Why gardeners should get their hands on these seed catalogs

There is nothing like seed and plant catalogs to activate your horticultural hormones. I know, horticultural hormones may not actually exist, but how else to explain the powerful desire, if not lust, that comes over you when browsing the pages of these catalogs? You are overwhelmed with a need to see the luscious vegetables and fruits that are pictured growing in your yard, or the exotic, opulently flowering species you have never heard of or seen before gracing your patio or balcony.

What follows are some favorite seed and plant catalogs of mine. They are all available for Internet viewing and better yet, upon request, a hard copy will be mailed to you. There is something about holding a catalog in your hands and leisurely paging through it that online clicking can never match.

Where seed catalogs are concerned, Seed Savers Exchange ( is the place to start. While the catalog of Seed Savers Exchange is eminently worthy of perusal, the excitement comes from entering the world of thousands of Exchange gardeners (click “Exchange” at top of homepage) who send you samples of their own heirloom varieties for free, charging only for shipping and handling.

Access to the Exchange requires registration, which is also free. While seed listers are allowed to set their own S & H prices, virtually every packet of small seeds (most vegetables and flowers) is $3, while large seeds (corn, peas, beans, melons, squash, sunflowers) are $3 or $4 per packet. Seed packets must include at least 25 seeds except for onions (minimum of 60 seeds) and corn (minimum of 200 seeds). Each purveyor of seeds provides their location and details about their growing conditions and a personal profile so you are not only selecting seeds but creating relationships with other gardeners as well.

For example, Michelle Bohanon, who raises several types of bellfowers (Campanula spp.) for their seeds in Cheyenne, Wyoming, speaks of what she provides as follows: “It pleases me to send a bonus pack of seeds with requests. If you tell me something about your garden (e.g., looking for bee forage or early tomatoes) or a particular project you’re working on (e.g., plants for dry, sunny exposures), it helps me pick out a surprise.” Or meet Margaret Short from Kodiak, Alaska, who grows all her plants in “unheated hoop houses.” She and her husband “live off grid” and “teach self-sufficient and sustainable living.” Among her offerings are seeds of Cylindra beets, which grow more like carrots, reaching a length of eight inches. The Exchange offers an annual yearbook that now runs to 500 pages and costs $20. Sources for 16,000 varieties of seeds, bulbs, and cuttings from all over the world are listed.

Baker Heirloom Seeds ( prides itself on varieties not regularly encountered and is sending out 1.4 million free seed catalogs this year. Among the selections are Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato, winner of best in show at the National Heirloom Expo. It’s an elongated cherry tomato with “lavender and purple stripes, turning to technicolor olive-green, red, and brown/blue stripes when fully ripe.” Its “crack-resistant fruit is extraordinarily sweet.” Beet seeds may be planted now and, if you are the adventurous type, you may want to try your luck with Golden Beet, a Baker heirloom whose “rich golden roots do not bleed or stain, making for less kitchen mess. It is an excellent variety for kids and newbie beet eaters, as the mellow flavor is much less earthy than regular red beets.” Before leaving beets, consider a variety available through Territorial Seed Company ( “It forms 3-4 inch deep red globes with tall, glossy leaves that make choice, tasty greens.”

At, you will find a vast variety of seeds that grow into plants with curative properties. One of the most easily grown genera of medicinal plants in our area is Artemisia and the company’s catalog lists seven of its species. The bonus of growing them is their ornamental flair, since foliage is often silvery gray and delicately laced, as seen in the popular Dusty Miller, an Artemisia relative. Another attractive medicinal plant that has the bonus of self-sowing is love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Although flowers are typically pale blue, the dwarf variety grown here has purple flowers in addition to the highly frilled foliage that characterizes the species.

Seeds from Italy ( is the US distributor for Franchi Seeds, Italy’s oldest family-owned seed company, which was founded in 1763. Its pomodoro (Italian for tomato) varieties are worthy of consideration when planning which tomatoes to grow this year. Oxheart, for instance, according to the catalog, is “a 7-9 ounce beefsteak type shaped like a heart. Meaty, deep pink/red flesh and few seeds. Real tomato taste. The tomato all our Italian grandfathers grew.”

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This tree has the most exquisite leaves and beautiful foliage

Two mail-order nurseries that sell rooted plants growing in containers, small as they may be, deserve special mention. One is Annie’s, a nursery in Richmond in the East Bay, that offers a cornucopia of plants eminently suitable for gardens anywhere in California. Forty-four ornamental sages, for example, can be viewed at Don’t be misled by the website name; nearly all the plants offered are perennial. The other mail-order plant nursery of note is Logees, located in Connecticut. I have spent hours studying the plants in their catalog; it’s an unmatched learning experience. I take particular delight in their begonia collection, numbering more than 50 species. It includes the Partita begonia, which has a caudex or fleshy swollen base that is seen, for example, on ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata).  If you know of an exceptional seed or plant catalog of which you would like to make readers of this column aware, email information about it to me.

California native of the week: California spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis) has wine-scented leaves and flowers. It is a deciduous species that can be grown as a background shrub, informal hedge, or small tree. Unpruned, it will grow eight feet tall and five feet wide. It is supposed to need regular water but I have a specimen that is over 20 years old and I have never given it much. Although it gets afternoon sun in my garden, its roots are well-shaded and mulched. Its flowers start to bloom in late spring and open up over several months. They are burgundy red in color and resemble small tentacled sea creatures to some and miniature waterlilies to others. Where its lower branches touch the soil, it sends down roots while its rhizomes will allow it to expand its girth, over time, as well.

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