Kentucky Farmwife Catherine Pond offers an overview of her six favorite seed catalogs for hybrid, heirloom and organic vegetables.
“For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness,” wrote Katharine S. White in her delightful essay, A Romp in the Catalogues. “Hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are pouring over their catalogs, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.” She also praised the writers and editors for their “audience equal to the most popular novelist’s.”
Not much has changed since White, a longtime editor for The New Yorker (where her essay first appeared) and wife of E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web (easily my favorite-of-all-time children’s book), spent her New York winters planning over the latest seed catalogs from which to order for their summer farm in Brooklin, Maine.
Several of the companies she wrote about—like Burpee, White Flower Farm, and Harris Seeds—are still in business today. And, like clockwork, their catalogs still start to arrive in the mailbox at our farm—bold, bright, and beautifully illustrated or photographed—on the day after Christmas continuing into early Spring. The first weeks after the holidays in the dreary wintriness of January is a time of reflecting about my next meager but lovely garden, lulled by the complacency of indoor days where planting, weeding, and enjoying the delights of one’s labor are replaced by reading about them. There can be no better tonic for the winter blues or cabin fever—especially paired with a cup of favorite tea and some homemade lavender shortbread.
However, what has changed is that seed and plant companies also have a strong internet presence and have gone from beautifully rendered illustrations or captivating text to enticing photography and to-the-point prose necessary for any gardener.
In the past decade, garden seed sales have been meteoric and on a continued trajectory. A new wave of gardening has been happening since the 1990s by many urban, suburban, and rural folks. Meanwhile, the post-bubble-bursting fallout of the past decade and a rise in hobby farmers and homesteaders, has brought new converts and a more fervent faithful—from small containers to larger plots, localvores, farm-to-table and organic trends, and the popularity of heirlooms. Seed sales have been booming.
The wonderful thing about a favorite seed catalog is the promise and potential that it allows right in your lap and wandering mind. The best gardens are often those in our imaginations: where possibility is of as much importance as the actual execution. Garden and seed catalogs allow one to dream, to plan, and to order literal seeds of hope for the summer ahead. For beautiful flowers and nourishing vegetables, for a chance to have “a bit of earth,” like Mary in A Secret Garden: “to plant seeds in—to make things grow—to see them come alive.” A tiny seed is, indeed, the actual shell of a great and glorious miracle that can be shared and multiplied throughout the world.
The 6 Best Seed Companies for Heirloom, Organic and Hybrid Varieties:
Below are my favorite top-5 mixed-offering seed companies (all sell hybrid, heirloom, and organic seeds). Use the links below to go to the companys’ request pages in order to receive a free catalog in the mail. In the meantime you can browse and shop on their websites.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
Burpee has been a horticultural innovator and leader in vegetables and flowers since 1881, the publisher of one of the earliest seed catalogs. Each year they offer new and varied hybrids to the market. Their Warminster, Pennsylvania, facility is also now a certified Landfill Free facility which means all wasted generated is reused, recycled or processed as a renewable fuel.
Request their catalog here: burpee.com/catalogrequest
Another historic seed company, Harris Seeds is located in Rochester, New York, and offers a large selection of seeds, fruits, bulbs, plants and supplies. Their variety of free catalogs has a focus on the commercial grower (which also means a greater choice for everyone). While still committed to that group, they have also recently launched an online presence for the home gardener at GardenTrends.com.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
A Maine-based company, Johnny's Selected Seeds specializes in many varieties of all non-GMO seeds and seed-starting supplies. Starting from a produce farm in New Hampshire in 1973 (and with the name “Johnny Apple Seeds”), Johnny’s has become an industry presence with its trial testing of new varieties as well as thorough seed offerings and supplies for both commercial and home growers.
Request their catalog here: johnnyseeds.com/catalog-request
Seeds of Change
Seeds of Change had a devoted following in its early years after it began in 1989 on a New Mexico farm. It was later controversially bought by Mars, Inc. in 2010. While candy and organic seeds seem polar opposites, the company has managed to go from a smaller cult-like status to mainstreaming their seed sales by selling affordable organic seed packets at many larger retail chains. Their diversity of seeds—both hybrid and heirloom—remains all organic and non-GMO.
Request their catalog here: seedsofchange.com/request-a-catalog
Territorial Seed Company
Territorial Seed Company was founded in 1979 in Cottage Grove, Oregon, with a mission “to improve people’s self-sufficiency and independence by enabling gardeners to produce an abundance of good-tasting, fresh-from-the-garden food, 12 months a year.” Their seed and plant offerings are extensive and they also sell supplies. (Plus, you’ll want to jump into their beautiful catalog covers).
Request their catalog here: territorialseed.com/catalog_request
The owner of Renee's Garden, Renee Shepherd, an accomplished horticultural entrepreneur, is a home gardener’s dream. In 1997 she launched an exclusively online seed catalog (which can be found in some retail shops). They offer beautifully-packaged seeds in a unique variety of flowers, vegetables, and herbs (non-GMO and organic), all personally curated by Shepherd. I always have a very high germination rate with her seeds. So, while only an Internet presence, I can’t leave this wonderful company out. The website also includes an archive of her excellent, informative newsletters that you can access here: reneesgarden.com/pages/newsletter-archive. And don’t forget to sign up for this monthly email, which includes an infusion of news, garden tips, and recipes.