The seed catalogues arrived a while back, around the first of the year when I was far too busy to browse through them. This timing is for the benefit of those living in colder climates where all that can be done in January is dream.
Californians have less need to dream of gardening but no less need of seed catalogues, for in them can be found the variety that is the spice of gardening.
My current favorite is the Thompson & Morgan catalogue (P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527). This venerable English seed house has only offered a catalogue to American gardeners for a few years--and comparisons are difficult, since gardening is such serious business in the British Isles.
It combines what I like best in seed catalogues--variety and outrageousness. Look on any page and you'll find variety, incredible variety. Look on the back cover and you will find outrageousness--T&M's "Magnificent Football Onion."
"The world's heaviest onion weighed in at seven pounds, six ounces. The football onion is a serious contender for that title." The picture shows some poor guy trying to get a wheelbarrow filled with these huge onions down the garden path to the house. Will they grow in California and will they get as big as advertised? Who knows? But you can buy 37 seeds for $2.95 and find out.
While the Thompson & Morgan catalogue is a marvel, with some of the brightest color photos ever and some of the most exciting plants in the world, the two big American firms are not to be slighted, especially when it comes to vegetables. W. Atlee Burpee Co. (Warminster, Pa. 18974) and Park Seed Co. (Cokesbury Rd., Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001) carry tried and true varieties that are almost sure to succeed. Many of the Burpee varieties are developed right here in California and so are some of the Park plants. If you want the latest in vegetables, or the newest marigolds or zinnias or impatiens, these are the catalogues to get.
If you seek the unusual in vegetables, you might also get the catalogues of Shepherd's Garden Seeds (7389 West Zayante Rd., Felton, Calif. 95018) or Ecology Action's Organic Gardening with Bountiful Gardens catalogue (5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, Calif. 95490).
The Ecology Action catalogue even has grain seeds, if you want to try sowing your own oats, or Hard Red Spring Wheat. They also sell "green manuring" crops that can be grown under fruit trees and plowed under just like in olden times. These include the ubiquitous agricultural mustard that now covers our hills, having escaped from orchards long ago. Imagine your own tiny backyard orchard in full blossom with yellow mustard flowering underneath.
Shepherd's has a collection of seeds of edible flowers and a nice selection of chile peppers, plus some good garden advice and interesting recipes--including one for green beans with pecans I will try soon. Their collection of 10 different seed packets called "The French Garden," which sells for $14.05, would make an interesting garden all its own.
I used to love the prices in seed catalogues and having raised my own seed on occasion, appreciate what a value they are--at any price--but seed is no longer cheap. Most packets cost more than $1.50 nowadays, so I find myself being a little more cautious on this count.
But there is one catalogue where seeds are still a bargain--the Pinetree Garden Seeds catalogue (New Gloucester, Me., 04260), which sells an interesting and wide selection of seed in smaller packets that average only 40 cents a packet--like in the good old days.