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.

Grow Local

Note: I originally wrote this post for Austin Metblogs.

When the redbuds are in bloom and the skies are blue, loft-dwellers and suburbanites alike feel the pull of spring. Instead of heading over to the big box store to pick up a flat of petunias, check out Austin’s local nurseries. Not only does buying from local entrepreneurs support fellow Austinites but in the plant and garden business, local advice is best. Austin has challenging conditions to garden in and the local nurseries can help you find plants best suited for our climate.

Austin is fortunate to have many and varied local nurseries. Most of them are interesting destinations in themselves with quite distinct personalities. Check them out!

Barton Springs Nursery. Out in West Lake on Bee Caves Rd, Barton Springs Nursery is my prime source for native plants. They have a very helpful, knowledgeable staff and extensive shaded grounds. They also carry an assortment of planters, garden decorations, bird baths and fountains.

Big Red Sun. (Annoying Flash site but great real-world site.) On East 1st Street, Big Red Sun has a modern, urban feel. It carries very architectural plants (lots of succulents and cacti) and unusual planters. Their gift shop also sells apparel and housewares. A great place for integrating your indoor/outdoor lifestyles–even if all you have in terms of outdoors is a balcony. If you have no design sense, they can help you make something striking.

Floribunda. Formerly located on South Lamar, Floribunda has just lost its lease as South Lamar is being transformed to “SoLa”. However, their garden design business is still going strong and they do some of the most eye-popping designs in Austin. The owners hope to find a new location and reopen the nursery this fall.

Gardens. Near the Mo-Pac off the 38th St exit, Gardens is Austin’s high-end nursery and landscape designers. The plants are sometimes exotic and the gift shop always is. You’ll find plants at Gardens you won’t find elswhere. They are THE nursery to go to if you are looking for heirloom tomatoes and eggplants. They also carry unusual seeds that you can typically get only through mail-order, as well as a varied supply of bulbs suited for the south.

The Great Outdoors. On South Congress near St. Ed’s, the Great Outdoors is a green refuge in the middle of the city. It has magnificent live oaks, a huge water feature, and a coffee shop—oh yeah, and lots and lots of plants. The gift shop is filled with playful garden accessories.

It’s About Thyme. If you live in far south Austin, or north Buda, here’s an alternative to the Lowe’s and Home Depots that dot every corner. Located on far south Manchaca in what was once a ranch, the grounds of It’s About Thyme flow seamlessly into the fields beyond. They have all the typical nursery fare but what distinguishes them is the number of greenhouses with a varied assortment of ferns and palms.

John Dromgoole’s The Natural Gardener. Located in southwest Austin, the Natural Gardener has extensive grounds with many different show gardens to provide inspiration of what you can do with native and xeriscapic plants. Not only is this a great source of ideas and information and native plants, it is the place to go to get a wide variety of composts and mulches, either by the bag or the pickup load. Truly an Austin gardening institution.

Shoal Creek Nursery. Off the Mo-Pac on Hancock, Shoal Creek Nursery has a good selection of roses, shrubs and trees—their focus is the suburban gardener. Importantly, Shoal Creek Nursery sells only plants raised by regional growers, which means they will be more adapted to our harsh climate than plants shipped in by out-of-state growers like Monrovia.

Sledd Nursery. Located in Clarksville, this small nursery has been in Austin for almost three decades. If you like azaleas, this is the place to go. Sledd Nursery is my shrub and tree source but that’s not all they carry. They pack an amazing variety of annuals, veggies, bulbs, and roses into a very small space.

Where do you get your plant fix, and why?

Thompson & Morgan Seed Catalog 2007

Thompson & Morgan Seed Catalog 2007 is the first catalog to arrive this season. Joy! If it weren’t 88F degrees outside, I’d curl up next to a fire and lose myself in dreams of spring.

My batting average for growing things from seed is pretty low. The last few years I’ve been content to let those things that I had luck with self-sow and then transplant the seedlings where I wanted them. Yet in gardening all things run in cycles and now I feel the itch of curiousity again, the desire to explore and experiment.

A cheery British optimism runs through its pages. Seedsmen who would include ginkgo and wisteria (5 seeds/$4.95 for either) assume a certain respect for their customer base. As purveyors of “Quality English Seeds Since 1855” they must be onto something. Reading these pages I always feel like I’m scanning the garden forum seed exchange notices. And I’m fond of the understated tone common to British companies. “Some of the varieties featured in this catalog are so rare that we have secured the world’s supply–please order today to avoid disappointment.”

The catalog’s is small (9×5 1/2″) on glossy paper with full color photographs. The plant descriptions terse but informative. Botanical names? Natch. A coding system is used to pack as much information into a small space as possible. This is a seed catalog that I can use as a reference book. My favorite feature is the suggested temperature ranges for germination in Fahrenheit. Another feature I like is that they indicate how many seeds are in a packet rather than sell by weight.

Seeds are gathered from all over the world, shipped to England where they are cleaned and packed, and then sent to New Jersey for distribution in the USA and Canada. Since September 2001, new regulations have made it difficult to buy or exchange seeds from overseas. As a member of the RHS, I used to participate in their seed exchange, once free but now too expensive for me to play around with. So I appreciate Thompson & Morgan for a peek into what’s popular abroad.

T&M states that they will “not knowingly offer endangered species from the wild.” And because of the backlash against genetically modified seeds in the UK and the EU they state in bold print on the inside cover, “We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that none of our seeds have been genetically modified and never will be.”

Wish List
* Lathyrus grandiflorus: ‘Elegant Ladies’ sweetpeas. I do have a weakness for sweetpeas even though I’ve really only had success with the heirloom ‘Cupani’.

* Nigella damascena: Love-in-a-Mist. My ‘Persian Jewels’ continue to self-sow but each year the flowers get smaller and their colors muddier. Maybe the very dark ‘Oxford Blue’ to celebrate AJM’s alma mater. Not like I need another blue flower in the spring meadow garden though.

* Nicotiana sylvestris: ornamental tobacco. I’ve been meaning to try this fragant white southern flower forever and still haven’t gotten around to it.

* Viola: I’ve always preferred the diminuitve violas to their cousins the pansies. Of course I’m drawn to the blue Sorbet hybrid ‘Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow’. I didn’t have luck growing violas from seed before so I’ll probably just by some six-packs from the big box store.

* Tomatos: T&M offers both hybrids and heirlooms. I’ll have to compare these against Hanna’s descriptions and against other seed catalogs. My standby tomato is ‘Sungold’–it’s the one I’ve had the most luck with over the years and I love it’s bright citrusy flavor. However, I’m always up for trying a new variety, even if I’m forced to grow them between the roses now just to find a spot of sunlight.

Schreiner’s Iris

The first week of March brings the most anticipated catalog to my door: the Schreiner’s Iris Lover’s Catalog. The Collector’s Edition is the Victoria Secret of flower catalogs, 72 pages of full-color photographs on glossy stock. It is $5.00 the first time (applicable to your order, and then they send it to you free every year). Or, you can order their free mini-catalog. Or, best yet, you can browse online at Schreiner’s Gardens redesigned and much-improved site.

Three generations of the Schreiner family has been breeding and selling irises since 1925. They have bred many of the country’s top-selling and award-winning irises. Schreiner’s also sell irises bred by other famous iris breeders.
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Territorial Seed Company

Each year it’s a toss-up whether I will order my vegetable garden seeds from Shepherd’s Garden Seeds or the Territorial Seed Company. Usually Shepherd’s wins because by the time I decide what I want to order, it is to late to wait for a shipment, and Shepherd’s seeds are carried at several nurseries in Austin.

But this year I will probably try the Territorial Seed Company. I’d prefer to support a smaller seed company rather than another White Flower Farms subsidiary. I don’t have any complaint with Shepherd’s. They introduced me to my favorite tomato, Carmello, and my favorite basil, Genovese.
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Select Seeds: Antique Flowers

Marilyn Barlow began Select Seeds to bring “the flowers that our grandmothers loved into our gardens once more”. Select Seeds sells the old, typically open-pollinated, varieties that were popular in gardens two or three generations ago. One advantage, of course, is that open-pollinated varieties will come true from seed. So you can save seed each year.
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High Country Gardens

I’ve never ordered from High Country Gardens but only because I prefer to get my perennials from a local source. However, if I lived in an area which did not have as many excellent sources of native and xeric plants, I would think that the expense of buying plants throught the mail would be worth it. I always put the catalog aside for someday…someday when I want a specific variety that is not available locally. For example, where else (in America) will you find eight different varieties of lavender?
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