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March 23rd, 2017

It’s Seed Catalog Season! Let Me Help You Choose the Best

By Amanda Sessel Legare
The arrival of seed catalogs helps us deal with cabin fever. In choosing my catalogs I consider the selection, the price, the descriptions and past experiences with germination and service from those companies. Some catalogs seem to be written by a PR company. I want to sense that the person writing the descriptions has actually grown the plant. I have been gardening for 50 years and most of my seeds now come from seven main sources.

Most gardeners in the northeast, including myself, like Maine’s Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. They offer straightforward descriptions for the serious gardener and a nice variety of garden tools. I appreciate their selection of sunflowers and cut flowers. Before I order anything from Johnny’s, I look for the same seeds at another Maine company, Fedco, because the quality is the same and the price is guaranteed to be lower.

Fedco is a cooperative, owned by employees and customers, and profit does not drive the business. They offer a lot of open-pollinated and heirloom seed, and a limited selection of hybrids. They often source their seeds from smaller farms and germination rates are published on the packets. The catalog is quirky, offering lots of information as well as a dose of political rambling. It’s printed on plain newsprint, all black and white. Sketches, vintage etchings, expert advice and humor fill each page in a chockablock fashion that make it a fun read.

I grow loads of different heirloom tomatoes and if I can’t find what I want at Fedco, I turn to Sandhill Preservation Center in Iowa. This is a family operation, selling only open-pollinated seeds. Although they have a web site where you can drool over more than 300 varieties of red tomatoes, they do not take orders online or on the phone and they do not accept credit cards. I don’t mind writing a check and putting it in an envelope.

They grow the seed they sell for over 80 percent of the varieties they offer and put their effort into preserving and growing heirloom plants rather than marketing their business. The choice is amazing and the prices are very reasonable.

Another seed catalog that is online only is Nichols Garden Nursery out of Oregon. They offer a great choice of common and hard to find herbs and vegetable seeds. You can find golden bantam corn, butter crunch lettuce and green arrow peas at Nichols. You can also find Zaatar (“wild marjoram”), Agretti (“land seaweed”) and Melokhiya Corchorus olitorius (“the most widely consumed vegetable in Egypt”). Nichols gives growing descriptions and often cooking directions.

I buy most of my flower seeds from GeoSeed in South Carolina. Although the catalog says “Seed for Professionals”, I called the company and was told anyone can order. If the order is under $100, the shipping and handling charge will be $6. Not only does this family-run business have a huge selection, its prices are terrific.

For example, at Burpees, buying 50 seeds of Oklahoma Mix zinnia costs $4.95. At Geoseed buying 1,000 Oklahoma Mix Zinnia costs $4.95. Because it is essentially a commercial business, you are committed to buying a trade packet, so in this case, unless you have a lot of zinnia-loving friends, 1,000 seeds might be going overboard. However, the more expensive seeds are sold in smaller amounts. They offer 100 Zahara Starlight Rose zinnia, one of my favorites, for $3.70. Burpee offers 50 of the same seeds for $5.95. GeoSeed does not sell vegetables.

For perennial seeds my go-to catalog is Jelitto. They have more than 3,700 varieties of seeds. Many perennial seeds can be tricky to germinate. Jelitto carries a line of pre-treated, ready-to-sprout (no cold stratification needed) seed that they designate “Gold Nugget” seed. They are pricey, but the results more than justify the extra cost for me.

Horticultural Products and Services (HPS) out of Randolph, Wisconsin, is geared towards the grower, but they also offer smaller seed packets at excellent prices. They have a broad selection of annual flowers, herbs and vegetables and I always end up getting some seeds from them as well.

Inevitably I place small orders with some of the local Vermont companies and I still realize I’m missing something at the last minute. Then its off to the local stores to check out their seed racks.

The Garden Watchdog has a directory of more than 7,000 mail order gardening companies with reviews from gardening customers. http://davesgarden.com/products/gwd/

Recommended seed companies:
Johnnies – www.Johnnieseeds.com – (877) 564-6697
Fedco – www.fedcoseeds.com – (207) 426-0090
Sandhill – www.sandhillpreservation.com – (563) 246-2299 – (no print catalog, no orders by phone.)
Nichols – www.nicholsgardennursery.com (800) 422-3984 (No print catalog.)
Geoseed – www.geoseed.com (888) 645-2323
Jelitto – www.jelitto.com – (502) 895-0807
HPS -www.hpsseed.com (800) 322-7288

Amanda Sessel Legare has operated Amanda’s Greenhouse in Cabot for 25 years where she grows both annuals and perennials. www.amandasgreenhouse.com – 426-3783

*This column previously appeared in Danville’s North Star Monthly.

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