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When I was a child, most of the seeds we would select came from the catalog of one of the big companies, like Burpee or Park Seed, but now a plethora of catalogs arrive from companies as diverse as the population of gardeners.

One of the great joys of January is the promise of what is to come that arrives in my physical mailbox (or increasingly in my digital email inbox). Seed catalogs arrive just as the days start to lengthen. I have loved these catalogs since I was a child, and remember sitting with my father and plotting out what we would grow that season. My father has been gone for many years now, but I still feel like he is at my side when I peruse a catalog filled with vegetable seed offerings.

This ‘Incantatore’ raddichio from Uprising Seeds is as delicious as it is beautiful.

When I was a child, most of the seeds we would select came from the catalog of one of the big companies, like Burpee or Park Seed, but now a plethora of catalogs arrive from companies as diverse as the population of gardeners. For me, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has taken the position of Burpee’s as the standard bearer, particularly of hybrid seeds of flowers and vegetables—and its growing guides, filled with advice on timing and germination temperatures, have replaced books like the “Reader’s Digest Gardening Handbook” in answering all sort of questions that come up regarding the cultivation of everything from ageratum to zinnias. Johnny’s sells quality seeds and their catalog is a workhorse and a guidebook, but the Baker’s Creek catalog is where one goes to dream. Filled with lush photographs of heirloom tomatoes and fragrant Japanese cultivars of stock, Baker’s Creek (rareseeds.com) has put together a list of seeds that would have tempted Eve to voluntarily leave the Garden of Eden.  I know my father had his favorite tomato varieties to which he remained loyal, but I imagine even he would be tempted by some of the Russian black heirloom varieties from Baker’s Creek.

This Turkish summer squash, known as ‘Kars Yumourtasi” and available from Two Seeds in a Pod, have been placed in the garden by Araucana chickens.

If Baker’s Creek is a picture book, Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) is a short story collection. Their varieties, all heirloom varieties that are open pollinated and that come true-to-type, can have their seeds saved from year to year.  Here are peppers and ground cherries that were passed down from generation to generation, corn varieties from indigenous tribes, and tomatoes like ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’ which were grown by a circus promoter who fertilized his plants with elephant dung. I do not remember the descriptions of tomatoes from vintage Burpee catalogs but do not recollect my dad sharing such tales with me, so I imagine this historical narrative aspect of a seed was not as omnipresent in my youth, but it sure is engaging to learn about now.

‘Queeny Red Lime Zinnia’ from Johnny’s is a prolific bloomer.

Each day a new tome arrives. The Kitazawa Seed Company (kitazawaseed.com) has me contemplating Asian greens and Japanese bunching onions and Chinese broccoli varieties. Online offerings such as the regional selections from Fruition Seeds (fruitionseeeds.com) in upstate New York offer varieties that should be well adapted to growing in the Berkshires. There has been an explosion of seed companies, as artisanal farmers and entrepreneurs have started offering carefully curated collections. Hudson Valley Seed Company (hudsonvalleyseed.com) was one of the earliest such companies, but they are now joined by Fruition, Truelove (trueloveseeds.com), and others which have branded themselves and found loyal audiences. Two other favorites, Two Seeds in a Pod (twoseedsinapod.com) and Uprising Seeds (uprisingorganics.com), have special appeal for me. The former has an incredible selection of Middle Eastern vegetable varieties (as in Turkey, not the Mid-Atlantic, even though the company is based in the South), and the latter has an array of Italian chicories and heirloom vegetables (even though the company is based in the Pacific Northwest).

This Arctic Rose tomato from Fruition Seeds should do well in a zone 5 garden.

While I still have nostalgia for the days of poring over an old Burpee’s catalog with my father, I truly treasure how my seed reading list has expanded over the decades and how that has influenced what I grow.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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Elle Villetto and Jared Kelly of William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty offer an 1860 colonial home, stylishly updated and move-in ready. See it now and be in before the summer!

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.