A good read

More changes are afoot in the potting shed than just a remodel and reorganization. We are entering the modern age finally and ordering seeds on line rather than sending them off by mail. But even though we’ve decided to embrace technology for the sake of faster gratification than waiting for checks to be issued and the mail sent both ways, I still think reading a paper catalog is easier and more fun than staring at web pages. –That said, I can understand why some plant and seed companies have gone entirely on line and I applaud them for not wasting trees, ink, and postage on me when clearly the world is moving away from those things. So for however long it takes for the rest of us to prefer the feeling of an e-reader in our paws rather than a bound book, paper catalogs will have a welcome place on my lap.

Last year I placed our first order (in my time) with Chiltern Seeds in England. I searched on line for what we wanted — certain grasses and sweet peas that weren’t available through our usual sources — and was only mildly annoyed when some of their plants were listed without pictures. After all, a google images search is only a tab away. But this year they sent us a paper catalog. At first I was overwhelmed by it because the skinny onion-skin pages hold 4000+ plant descriptions, all but 9 without pictures! But after flicking through quickly, I started reading from the beginning and found the reward: tucked here and there amongst perfectly illustrative descriptions is humor, personality, and interesting information.

I learned that Dispsacus fullonum, which I have been calling Fuller’s teasel (because that’s what its species name implies) is in fact “common teasel”. The teasel actually used by fullers to card wool is Dipsacus sativus, whose dried flower heads “are a miracle of nature” with ” hundreds of tiny, stiff, downward-turned hooks amazingly and geometrically arranged.”  The description of Eryngium planum ‘Blue Glitter’ made me nod and snort because “the writer likes this one!” and after calling the flower heads “innumerable,” he actually counted 85 on the stem on his desk. I never noticed before that Silphium lacinatum orients its leaves to the poles. (I also didn’t know it’s called compass plant, pilot weed, and polar plant.) So cool. And I loved that towards the end the writer looked like he was getting a little punchy. The description for Viola ‘Cats’ begins,

“It is no secret that the writer likes his cats: as he pens these words, there’s a white porcelain cat glowering down at him from the mantlepiece warning him against making purrfectly awful puns about purrfect faces or even suggesting having a purr of these lovely Pansies in pots outside your front door. So he won’t!”

Like turning the last page of a good book, I was a little sad to finish that catalog. But we placed a big order and have a whole season of our own opinions about those plants – mostly sweet peas and primroses – to look forward to.

Do you still read plant and seed catalogs cover to cover? Do you have a favorite?

4 thoughts on “A good read

  1. I love LOVE Chiltern. Haven’t ever got their print catalog. I may have to after this. I loved Arrowhead’s catalog copy from Bob Stewart for the same reasons.

    Susan, Thanks for the heads up about Arrowhead Alpines – any catalog listing “rare plants for obsessive gardeners” is worth a thorough read by me! -kris

  2. I need to find the Chiltern catalog–that sounds very amusing! The only one I currently read cover to cover is Plant Delights. He’s a little irreverent, so it’s not for everyone… but I love the tongue-in-cheek humor and hardiness notes like: “Zones 9b to 6b, at least” and “Zones 7-10, possibly colder” :-)

    Kim, I love reading Plant Delights too and can’t wait for the latest to arrive (I had to request it again since we didn’t end up placing an order last year – though the 2012 catalog is much marked up and dog-eared…) -kris

  3. Sadly Arrowhead no longer does a printed catalog since Bob Stewart died. The web site is nice but not for reading in bed. I like High Country Gardens and Siskiyou (although they have cut back). Heronswood was wonderful, but sadly gone. The only really extensive catalog I know of is Forest Farm, but no pictures. Will try to get Chiltern. Thompson and Morgan is fun to read too. Even White Flower Farm, who never spared any expensive, has those annoying lists at the end of sections of plants without descriptions that say “see web site.” If I am looking at peonies I want to see pictures and descriptions of every one they have so I can compare. However, I know it is getting more and more expensive to print and mail.

    Priscilla, I miss Heronswood! I actually came across an old catalog the other day. Could read those like a book because they were so book-like! Full of fascinating info and essays. -kris

  4. I would also like to recommend Evermay Nursery in Maine. They are small but have a nice web site and, naturally, their plants are hardy. This year they were only able to send a price list instead of their usual catalog. They have two young sons who needed extensive medical care this year and so they weren’t able to raise as many plants and do the catalog. I plan to order a few things just to help them out. Hope others will too. http://www.evermaynursery.com

    Thanks, Priscilla – we’ll check them out and wish them well. -kris

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