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

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

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

26 Responses to post “Burpee Gardening 2009: Seeds, Plants, Supplies”

  1. From Sheri in Los Angeles:

    No, I don’t purchase from Burpee. I just can’t stomach the Monsanto connection.

    The Twitter replies to this post were in almost universal agreement with you. (I need to figure out how to include the Twitter feedback here.) The Monsanto connection is just one reason I don’t buy from Burpee either. But it’s what kicked off my musings about seed catalogs in general and Burpee in particular–many gardeners hold strong political and moral opinions which influence their purchasing choices. — mss

  2. From Diana - Austin:

    Wow – what a plethora of seed-sowing scoop. Not to mention the scoop about Heronswood. I have bought from them before, but didn’t know they’d been sold. Interesting. So, ARE you buying seeds from some other catalog? There’s no shortage of them out there — who do you like?

  3. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    We used to buy from Burpee when I was growing up. I now favor other companies w/ more variety, better prices.

    But you should grow white marigolds! Burpee isn’t the only seed company that sells them.

  4. From Robin Wedewer:

    I agree with your comments about the catalog–particularly the names on the photos. It’s a real time saver not to have to do that hunting around to find out what a particular plant is.

    I always saw Burpee as such a generalist catalog that I’ve never ordered from them. It may be an unfounded opinion, but I believe that nurseries that specialize in particular types of plants (roses, peonies, etc.) seem to know more and provide better descriptions, in particular, in their offerings.

    Robin Wedewer

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    How fun that you can channel K.S. White in addition to Miss Lawrence!

    Ordering from seed catalogs was a cherished ritual when we lived in IL. For over 25 years at 3 different houses we made gardens, ordering from just about every company in existence, including Burpee. Once in Texas we were dumped from the mailing lists for no activity and are now reduced to looking online. It’s convenient, but one does not get the thrill attached to turning paper pages. I think Park Seed had the best cultural charts and botanical names but I remember the hoopla when someone finally won Burpee’s white marigold contest.

    You are so right, MSS – “gardener” is only a simple term to those who know nothing about being one. It’s as difficult to select the right gift for a real gardener as it is to buy the right video game for a teenager.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    It’s now exactly 50 years since K.S. White reviewed seed catalogs in the New Yorker as seriously as any other literary work. I really need to write a review of her essays that were collected into “Onward and Upward in the Garden”. In the introduction, E.B. White says that she was an editor first and foremost and so writing was a constant battle for her. I empathize completely. — mss

  6. From Marilyn Kircus- Dripping Springs, TX:

    In the interest reducing the amount of paper that comes into my home, I am constantly canceling all paper catalogs. Since all the companies now have their catalogs on-line, there is no reason to bring in material that needs to be recycled.

    I, too, have cancelled the many (and often duplicate) catalogs I receive. But seed catalogs are not among them. I treat them more like favorite magazines. I can’t envision shopping online instead of curling up in bed with a stack of seed catalogs, highlighter in hand, comparing descriptions and prices and making lists. How do you highlight online what catches your fancy? or dog-ear pages? or scribble notes in the margins? — mss

  7. From entangled:

    Like Carol, the Burpee seed catalog supplied lots of my parents’ and grandparents’ vegetable and flower seeds, and I continued to order from them for years. Over the last 10-15 years though, the variety of seeds they offer has gotten much smaller – to the point where the catalog is just not as interesting to me as it once was.

    I think there’is a lot of misinformation floating around about Burpee/Monsanto/Seminis. Many, many companies besides Burpee get their seeds from Seminis, which is owned by Monsanto and is now the largest producer of vegetable seeds in the world. There is a long explanation online from Fedco Seeds about why they choose not to buy from Seminis after the Monsanto buyout.

    But it’s very difficult for a retail customer to know the true source of anything these days. I’d hate to spend more time fretting about that than I do daydreaming about the garden.

  8. From jodi:

    I’m tickled to see you quoting Katharine White; I am working on a blog post and article quoting her chapter on seed catalogues because I LOVE the sentiments and agree completely. Burpee is not directly available here so I don’t have to debate supporting them, but I too watch to see how the drama continues to play out.

  9. From angelina:

    I’m under the impression that all seed catalogs that take the safe seed pledge don’t support any GMO created seeds- under that premise I have found quite a few catalogs that have taken the pledge.

    I think I’ve always lumped Burpee’s in with generic seeds of America which is unfair. Still, they have never captured my interest.

    I often place my seed orders online but one of my chief excitments of winter is to do as M.S.S. does and curl up in bed with my stack of garden catalogs with my favorite pen and my trusty notebook.

    Great discussion!

  10. From Layanee:

    Burpee puts out another catalog, The Cook’s Garden’ which is for the more discerning gardener. Lots of heirlooms and more great photos. They are short on Latin names though.

  11. From George Ball:

    I’m the CEO of Burpee and its subs, Heronswood and The Cook’s Garden. Burpee’s catalogue offers more varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables, as well as perennials, summer bulbs, fruit stock and root crops, than it did in the recent past. Only the number of garden pea cultivars has declined since the early 1920s. On the other hand, our lists of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cukes and squash have increased substantially, to name only a few.

    We neither sell nor breed GMO plants or seeds, so I’m not sure what the concern about Monsanto is. For a brief time, the parent companies had commercial relations. There is no other connection than what most of our competitors and friends also have. I take it that one or two companies refuse to buy from Monsanto, which is their choice. They used to own a company, Petoseed, which my father owned for almost thirty years until he sold it to a Mexican investor. After several subsequent ownerships, Monsanto bought a group which included Petoseed as a part.

    There remain excellent breeders, growers and pathologists from the “old” company, and we’re happy to buy from them when we need a variety we cannot create ourselves. Again, we don’t breed or create GMO. We practice conventional plant breeding and work with others doing the same around the world.

    Heronswood and The Cook’s Garden are boutique rare plant and gourmet vegetable cultivar companies respectively. Their stories are legendary, as is Burpee’s. I am proud to be leading them and feel blessed.
    The recent changes were quite necessary and can be examined in detail at “The Two Year Move” and “Blog For The Perplexed” in the archive on the right hand column at http://www.heronswoodvoice.com, my blog.

    Regarding the mislabel of the exclusive cosmos, if this is an error it will be corrected. It was certainly not intentional. We shall provide Latin names wherever necessary at the internet sites. Certainly it is the primary nomenclature at Heronswood, by tradition. At Burpee and Cook’s it’s often diffcult to needed data in small spaces. Catalogues are expensive to produce. Hence our websites, since 1995.

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback.
    George Ball

  12. From Frances:

    Count me among the we won’t forget about Heronswood group, didn’t know the Monsanto thing, but even though I live in TN. I have many plants that were ordered from Heronswood and loved everything about Dan Hinkley’s set up there. Even saved the old catalogs he wrote. Sort of like Tony Avent and Plant Delights, you don’t have to live there to be a supporter.

  13. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    I haven’t gotten a Burpee’s catalog in years. I guess they dropped me from the mailing list because I didn’t order anything. If I were to would plant a Marigold, it would be a white one, as I don’t like Marigolds in general because of their color. I used to order from Heronswood and treasured each catalog as a great read in addition to being a source of inspiration. The garden at Heronswood was one of the gardens I most wanted to see. The whole thing left a sour taste.

  14. From elizabeth:

    I’m one of those who regrets Heronswood; now THERE was a catalog! I loved it and ordered from it and I’ve never lived or even visited the Northwest.

    The other thing is the sort of obnoxious blog George Ball (Burpee pres) has.

    But I never order seeds from anyone … I like the idea of a white marigold.

    Where do you get your seeds, then? — mss

  15. From George Ball:

    Dear MSS
    Wow, such ill will! Where did this bad blood come from?

    McGregor’s daughter was dropped, yes, but all she has to do is go to the website, where she can see even more new things than in the print catalogue. We don’t send catalogues to folks who just want to look at it but not order. Sorry! Common sense as well as environmental responsibility. Signing up for the mailing list is easy on the net.

    Elizabeth, if you ordered between 2000 and today, you ordered from us, and we thank you. Also, if you’re very far from PNW, how did the plants do? One of the reasons we moved was to adapt plants more widely than could be done in warm wet zone 8. Also, how is someone “sort of” obnoxious?

    Frances, please read the Heronswood blogs I mentioned for a less choleric view than that prevailing. For example, we operated from 2000 to 2006 at Heronswood in Kingston, Washington, “business as usual”, with the exception of discontinuing the unillustrated 200 page catalogue in 2005, after 5 years of trying to make it profitable. We increased inventory, hired staff and funded plant exploration, as we continue to do. You’d love the “new” Heronswood, if you’d give it a chance. Sounds boring, perhaps, compared to the “sturm und drang” in the press, but that’s just a taste of the real story. The main course includes offering the nursery back to the owners in 2003 for half of what we paid them, yet having doubled its size. Also called “winning the Lotto”, especially if you’re particularly concerned about the future of the garden. So why after nearly 3 years, all the continued hand-wringing? BTW: the original garden continues to grow very nicely under our care in Kingston, Wa, as our zone 8 test garden, and where we offer Opens, twice for 2009. All gate proceeds go to The Garden Conservancy. If you live near PA, we’ll have 5 Opens at Fordhook, the new HQ for “the ‘wood”. Our ownership has been unusually fair and responsible. We respect our customers first and foremost. They write the checks, just as we did when we bought Heronswood in 2000.

    Finally, MSS, I’d love to debate you on genetics sometime…your garden or mine?

    Thanks again for your feedback.
    George Ball

    Thanks for joining in the discussion. You must find it disconcerting to read all these passionate comments. I’m not sure what you mean exactly by “debating” me on genetics. I’ve always found plant hybridization an interesting topic and have done so since I was a child and my mom read me a biography of Luther Burbank. So if you ever need a test garden for developing a strain of broccoli that won’t bolt in Austin’s so-called winter, I’m all yours. — mss

  16. From Kathy:

    I am just catching up here and I congratulate you for the excellent synopsis of the gardening community and a balanced review of Burpee’s catalog.

    In my observation it is pretty easy to manipulate the public’s perception of things via the media. Dan Hinckley certainly came across as the aggrieved party in the closing of Heronswood, but I always felt there was a lot going on that wasn’t being said.

    Regardless of the facts of the case, Hinckley certainly had the marketing upper hand. The closing was–or came across–as very abrupt, a total shock to the loyal customers, putting them firmly in sympathy with Hinckley’s version of things. Which may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    I’m not siding with Hinckley or Ball here. I’m just saying it’s human nature to believe the bad guys are all bad, and the good guys are all good, but that only happens in fairy tales. I challenge every Heronswood lover to read Mr. Ball’s version of the story with an open mind, just for the intellectual exercise of seeing something from the other guy’s point of view.

    I am encouraged to see Mr. Ball monitoring the garden blogging world and taking part in these discussions. It shows me the garden blogging world is finally getting some respect.

    Well said, Kathy. There are two sides to every story. I know very little about the Heronswood controversy except what I read on blogs. Before Burpee bought Heronswood, I’d never even heard of it. My purpose here was to review the catalog not the company while fully aware that gardening brings out passions in people and passions cause people to draw lines in the sand and take sides. I’m primarily interested in how various seed catalogs portray gardening, how they capture and reflect our times. I find it encouraging that Mr. Ball is paying attention to garden bloggers–not only listening to his customer base but engaging us in dialog.

  17. From trey:

    This is quite interesting. We have wanted to hear from executives of the large horticultural concerns, and now we have. I give George credit for taking the time to express his views.

    Like his blog or not, he is one of the few horticultural company presidents that does blog.

  18. From Shirley Bovshow \"EdenMaker\":

    I’ve enjoyed all the views concerning this post. I’m especially impressed that George Ball got in the ring even though it was not especially inviting towards him.

    George’s participation puts a “human face” on a often “misunderstood” corporation. We are all human after all, and so is the Ball Corp.

  19. From Hap:

    I haven’t thought about the Burpee seed catalog in decades! It is just too glossy, too mainstream and not well adapted to the climates I have gardened in to bother with….

    However as a kid it was one of the winter bright-spots that made the Alaskan darkness fade with the promise of spring. I would pour over it with my parents and we would get to all pick something new to try. I can even say that the white marigold contest was something that I tried my hand at, saving seed, sometimes even building little greenhouse tents over my marigold patch just to have enough warm days for the seed to ripen. Growing up in Alaska meant I didn’t like white flowers, after seven to eight months of snow I wanted color, bright and vulgar color, but I was convinced that I could win that prize money, so at the age of seven I started tending a hillside of marigolds and playing the mad scientist. If nothing else the Burpee Seed catalog helped me learn the scientific process and to become an avid plant-nerd. I never got a white marigold, all though perhaps I did develop an early bloomer with buff colored blooms… but by the time I was hitting my teens I had moved on to orchids and cacti so marigolds had lost their interest.

    But last winter, when I helped my retiring parents clean out the family house, I found my jars of marigold seed, so perhaps if any of the 30 year old(+) seed can still sprout my marigold experiment can go on. Perhaps I can cross some of them with Tagetes lemmonii and get something exciting!

  20. From elizabeth:

    Hi MSS,

    I very rarely buy seeds–once in a great while I buy from Select Seeds, but just a couple packs.

    I hadn’t even noticed George Ball posted a comment here, or most likely I would have refrained from dissing his blog. But that wasn’t my main point. I still regret the loss of the Heronswood catalog very much.

  21. From Kevin ,Ohio:

    Mr. Ball,

    The concern with Monsanto is this. You purchase ( so does Johnny’s and Park) seeds from Seminis which is a sub of Monsanto. The feeling among many folks in the garden community is that you buy seeds from Seminis
    you are putting money into the bank accounts of Monsanto. Therefor many of many including myself are boycotting Seminis seeds while still purchasing from Burpee,Park,and Johnny’s. Replacements for the variates that got axed are ether comparable hybrids or heirloom seeds such as Baker Creek has.

    I want you to understand this is not a slight against Burpee but it is our only way to urge you to stop buying seed from these people.We do not want our money to fund research for what has been called frankinfood. I will not boycott Burpee but will continue to not purchase seeds from Seminis.

  22. From George:

    Dear Kevin
    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. You seem quite sincere and I appreciate your forebearance.

    I believe you are somewhat wrong about “frankenfood” or whatever it’s called. I assume this is a silly name for GMO derived crops. However, the mad scientist Dr Frankenstein used “spare parts” from various cadavers to assemble a monster he jolted to life with lightening bolts.

    Monsanto’s scientist aren’t the least bit demented. On the contrary, those I met are extremely intelligent, extraordinarily gifted molecular biologists and geneticists, many from ordinary and unremarkable backgrounds.

    The goal of the science used at such companies such as Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, Syngenta and others, is to reduce risks and costs to farmers as well as consumers. Its purpose is to reduce chemical, labor and land inputs, resulting in less negative environmental impact and improved agricultural productivity. What used to be called “factory farms” will be smaller—not larger.

    In the seed world I’m familiar with, Monsanto would like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. This requires investments in the same kinds of advanced technologies as those that result in new medicines and therapeutic procedures to improve health—life sciences.

    I have no big dog in this hunt, except the “dog of truth”, if you will. Perhaps an analysis of produce from GMO farm crop and non-GMO farm crop would be helpful. If your concern is that all produce become 100% chemical fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide free, you will need some level of advanced technology. Otherwise, the present structure and organization of the world’s food supply will need to be completely transformed. The costs of growing and supplying produce or food from very small farms scattered outside every town and city in an entirely organic method and using old, open-pollinated varieties, will be enormous—a huge logistic and infrastructural transformation. Ironically, this level of social engineering would make a “mad scientist” happy, but in this case a political scientist. This is not my area of expertise.

    Thanks very much for continuing to support Burpee, you may like “Space Genie” and “Vitamin G” at my weblog. http://www.heronswoodvoice.com,

    George Ball

  23. From Bob, WA:

    Thanks Kevin I did not know what exactly was the Monsanto Burpee connection before your reply. I love Heronswood plants many of which became rediscovered and used throughout the nation such as several species Paeonia, Helleborus, Aconitum, Thalictrum, and Epimediums. To George if their are problems with growing these out East I would wonder why Asiatica a nursery in PA or Plant Delights in North Carolina that I order from now is successful.

  24. From Phyllis Rape:

    Please send me a seed catalog.
    Thank you, Phyllis Rape, 1228 Orchard Lane, El Dorado, AR 71730

  25. From kim cantor:

    go to garden of eatin website for list of “safe seed” companies NOT affiliated with or supplied by Monsanto…i was shocked at the seed companies who obtain their seeds from Monsanto affiliated companies!!

  26. From Cindy L Whoo:

    I came searching about the safety of Burpee seeds so thank you for this post. The last thing I want is to buy any seeds connected to Monsanto and the Seminis connection was all I needed to hear. This year I missed the local seed exchange day but you can bet next year I’ll be there buying and trading my heirloom seeds. My Burpee catalog will go in the trash. I’m not trusting my seeds or my family’s health to Burpee and Monsanto.