“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.