Sometimes I think January is my favorite month of the gardening calendar. Temperatures plummet and the ground is frozen solid. Anything at all frost-tender succumbed to the cold months ago. My raised beds look suspiciously like burial vaults covered in mulch. Yet, in my mind’s eye, my 2018 veggie garden is flourishing.
You see, I’ve been reading seed catalogs.
The photos in the catalogs are designed to sell hope in the form of seeds. See how red and plump that tomato is? Buy these seeds and you’ll soon have some just the same. And look how many flowers blanket those leaves and stems. Surely your marigolds will be just as prolific!
I often wonder how much touch-up goes into those illustrations. Do they tie extra blooms to the petunias before they take the photo? Are the cornflowers really that blue? (And why do the leaves in the photo also have a blue tint? Could someone have tweaked the color balance just a bit?) Even the ground under the plants is perfect—a crumbly dark loam without a weed in sight.
It all reminds me a bit of the real estate ads that appeared in my hometown newspaper. “Cozy cottage” means the house is exceptionally tiny. “Handyman’s dream” means it’s falling down. And “view lot” means that if you stand in exactly the right spot, you can see a sliver of ocean between those two huge apartment buildings across the street.
How does one get past the glowing descriptions in seed catalogs? Not only do you have to read between the lines, you have to notice what they don’t say as well as what they do.
For starters, if there’s no mention of flavor, be concerned. Pretty tomatoes often have tough skins, or taste like cardboard. The longest carrots are rarely the sweetest or most tender. I can buy gorgeous groceries at the market. If I’m going to the trouble to grow my own, I expect results that taste at least that good.
Then there’s disease resistance, and what I call “climate fortitude.” How strong are these plants? Will they survive my frequently harsh growing conditions? Some tomatoes will set fruit at more extreme temperatures than average. That’s a bonus for high altitude gardeners. While most lettuce turns bitter and blooms in the heat of summer, some cultivars resist bolting longer, a benefit when a snowy spring turns into a scorching summer seemingly overnight.
Many cultivars have been bred to tolerate or resist diseases and other pests. “Tolerance” means that the plant gets the disease, such as powdery mildew, but continues to produce in spite of it. “Resistance” means that the plant doesn’t get infected in the first place.
A well-known example, Celebrity Tomatoes are resistant to Alternaria alternata (Crown Wilt), Fusarium Wilt Races 1 & 2, Mosaic Virus, Root-Knot Nematodes, Stemphylium (Gray Leaf Spot), and Verticillium Wilt. If you have issues with any of these diseases, this tomato may be a good option.
Inbred disease resistance should be mentioned in the product blurb, often indicated by a series of letters after the name: V, F1, F2, N, etc. If nothing is said, it’s very likely there’s no resistance to be had.
Then there are “days to maturity” or “days to harvest.” Most catalogs provide that information, at least for the vegetable seeds they sell—how long did it take for a particular variety to mature at their own trial gardens. (Remember, if you live somewhere with a different climate, your results may be vastly different. Since Colorado has cold nights even in the summer, I usually realign my expectations by doubling the days to maturity given in the catalog.)
I’ve been frustrated that this information is so rarely available for flowers; too often my flowers never bloom before the season ends, even when I start the seeds indoors. Happily, I’ve noticed that several of my favorite catalogs are starting to list “days to bloom.” Meanwhile, it pays to look for phrases such as “first to flower” or “extra early.” Shorter plants also tend to bloom in less time, so look for bedding or dwarfed cultivars.
The best catalogs give us the information we want without trying to be misleading. I’ve appreciated those companies—such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Pinetree Seeds, and the Vermont Bean Seed Company, to name just a few—for their willingness to make their catalogs so helpful. (There are many others as well.) At the same time, I shy away from the catalogs that make exaggerated claims, provide unrealistic illustrations, or refuse to accurately identify a particular plant.
With so many wonderful seed catalogs to get lost in, it’s no wonder that January is my favorite gardening month. It’s the anticipation:
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”