Why the Most Inspiring Thing You'll Ever Read Could Be a Seed Catalog

Few pieces of reading material can fuel ambition like a seed catalog. They arrive in the mail during the darkest days of the year, offering warm hopes and delicious dreams of lush vegetation and tasty produce, a welcome contrast to the dismal, frigid conditions outside the window. I study seed catalogs with the obsession an auto enthusiast pours into Car & Driver, and the motivation a climber feels when thumbing through Rock & Ice.


But seed catalogs do more than fill you with goals and desires. They teach you how to fulfill them. In the process of selling you their wares with images of produce porn, these colorful volumes contain encyclopedic levels of information on how to grow your own garden, as well as tools and supplies to cultivate the seeds you purchase.

Thanks to increasing interest in gardening, the seed industry is rapidly evolving to keep pace. Some, like Johnny’s, are developing numerous new varieties each year, broadening the gardener’s options with regard to taste, color, productivity, disease resistance, drought and cold tolerance.

Seed catalogs, meanwhile, are offering an increasingly artistic array of themes, often with beautiful cover images as well as engaging essays and stories contained in their pages, like the search for the seeds of the elusive Kajari Mellon, found in Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

As I gaze at the bounty of seed catalogs before me, one surprising theme that jumps out this year is the color purple. James Joseph, a neuroscientist at Tufts University’s USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, once said, “If I could eat only one color per day, it would be purple.” He said this because anthrocyanins, the pigments behind purple color in fruits and vegetables, have been shown to have some powerful effects on health. These molecules are antioxidants that protect the brain against short-term memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases. They’ve also shown promise in warding off cancer and reducing blood sugar.

For this reason, scientists have expressed snapdragon genes in tomatoes, resulting in a yet-to-be-approved genetically modified purple tomato that’s high in anthrocyanins. Farmers and gardeners achieved similar results decades ago, breeding heirloom varieties like Ukrainian Purple and Cherokee Purple, Black Ethiopian, and the Fioletovyi Kruglyi.

More recently, an ever expanding array of purple-colored garden crops have hit the market, including both old heirlooms and new hybrids, such as the Purple Podded Shelling Pea, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Purple Passion Asparagus, Purple Barley, Purple Wonder Strawberries, Purple Tomatillo, Violet de Provence Artichoke, Purple Brussels Sprouts, Sicilian Violet Cauliflower, All Purple Sweet Potatoes, and an ever-expanding assortment of purple carrots, such as Purple Haze, Purple Dragon, or Deep Purple. (There are even purple blueberries to be had, but you already knew that.)

As you ponder the dizzying array of options, you may find it hard to choose between Cherry Vanilla Quinoa, Porcelain Doll Pumpkins and Bhut Jolokia peppers. You may feel an urgent need for a popcorn stripper to remove your popcorn kernels from the cob, or decide to try your hand at tomato grafting.

Flipping through a seed catalog can create the sort of outsized agenda you get when hitting the grocery store with an empty stomach. You become susceptible to buying more than you can realistically deal with, and order seeds that are beyond your means to handle. If you don’t have a greenhouse, for example, buying tomato or pepper seeds to start on a windowsill can be a losing proposition. Trust me on this one.

That said, thumbing through a seed catalog over a warm cup of tea is a very worthwhile way to pass the winter. This is the time to plan your garden, and order your seeds in time to get it planted on schedule.

To help cut through the vast array of options among the seed catalogs, here are my picks across a wide variety of categories.

The Seedy Awards

Tightest ship, fastest delivery: Johnny’s

Best heirloom selection: Seed Savers Exchange, Native Seed Search, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Best regional seeds: Seeds from Italy, Kitazawa Seed Co. (which specializes in Asian vegetables), Urban Farmer.

Most folksy whimsy: Fedco

Most focused approach: Totally Tomatoes.

Honorable Mentions: The Cook’s Garden, Territorial Seed Company, Peaceful Valley, Gourmet Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Seeds of Change, Botanical Interests.

And here is my little-known tip for an unconventional way to grow a totally worthwhile plant you hadn’t considered growing, especially from seed: shallots. 

Shallots are something of a cross between onion and garlic. They can easily be stored for months after harvest, and if they start to get soft, they can be minced, sautéed in butter and frozen for later use. Essential to many French recipes, shallots even come in purple varieties.  

Shallots are expensive at the grocery store, and they’re also expensive to grow from sets, aka bulbs, which for some reason are the form most gardeners plant.  But shallots can also be grown from seed. A typical order of shallot sets contains about 50 bulbs and costs around $15. A packet of 250 shallot seeds is about $5, which works out to 15 times cheaper.

Shallots can be direct seeded, or started indoors to get a head-start. And even if you don’t have a greenhouse, shallots are so easy to start indoors that a windowsill will do—something that can’t be said about tomatoes, peppers or most other crops, which will turn into irreversibly spindly, contorted messes.

In mid-March, fill an open planting tray with potting soil, sprinkle a packet’s worth of seeds into it, and gently cover the seeds. Keep them watered. They will grow like grass. When the sprouts reach four inches, give the whole tray a haircut down to two inches with scissors—this will add girth to the stems and make for larger bulbs. When the ground is ready to be worked, plant your shallots—be they little plants or seeds—six to eight inches apart. Harvest when the tops begin turning brown. Enjoy through the winter, long after next year’s seed catalogs have arrived.

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