“It is encouraging to find Burpee in 1959 somewhat less preoccupied with chromosomes.” — Katherine S. White.

January 25th, 2009
Burpee Gardening 2009: Seeds, Plants, Supplies

Those people who think of gardening as being its own niche might be surprised at the breadth and depth of passions among gardeners. To outsiders we all may seem to belong to the same tribe; within there’s plenty of lines drawn in the sand: organic-only or herbicides and pesticides; native plants or collections of exotics; productive gardens or strictly ornamentals; design-focused or plant crazy; seed-starters or seedlings-only; the latest greatest hybrids or open-pollinated heirlooms. Not only do we disagree with each other, we frequently disagree with ourselves.

How does a company market to such a diverse audience? Like Katherine S. White and Michael Pollan before me, I love reading seed catalogs not solely to jump-start my dreams of the new gardening season, but to ferret out insights of who we gardeners are and how we see ourselves in this new millennium.

The 2009 edition Burpee catalog is as large and glossy as a magazine: 7 1/2″ x 10 1/2″, 136-pages of full-color photographs. The first 21 pages focus on what’s new for 2009 and recent favorites, both flowers and vegetables: the annual flowers from Abutilon to Zinnia, the perennial flowers from Achillea to Verbascum, a section on grapes and berries, another on starter plants, then summer bulbs, and finally 44 pages of vegetables. For “customers concerned about the uses of any and all kinds of chemicals” there is a one-page list of certified organic seed. This Burpee catalog also includes half a dozen pages of seed-starting and general garden equipment and an index (English names).

The makers of the Burpee catalog firmly believe a photo is worth a thousand words. One thing I like about their use of photos is that the plant name is printed on the photo. (Other catalogs use a letter or number and then you have to search the page to find the corresponding entry.)

However, most plant descriptions are only a few lines long and those lines consist mostly of exclamations. Of flowers: “Intense. Brilliant. A must have. Dazzling. Incredible! Amazingly free-flowering.” Of vegetables: “Sweet! Giant! Giant sweet! Tender.” Did I mention “sweet”?

There are only so many adjectives one can use to describe the flavor of a tomato, for example. So I can forgive some repetition. However, I became very suspicious of their use of red small caps letters announcing “Burpee Exclusive”–especially after I noticed that it was applied to a variety of cosmos I’d just ordered from Select Seeds (at a lesser price to boot).

The Burpee catalog uses icons sparingly: only three representing “full sun, part sun, shade”. The descriptions do include the number of seeds in the packet, the height of the plant, for vegetables, the number of days to maturity, and any awards. The description does not include the botanical name. This immediately disqualifies a catalog in my mind. I’m aware that market research shows that there is a group of American gardeners who are equally put off when botanical names are included. Writers of seed catalogs walk a fine line to try to please everyone. The Burpee folks have an audience in mind and I am not numbered among it.

Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden, tweeted me about another issue that has set many gardeners in the blogosphere against Burpee: its buyout of Heronswood Nursery. I don’t live in the northwest and I’d never heard of Heronswood before the controversy. So it’s not the first thing I think of when I think of Burpee.

If your thing is heirloom or open-pollinated seeds, then Burpee probably isn’t your favorite company. They are hybridizers of the first class. No less than Luther Burbank gave Burpee his endorsement even as Katherine S. White decried their desire to make zinnias look like chrysanthemums or dahlias. Perhaps their most famous endeavor was the search for the white marigold. For over 20 years Burpee offered a $10,000 prize to the breeder of a white marigold and in 1975 awarded it to Alice Vonk.

Katherine S. White didn’t understand why anyone would want a marigold that looked like a chrysanthemum or one that was white. (Some people feel the same thing about maroon bluebonnets or purple cornflowers.) I, however, would love a white marigold. Marigolds are one of those flowers which can take Austin’s hot and humid summers. I generally dislike yellow flowers but I love white flowers. A white marigold is just what I’m looking for.

I have never ordered anything from Burpee before, nor did I buy anything from them this year. I am irritated by their catalog’s lack of botanical names and waiting to see how the Heronswood controversy will play out. But “never say never”. The lure of the white marigold still tempts me.

Crinum bulbispermumCrinum bulbispermum. Austin TX 2009-01-20.

January 21st, 2009
Crinum bulbispermum

Hardy swamplily, Crinum bulbispermum, proves to be as cold-hardy as it is reputed. (I’ve read that it is the most cold tolerant Crinum species.) This one came into bud during last week’s hard freeze and I thought the flower would die. But it opened. The earliest it’s opened in my garden before this is April 7th.

As you might guess from the name, hardy swamplily likes wet feet and is happy in a bog garden. But it can survive drought although it won’t flower as freely.

Related post: Crinums Gone Wild

Narcissus tazetta v. italicus
Narcissus tazetta v. italicus. Austin TX. Jan 15, 2009

January 15th, 2009
GBBD 200901: Jan 2009

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month. Visit her to see what is blooming all over the world today and be inspired to add your own list.

Also thanks again to Renee Studebaker who featured Garden Bloggers Bloom Day in last week’s Austin American-Statesman.

January 15, 2009

January wouldn’t feel right if the Narcissus tazetta v italicus weren’t blooming. I think of them as my New Year’s Day flowers, although they began blooming a bit late this year (Jan 13th). Their leaves are strappier than paperwhites and a darker green. They have yellow cups and, I think, smell better than paperwhites–although I’m sure others will disagree.

Another faithful January flower is winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima. This year it began blooming on Jan 7th. You might infer from its botanical name that winter honeysuckle is more a flower to be smelled than seen. I like the The Gardener of Good and Evil‘s description of the scent: rather like lemon Pledge.

Lonicera fragrantissima

The big surprise today was finding some teeny tiny clammy weed, Polanisia dodecandra flowers. Clammy weed (a relative of cleome) is definitely a summer flower in my mind, usually blooming after the bluebonnets and larkspur have died down. But during the drought, clammy weed has tried to bloom with every hint of rain. The almost half inch we got last week brought up these tiny plants and they’ve decided they better flower and set seed regardless of season. Talk about a will to survive. To get a sense of scale, look at these flowers next the larkspur seedling coming up on the left. Clammy weed is usually knee-high at Zanthan Gardens.

Polanisia dodecandra

For GBBD I try to be a stickler for the rules, including only flowers blooming specifically on the 15th. Another rule that I invented for myself was to post photos only for those flowers that weren’t blooming in the previous GBBD. However, knowing that so many of you are under piles of snow and shivering in temperatures I can’t even imagine surviving, I thought I’d throw in as many flowers as I could find.

I know you like to dream that we’re down here in Texas soaking up the sun, sipping our margaritas, and lying about in a field of flowers. True. True. But January can have its bleak moments even in Austin, not because we have your endless days of dark, cold dreariness but precisely because we don’t. When it’s in the 80s one week and in the 20s the next, this is what happens:

Pandorea ricasoliana
Frost damage to Port St. John’s creeper from hard freeze on Jan 13, 2009

I know I’m not eliciting any sympathy here from the snowbound. Indeed, I rather wish a hard freeze would kill the Port St. John’s creeper to the ground and more. My point is that when it’s summer one day and winter the next and then summer the next, chances for flowers are rather hit or miss.

rose Red Cascade
One dime-sized freeze-dried flower on the rose ‘Red Cascade’.

On the bright side, the rosemary (which had just started blooming last GBBD) is now in full sunlight and full flower. And since it wasn’t windy this morning, I got a better photo of it than I did last month. Northerners are always surprised to see “tender” rosemary planted in roadside borders and medians around Austin. The biggest danger to rosemary down here is a wet year (and what are the chances of that?) Well, in the weirdly wet summer of 2007, lots of people lost rosemary. This one died back by two-thirds.


Another plant happier with the New Year is the ‘Green Arrow’ English peas. I had a few flowers last GBBD but since the solstice, the vines have exploded with flowers and pods. They haven’t filled out enough to eat yet but I think they’ll be ready within the week.

English pea Green Arrow

As long as we’re in the vegetable garden, does this brocolli head count as a flower for GBBD? Or would I have to let it bolt?

broccoli Premium Crop

I had to hustle to get my potted plants indoors a couple of nights ago. I can’t figure out if this plant is going to bloom or not. Annie in Austin grows it. Annie, if you’re reading, would you leave a link to your post about this plant because I forgot what it is.. Thanks for letting me know that it’s “Mother-of-Thousands”. I hope mine blooms as beautifully as yours did last January.

mystery plant

January 15th, 2009

The list of all plants flowering today, January 15th 2009, at Zanthan Gardens.

  • Asclepias curassavica
  • Duranta erecta (small flowers but doing well; two bushes covered with golden berries, too)
  • Labularia maritima procumbens ‘Tiny Tim’
  • Lavandula heterophylla ‘Goodwin Creek’
  • Lonicera fragrantissima
  • Narcissus tazetta italicus
  • Pisum sativum ‘Green Arrow’ (English peas)
  • Podranea ricasoliana (half blooming, half frozen)
  • Polanisia dodecandra
  • Rose ‘Blush Noisette‘ (a couple of flowers)
  • Rose ‘New Dawn’ (one bud that may or may not freeze before opening)
  • Rose ‘Red Cascade’
  • rosemary (full bloom)

I usually buy sweet alyssum in six-packs from a big box store. I love it’s thick honey-scent on a warm spring day and the flowers last usually until mid-May or until Austin’s high temperatures are in the mid 90s. This year I decided to see if I could grow it from seed and it was […]

January 6th, 2009
Labularia maritima procumbens ‘Tiny Tim’

I usually buy sweet alyssum in six-packs from a big box store. I love it’s thick honey-scent on a warm spring day and the flowers last usually until mid-May or until Austin’s high temperatures are in the mid 90s.

This year I decided to see if I could grow it from seed and it was ridiculously easy.

Botanical Interests ($1.69 250mg). Alyssum, sweet ‘Tiny Tim’. Packet blurb, “Much superior to ‘Carpet of Snow’—dense, compact dwarf plant never needs to be sheared. Fragrant white flowers all summer!”

Garden History

Plant two rows (the whole packet) of sweet alyssum ‘Tiny Tim’ in raised vegetable garden.

First flower. And I haven’t even gotten around to transplanting them yet!

pruning roses

January 2nd, 2009
Unnatural Selection

Morticia Addams was my second role-model as a child, a fact that becomes more evident in April when the bluebonnets and larkspur come into flower and I run around the meadow busily snipping off flowers as soon as they open. All winter and early spring I cultivate and nurture my wildflower meadow waiting impatiently for the flowers to open, checking every day, poking at buds. Then. They open. And it’s off with their heads!

My meadow flowers are rampant self-sowers. In the larkspur, especially, there is wide variation. I’m notoriously selective. I save the seed of my favorites and throw out the rest. I hoped, over time, to develop a strain of larkspur that favored the exact conditions of my micro-climate and of the variations I like best.

I used to simply collect the seeds from the plants I liked and cut the ones I didn’t like out before they set seed. Someone laughed at me and said they were probably cross-pollinating anyway. So now I cut off the flowers of the ones less favored as soon as they open.

I always collect and label seed but nature typically has a head start on me so much of what sprouts the next year is from seed I didn’t sow. I do find repetition over the years which makes me think the seed does come true. But there is variation, too, like the strange green-flowered larkspur in 2008 (which unfortunately didn’t set seed).

larkspur seedlings

This year I decided to take a more scientific approach. I sowed the seed in marked rows and I’m transplanting each type together so that I can see if the seed comes true and to what extent.

I’ve always been interested in selective breeding. As gardeners we can pick and choose the characteristics of our open-pollinated plants, keeping those with the characteristics we favor: best flavor, disease-resistance, color, size, early blooming or late bolting. Indeed we reap what we sow. These last 20 years has seen an resurgence of interest over heirloom varieties. Someone (I can’t remember who) made a point about heirlooms that I found quite interesting: the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that I grow is not the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that Thomas Jefferson grew–although it may be a descendant. In each generation we select a few choice tomatoes for their seed and over the generations, they vary (not from mutation but from selection–gardeners and farmers are the intelligent designers). So even the same open-pollinated tomato variety from different sources may differ.

All the larkspur in my garden comes from two sources. The first was a packet from central Texas-based Wildseed Farms (which they label as Delphinium ajacis, rocket larkspur) which I bought at Barton Springs Nursery in 1994. The other was from Select Seeds (so appropriately named!) a selection named ‘Earl Grey‘. The ‘Earl Grey’ has never been silvery or slate grey but always a strange muddy mauve. I thought they’d died out of the garden completely but one or two comes up every year.

larkspur seedlings

I began transplanting my larkspur seedlings on New Year’s Eve….very, very late but it has been so dry and the meadow (and thankfully the weeds) are off to a slow start. Already I’m impatiently waiting to see what will develop.