There’s “only” 55 more days until Christmas. Catalogs are pouring into our mailbox. Most go straight into the recycling pile, but a few I set aside, saving them for a break in the holiday frenzy. I don’t keep the gift catalogs, or the home décor catalogs. I only save the important catalogs… the seed catalogs.
The gardening season is over for the year, but next season’s garden is already germinating in my mind. Regimented rows of bush beans spread their leaves toward the spring sun, lettuce forms tight rosettes and huge broccoli plants are crowned with enormous heads of perfect buds. No hail has punched holes in the leaves; hungry cutworms have yet to fell a single stalk.
When you’re perusing a seed catalog, it’s easy to believe that next year’s garden will be perfect. While one part of my brain is critiquing the super-saturated colors in the zinnia photographs, another part is already arranging the blossoms I’ll be growing. Should I strive for jumbo-sized carrots or skinny fillet beans? Purple potatoes or orange Swiss chard? Eventually reality will intrude on my fantasies, but right now I ignore the constraints of gardening at 7,000 feet, pretend I have unlimited energy and a bottomless checking account, and dream.
Through years of disappointments and crop failures, I’ve learned to read between the lines when it comes to superlative catalog descriptions. If the writer waxes poetic about the oblate shape and bright red color of a tomato, you can bet it tastes like cat litter. The ginormous cabbage that will impress all your neighbors is likely to be tough as plywood. You’ll lose your cucumbers, the “ones that grandma grew,” to a mysterious malady that more modern cultivars are immune to.
It takes some practice to find just the right varieties for your particular garden conditions. Since my growing season is so short, I always choose from varieties with the least days to maturity. While commercial growers need to consider shelf life and a sturdy constitution capable of withstanding shipping, flavor is my primary motivation for gardening. Therefore, I look for a mention of superior taste. Finally, it’s best to choose varieties that are tolerant or resistant to diseases prevalent in your area.
After these primary requirements are met, I like to have a bit of fun. This year I trialed red romaine lettuce and purple carrots. I often ask other local gardeners which varieties they enjoy. If I have room, I might throw in a few wild cards… veggies that are borderline for our area. The year I grew paprika, we happened to have a long, warm summer, and the peppers had time to fully ripen. Dried and pulverized, they provided some of the most wonderful paprika I’ve ever tasted. Of course, we could have had an early snow. You just never know.
If you aren’t already receiving seed catalogs, now is the time to order them. Some of my favorites (and no, I’m not getting paid to say this) include Pinetree Garden Seeds, Territorial Seeds, Totally Tomatoes, and Park Seed, but that’s just a start. Look for companies located in a climate similar to your own. Prices vary widely, and a garden-full of seed packets can add up to a significant investment. Some catalogs offer only open-pollinated varieties; others focus on heirlooms. No matter which obscure variety you want, someone out there probably has it for sale.
When your catalogs arrive, read and reread every page, fill them with post-it notes, and enjoy the garden in your mind. Then grit your teeth and decide, and get your order in early—even right after the holidays. I actually start some crops, such as onions, leeks, and early lettuce, in late January. Before you know it, it will be spring, and you’ll be ready.