Seed catalogs offer winter therapy for gardeners
“I can sit down and read a seed catalog like a book,” says Deborah Stiffler-Zugates of Blairsville.
It’s an annual ritual that gets gardeners through the winter with dreams of growing something new and wonderful for the next season.
“Visions of sugar plums dance in your head,” she says. “I want one of this and one of that; I have to control myself.”
She’s actually trying to cut back in her garden as she begrudgingly admits to being “over 60,” with some back issues. Like many gardeners though, she can’t resist when leafing through the glossy pages.
Her favorite catalog is Richter’s Herbs, based in Ontario, Canada.
“They have little stories in among their catalog entries, some of the history of the herbs,” she says.
That’s a recurring theme with seed catalogs, those stories can make a special connection between plant and gardener. The tales are fun to repeat when visitors come to the garden. Years ago, she discovered ‘Mojito’ mint from Richter’s which peaked her interest long before it came back into fashion as a trendy drink order. “A friend of their’s went to Cuba, somehow brought it back and they propagated it.” The catalog describes ‘Mojito’ this way, “Its scent and flavor are agreeably mild and warm, not pungent nor overly sweet like other mints.”
Many catalogs offer plants, too, and that’s what interests Stiffler-Zugates, who is founder of the Herb Study Group of Indiana County and volunteers at the gardens of Historic Hanna’s Town in Greensburg.
She grows ‘Bocking 14’ comfrey from Richter’s and makes a healing salve from it. The pretty light purple flowers are great for pollinators and the foliage was once fed to livestock.
“It’s one of those things you plant by your neighbor’s yard; it takes over,” she says laughing. The hardy perennial can get up to 4 feet tall and isn’t as invasive as other varieties, usually not spreading wildly unless disturbed with a shovel.
Matthew Goehring’s three favorite catalogs are chosen for their environmental stance and biodiversity of varieties, among other things.
Goehring, 39, of Gibsonia spent his younger days in the gardens of his parents and grandparents. When he went to nursing school, memories of growing up picking tomatoes for his mother’s homemade sauce brought the realization that he missed the family gardens terribly.
“We would just spend hours in the garden picking peas and beans and just eating them right there and helping out,” he says.
When he bought his first house with wife Kathy, he knew what had to be done.
“One day I said, ‘I’m putting a garden plot in,’ ” he says proudly. What was planned to be 6 foot square ended up being almost twice as big.
He orders from Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and High Mowing Seeds. Trying to give each company a third of his business. The companies reject genetically modified seeds also known as GMOs and encourage seed saving by gardeners, something Goehring feels is important.
Seed Savers Exchange offers a complete catalog of heirlooms and also connects members with a seed exchange. “There’s a backstory on a lot of their varieties, where they’re from and then it explains a lot of the characteristics of the plants as well,” he says.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds started in the bedroom of Jere Gettle when he was a teenager. Over the last two decades the company has become one of the biggest, most popular heirloom seed catalogs.
Goehring, who runs the Cadogan Seed and Plant Exchange on Facebook, now shares his passion for growing with his children. He’s showing Jacob, 6, and Vivian, 3, the joy of time together in the garden.
“I always grow ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas because that’s what my grandmother did,” he says. “I can’t keep them in my garden with the kids.”
The snap peas are available from Baker Creek along with ‘Black from Tula’ tomato.
“It’s not a big producer, but for the taste alone, I just have to grow it every year,” Goehring says.
He faces the same dilemma most gardeners do when paging through the catalogs. “I run into the problem where I find a new variety and it goes on my must-grow list and it gets to the point where my garden isn’t big enough,” he says with a laugh.
This time of the year he reads the seed catalogs front to back looking for varieties his young family will enjoy.
“Now that we have kids, it has become tradition, it’s relaxing,” he says about gardening. “The kids like it, hopefully they get the same joy as I do out of it. My son and daughter help in the garden and love going out out there.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.