A few arrived last fall and the rest are sure to come in the next couple of months. Seed catalogs!
Today’s seed catalogs offer not only packets of seeds (sometimes organic), but also tubers, bulbs and seedlings. Often seed planting, labeling, weeding and watering devices are also available through the company. The colorful pictures are stunning and valuable information is provided with each seed description. Online versions of a catalog allow for easy viewing as well as for placing orders.
Colonists coming from Europe and other countries often brought seeds with them to plant familiar crops in their new home. As was the custom, some seeds were set aside to replant the next season. But some of these seeds were not suited to growing conditions here. Settlers traded with Native Americans for some of their seeds, which were well adapted to this land. Other seeds and trees had to be imported from England and Europe to supply some fruit and vegetables.
The Smithsonian digital library contains some 258 seed catalogs in its collection. Oregon State University has a special collection of seed catalogs. These catalogs give a history of agriculture and gardening in America. For instance, the collections list the 1784 David and Cuthbert Landreth Seed Company of Philadelphia. Seeds would be available at the general store or via company agents who travelled to rural areas to sell a company’s seeds. Initially, the “catalog” was merely a price list.
Seeds were normally sold in cloth sacks or barrels. In the early 1800s, the Shakers came up with the idea of selling seeds in packets, then called “papers.” Most seeds were purchased primarily by farmers. The 1832 catalog of G. Thornburn included information about sowing times suitable for the New York area. His catalog also encouraged women to garden, by providing information on pressing flowers and botanical drawings. Seed catalogs printed in the 1850s contained some illustrations, thanks to innovations in printing at the time. The railroad system and better postal service delivery opened the door for the expansion of seed companies into a mail-order business. The 1860 seed catalog of B.K. Bliss offered “choice seeds by mail.” For $1 (post paid), the customer could have 20 varieties (company’s selection) in small packets of “the most desirable varieties.” But it would not include peas, beans or corn “on account of their weight.”
Seed companies may simply source seeds from a breeder and retail them. Some may trial the seeds for dependability in a geographic area. The 1890 front cover of the W. Atlee Burpee seed catalog stated that the company was a seed grower. By 1900, Burpee’s catalog boasted the “largest trial gardens in America.” Burpee was breeding his own seed varieties on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
In the early 1900s, hybrids (one pure strain of a species crossed with another pure strain to produce a seed that will have the desirable characteristics of both parent plants) were being developed. Several hybrids become available to farmers in the 1930s. But, if a farmer wanted to have those desirable traits the next season, he had to purchase new seeds. The seeds produced by the hybrid plant itself will not breed true the following year, so the seeds could not be saved from year to year.
Catalogs have come a long way from those available almost 300 years ago. Seed catalogs have shaped, to a large extent, the gardening habits of us all. They have promoted the tomato, iceberg lettuce and stringless beans that we have come to think of as staples. But there is always the temptation to try something different, so keep that new catalog handy.
Donna Gates is a retired lab technician for the University of Maryland. Her gardening interests are centered around her rural Garrett County home.