Come late winter, newspaper garden writers routinely deliver a column about plant and seed catalogs. I sympathize. There's not a ton to write about, with the ground half-frozen and the sun still low in the sky, and there are all these colorful catalogs littering the desk. It's tempting to adopt the cheerleading tone— why not get summer started right now by sending away for the new zinnia "Zowie," a gaudy orange creation being promoted by many companies?
Here is some contrary advice for home gardeners:
1. Read the catalog.
2. Mark those plants you believe you cannot live without.
3. Fill out the form.
4. Tear up the form and throw it away.
This, alas, did not originate with me. It was advice I heard in a very entertaining talk by primo garden designer and writer Ken Druse. But direct experience has taught me it is really good advice. First, novelty is not in itself a good thing. Hot new plants, that orange zinnia or the yellow version of the usually purple coneflower, for example, are not proven good performers.
Next, seduced by the glorious pictures of optimally healthy perennials and shrubs, you tend to forget the shape of your own garden. You buy one of this and two of that, in dribs and drabs, reinforcing an already strong tendency in garden enthusiasts to think about pretty colors rather than an integrated design. It's a sort of I've-got-to-have-that-Pucci-print-dress-in-Vogue impulse, except that you're stuck with a living thing you can't hide in a closet.
Buying plants by mail has some serious logistical problems as well. The plants that arrive are usually dismayingly small and often traumatized from their trip. If they arrive on that April weekend you're away, they may die of thirst. It's better to get yourself to a nursery in early spring, look at those annuals or perennials or shrubs in the flesh/in the leaf. Touch them, move the containers around, see how three of them look together and how they combine with other plants. At a reputable nursery, you'll get reliable advice on how the plant will fare in your yard's conditions.
I'd bend the Druse doctrine if there's something rare that you can't get at a nursery (and, certainly, if there's no nursery within driving distance). I've really loved two rare-ish plants I could find only in catalogs. The first is a rose— Rosa chinensis mutabilis ($12.95) at Wayside Gardens—whose lightly fragrant flowers open yellow and, in a corny and winning manner, turn to orange, then pink, then red. This rose tolerates ridiculous heat and horrible humidity. The second is a bulb (thus travel trauma is not a problem), which will grow into one of the cooler things in the plant world. It's colocasia "Black Magic," aka elephant's-ear. Plant it in potting soil or fertile ground, give it partial shade and regular moisture, and you will have gorgeous purple-black leaves 2 feet long by midsummer.
Another catalog category in which you can loosen up on the Druseian restraining order is in buying seeds. A brilliantly evolved organism that can still germinate after 3,000 years in some pharaoh's tomb is not going to be bothered by a ride in a UPS truck. However, remember that it is the rare home windowsill that has adequate light to grow seedlings. Rarer still is the house with grow lights, soil-heating elements, and humidity controls necessary to produce truly healthy little plants ready to take on the challenges of the great world outside.
Your odds are much improved if you order the kinds of seeds that can be sown directly into the ground. Good bets: basil, beans, carrots, peas, salad greens, cosmos, sunflowers, and nasturtiums. Try morning glories if you have plenty of sun. Also consider a gorgeous morning-glory relative—Ipomoea quamoclit—the cypress vine, which has feathery foliage and small red trumpet-shaped flowers.
In her book of essays Onward and Upward in the Garden, New Yorker writer Katharine S. White noted of catalog authors, "they are as individualistic—these editors and writers—as any Faulkner or Hemingway." She wrote that 50 years ago, and it's still true.
There is one big change: Almost every plant catalog has a corresponding Web site; you can do your ordering without ever riffling through the paper version. The substance remains the same, and the range of styles still runs from the wildly and sometimes misleadingly exclamatory to the understated and calmly informative. The ones on the highly exclamatory side tend to be large format, on cheap newsprint, with fuzzy photographs or touching little paintings and an emphasis on making the neighbors green with envy.
A typical one of this genre, from Kelly Nurseries in Faribault, Minn., has a sketch as illustration of a weird thing that used to fascinate me in my youth—"the fruit cocktail tree." Some hyperactive expert at grafting apparently figured out how to grow peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots on the same little tree. We are promised that "the first bushel of fruit will pay for the tree." That bushel could, of course, come 10 years after planting. We will see. Now that I have grown from a studious little girl (perhaps the only 9-year-old to stay up past bedtime reading plant catalogs) into an adult with a credit card, I have ordered a fruit-cocktail tree.
Though the style of the famous Burpee catalog has been toned down in recent years, there's still some old-fashioned Babbitty boosterism. The 2007 inside front cover features the new "Porterhouse Beefsteak" tomato—"the greatest extra-large beefsteak we've ever bred." (Three plants for $10.95. Thirty seeds for $4.40.)
The catalogs for Wayside Gardens and Park Seed, the two giants in the mail-order field, based in South Carolina, are almost encyclopedic. Suddenly the whole world of plants, tropical to Himalayan, seems open to you, which is more than a little misleading. Growing a tropical datura, aka "Angel's Trumpet," from seed, suggested by Park, is a task that even the most experienced gardeners would hesitate to tackle. ("Fragrant DOUBLE Blooms Swirl Upward in Stunning Summer Display!")
Wayside's cover star is a new climbing rose, "Night Owl." The dark purple rose is $19.95 from Wayside and $26.95 from White Flower Farm. The higher prices you pay underwrite White Flower Farm's gorgeous glossy pictures, imaginative plant combination suggestions, and the farm's demonstration gardens. Professional gardeners often carry a copy in the truck to illustrate plants to clients but rarely order from it.
My favorite catalog in the tasteful, quietly informative category is John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. There's a growing sense as you read through items like heirloom red okra and black opal eggplant and quetzali watermelon that you're going to be spending all summer tenderly feeding your beautiful vegetables and tenderly boosting the immune systems of all your loved ones through your fabulous cooking of those vegetables.
Finally, there is the Plant Delights Nursery catalog, the very funny but not-easy-to-describe creation of confessed plant nut Tony Avent. The plants are not cheap; you'll pay $24 for hosta "Gypsy Rose," a mutation of hosta "Striptease." But when you fork over the money and receive your youthful little hosta (at that point it will be about $8 a leaf), wrapped in wet pages of the Raleigh News & Observer, you'll feel as though you've been inducted into a cool fraternity of plant hunters.