's color catalog of more than 1,200 varieties of vegetables, medicinal, culinary herbs and flowers is an education. It is brim full of detailed growing instructions and helpful tips. Johnny's also offers high quality gardening tools, equipment and accessories, cover crop seed, soil amendments and organic pest control products. Johnny's has an extensive breeding and testing program, and introduces many new varieties the company has developed - an increasing rarity in this world of corporate mergers and outsourcing.
Nichols Garden Nursery *
Nichols has supplied seeds and plants to gardeners for more than 50 years. The Nichols family seeks out unusual varieties to provide a selection of delicious, easy to-grow vegetables, fragrant herbs and beautiful cut flowers in its 72-page catalog. They also offer citrus and tea plants; gourds; garlic; gardening tools, supplies and books; grass and lawn seed; soapmaking, brewing, winemaking, cooking and preserving sup plies; and essential oils. Nichols performs trials of new varieties and plants at an All America Selections display garden at its nursery in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Park Seed Co.*
At the tender age of 16, George Watt Park printed a list of seeds, which he sent to friends and relatives. This venture led to his first catalog in 1868. Today millions of gardeners receive the Park Seed catalog from the company, now run by a third-generation Park, Karen Park Jennings. Park's nine-acre trial gardens annually include more than 1,500 varieties. The full-color catalog lists more than 2,000 varieties of vegetables, flowers, fruits and herbs. The catalog's center contains a handy germination and culture guide that makes a great reference throughout the growing season. It includes bloom season, germination time and cultural tips for everything listed in the catalog.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply *
Grass Valley, Calif.
Peaceful Valley is literally a one-stop catalog for organic farmers and gardeners. They carry a large assortment of seeds, cover crops, native grasses, pasture and lawn seed, wildflowers, fruit trees and berries, potatoes, onions and garlic. On top of that, they offer a great selection of quality gardening tools; pest controls; season-extending products; composting supplies; growing, propagating and irrigation equipment; and books. The company started in 1976 in a small garage in California with a four-page newsletter for growers. Despite moving several times and the business burning to the ground once, Peaceful Valley has grown to be one of the leaders in the field of organics, with more than 40 employees and thousands of customers.
Pinetree Garden Seeds
New Gloucester, Maine
Pinetree Garden Seeds began in 1979 in the attic of Dick Meiners when he decided to offer smaller and less expensive packets of seeds, so gardeners could afford to try more varieties. Today Pinetree's catalog includes everything from vegetable to flower seed, ornamental bulbs, perennial vegetables, herbs, and all sorts of gardening, cooking and soapmaking supplies, gifts and books.
Redwood City Seeds *
Redwood City, Calif.
Redwood City Seeds began in 1971 by specializing in endangered cultivated plants. All its varieties are open-pollinated seeds selected for good flavor and adaptability. The company has an amazing selection of hot peppers, with some of the most generous seed packets around, plus chile powders for consumption. Co-owner Craig Dremann has even devised his own pepper-hotness scale, a easy method for determining the actual heat of hot chiles. Native grasses and a great selection or ornamental plants round out this perfect catalog for the adventurous gardener.
Salt Spring Seeds *
Ganges, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
If you want to be self-sufficient in food production you must see this catalog. For 14 years, Salt Spring Seeds has provided untreated seeds of high-protein, good-yielding and great-tasting crops, including more than 100 varieties of beans; 50 varieties of garlic; grains such as wheat; hull-less barley; high-protein quinoa and amaranth; and many vegetables and herbs. Last year, Salt Spring produced more than 80 percent of its own certified organic seed at Mansell Farm on Salt Spring island; the balance being produced by a co-op of organic growers. This year, owner Dan Jason was forced to relocate the company's gardens from the farm to Salt Spring Centre because of toxic drift from neighboring herbicide use. The transition has been painless, he says, and Salt Spring Seeds is still going strong.
Seed Savers Exchange
The nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is the leading North American organization working to save heirloom garden seed, from extinction. SSE's focus is on varieties that gardeners and farmers brought to North America when their families immigrated, and traditional varieties grown by American Indians. Mennonites and the Amish. SSE's 8,000 members grow heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains, and offer them for exchange to other members in a remarkable annual yearbook that now numbers 457 pages. The exchange reports on the diminishing number of open-pollinated varieties offered in the seed trade and in its Seed Savers Inventory. The group makes many heirloom varieties (and related gifts) available to nonmembers through an annual catalog.
Seeds of Change *
Santa Fe, N.M.
Seeds of Change offers 100 percent certified organic seeds and plants. They grow all their own seeds on their research farm or within their network of organic farmers. All of their offerings are open-pollinated, and they specialize in traditional and heirloom varieties. The company was started in 1989 in an effort to combat the dwindling diversity in food crops and the use of toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture.
Seeds Trust High Altitude Gardens *
This 17-year-old company specializes in open-pollinated, heirloom vegetables and herbs, and wildflowers adapted to cold, short seasons. They perform trials of all the varieties in their gardens, located at a 6,000-foot altitude. Varieties that are vigorous, early-maturing, tolerant of a harsh climate as well as exceptionally tasty in fruit and beautiful in bloom, make the cut. In 1989, Seeds Trust traveled behind the Iron Curtain to bring back a treasure trove of short-season tomatoes. Seeds Trust also offers its own wildflower mixes and will custom create a mix for you.
R.H. Shumway's *
Shumway's has been offering vegetable, flower, lawn and field seeds since 1870. This company specializes in old-timey, heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. At first glance, their wonderful "antique" catalog looks virtually unchanged from their first - it is loaded with wonderful illustrations from a bygone era.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange *
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was started in 1982 by Jeff McCormack, and has been growing ever since. In 1999, the company moved to a small, collectively owned farm in Mineral, Virginia. Although it emphasizes varieties adapted to the Mid-Atlantic region, the company serves gardeners throughout the United States and Canada. A large percentage of the seed and bulb varieties it offers are grown on its farm or by its own network of growers. The exchange carries more than 550 varieties of openpollinated. heirloom and traditional vegetables, flowers, sunflowers, herbs, garlic and perennial onions, as well as garden supplies and books.
Stokes Seeds Inc.
Buffalo, N.Y. or St. Catharines, ON, Canada
Walter P. Stokes joined Herbert W. Johnson's seed company in 1881 in New Jersey; the two parted ways in 1906, and Stokes went on to found Stokes Seeds Farms, supplying primarily commercial growers. During the Depression, Stokes put the Canadian branch of his company up for sale, and Stokes Seed salesman W.H. Gale bought it. To this day, Stokes has remained in the Gale family, and is now located in Ontario, Canada, with its U.S. branch in New York. The full-color Stokes catalog offers an exceptional selection of more than 3,000 vegetable and flower varieties, gardening supplies and accessories for the home gardener and commercial grower. Stokes maintains a 34-acre research farm in St. Catharines, Ontario, to evaluate new varieties for the catalog, hosts official All America Selections trials and develops new varieties.
Territorial Seed Co.
Cottage Grove, Ore. or Vancouver, BC, Canada
Steve Solomon started Territorial in 1979 for home gardeners. Since its inception, information on how to grow organically has been the backbone of the catalog. In 1985, Tom and Julie Johns pur chased Territorial. Since then, this seed company has grown to a 44-acre research farm where it evaluates thousands of varieties and produces the majority of its own tomato, squash, cucumber, pepper and lettuce seed. The company collaborates with plant breeders at several universities to introduce outstanding new open-pollinated varieties to the public. Territorial's catalog offers unique "Jumpstart" mail-order transplants — packs of small seedlings ready to be potted up into larger containers — which take the guesswork out of germinating seeds.
Thompson & Morgan
This venerable British seed company began as a small garden behind a bakery in Ipswich, Suffolk. The baker's son, William Thompson, produced his first catalog in 1855, specializing in rare and unusual plants - still a hallmark of the company today. As the seed business grew, Thompson entered into partnership with businessman John Morgan. In 1982, Thompson & Morgan branched out and established a base in the United States. Today, T&M offers nearly 2,000 varieties in its full-color catalog. Although the bulk of the listings are ornamentals, T&M also carries many vegetables (especially some of the county-fair-winning giant varieties). Their "Germination Times" booklet is an indispensable resource for the adventurous seed-starter and now can be found online.
Tomato Growers Supply Co.
Fort Myers, Fla.
This catalog is a must for tomato and/or pepper lovers. If you can't find a specific tomato or pepper variety anywhere else, chances are Tomato Growers has it. The catalog carries more than 500 varieties of tomatoes and peppers, including huge selections of both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes; hot peppers, sweet peppers and tomatillos; plus garden supplies, books and posters.
Wood Prairie Farm *
Forget the flower-of-the-month club - now there's a potato-of-the-month club. Wood Prairie not only sells an intriguing range of certified organic seed potatoes for gardeners, but you can also order sampler packs of gourmet potatoes for cooking that will arrive over several consecutive months. It's a unique idea for the spud lover, and a neat way to "try before you buy" to decide what seed potatoes to grow (it is so hard to choose). Owners Jim and Megan Gerritsen are among the most knowledgeable potato growers and the friendliest folks you could hope to meet.
Wood Prairie also offers organic almonds, dried fruit, grains for bakers, and supplies for potato growers. Their seed potatoes are all grown on their family farm in Maine, and come in bags labeled with beautifully illustrated postcards specific to each variety. Each order comes with detailed instructions for growing and enjoying a bountiful crop of spuds.
Mail-Order Fruit Trees and Berries
If you are looking to add edible sweetness and beauty to your landscape, the following nurseries offer a mouth-watering selection of fruits and berries (and nuts, too).
Specializes in low-care edibles, including citrus, permissons, kiwis, figs and berries.
Offers more than 400 varieties of edible plants, including disease-resistant fruit and nut trees and berries that are specially selected with the home gardener in mind.
Rocky Meadow Orchard and Nursery
If flavor is of utmost importance to you, try Rocky Meadow Nursery. They specialize in new varieties of fruit trees that have been evaluated expressly for flavor, and also carry grafting supplies.
St. Lawrence Nurseries
Provides organically grown fruit and nut trees adapted to northern climates, including heirloom apples, pears, grapes, butternuts and filberts.
Stark Brothers Nurseries and Orchards Co.
Specializes in dwarf, semidwarf and standard fruit trees, along with grapes, berries, nuts and ornamental shrubs and trees.
Nourse Farms Inc.
South Deerfield, Mass.
For strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and perennial vegetables, check out Nourse Farms Inc.
* All the companies I've included do not sell controversial genetically engineered varieties, and most of them (indicated by an asterisk after their name) offer all their seeds free of pesticide treatments.