Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Seed Catalogs: Reading Between the Lines

seed catalogsIt’s January and my dining room table is covered with seed and garden catalogs. I you’re a gardener and you’re not getting catalogs, something is wrong! Most have toll-free phone numbers and websites, so just let them know you’d like a free catalog and you’ll be set for life.

If you have high speed internet and like to surf the web, the online catalogs have a lot of information and links, but I enjoy having the catalogs around the house, and I’ll often grab one to flip through as I drink a cup of coffee or wait for my toast to brown.

We are often asked here at the Clinton County Extension office in Northern New York for recommendations of ‘good’ catalogs and suppliers. As with any requests for recommendations like this, we always remind people that we have to stay unbiased and serve everyone, so we cannot give that kind of advice. But here are some tips on what to look for in order to make your own judgment.

How to judge a catalog

Always bear in mind that catalogs are in business to sell you something! And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But if you can look through the sale pitch, there is often some helpful information there.

I often refer to my catalogs for information such as the height and spread of different varieties, how many days to harvest, and which varieties have resistance to a disease my plants have been struggling with. These are facts, not hype.

But once they start using adjectives to describe the wonderful attributes of their products, I become more critical. Watch our for extreme claims and superlatives; of course, they want you to think their product is the best anywhere. And watch out for euphemisms. Terms such as vigorous growth and spreads rapidly can be nice ways of describing an aggressive, weedy plant that you may regret introducing to your yard.

I use catalogs for ideas of new things to grow and to find the newest or unusual varieties offered. But while you hold a catalog in one hand, it is important to have an unbiased source in your other hand. There are lots of gardening books and magazines and university-based Web sites with solid research-based information such as Cornell’s home gardening site: www.gardening.cornell.edu.

More than just a pretty face

There’s a wide range in the quality of the catalogs themselves. Some are very glossy with lots of beautiful color pictures while others are simply black and white. There is at least one grassroots type of company that a lot of organic growers use that has a very basic catalog on newsprint. Another company has lots of very helpful growing information/facts in their print catalog and some very interesting video clips on their website showing prune tomatoes, for example.

And then there are the catalogs where the photos are obviously color-enhanced. I can think of one picture of a potted plant where they obviously patched in extra blossoms to make it look better than reality. That type of catalog does not make it to my dining room table with the others but instead goes right into recycling. You can call or email those companies to get your name off their mailing list.

We are all trying to support local businesses as much as possible, so another way to use catalogs is as a source of ideas while you plan your garden or landscape, then you can head out shopping with your list in hand.

Photo courtesy the American Seed Alliance.

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Amy Ivy is a Regional Vegetable and Berry Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program. Amy also often leads local foods production research funded by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. She can be reached at 518-570-5991, adi2@cornell.edu.

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