Vintage Seed Catalogs: Selling Garden Dreams
Each year homesteaders and gardeners look forward to the arrival of those delightful purveyors of gardening dreams – Seed Catalogs! Did you know that garden catalogs have been tempting gardeners now for about 400 years? It’s true… for ages, gardeners have been inspired to try new varieties and plants by the glowing descriptions and colorful illustrations in seed catalogs.
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These booklets filled with gardening ‘eye candy’ arrive in winter, the time of year when the promise of a perfectly manicured, productive, and miraculously low-maintenance garden is alive and well. Long before the soil warms, the first weeds sprout, and good intentions give way to busy summers, these gems tempt us with visions of ‘candy-sweet’ corn, crunchy cucumbers, and perfectly plump tomatoes – Garden Utopia!
Dreaming of Spring…
Never will our plot be as productive, tidy, and green as our mid-winter dream garden. But just because the reality of gardening can be messy and unpredictable, we don’t give up.
As we survey our tangled gardens in July, the work seems insurmountable. Dream garden? …more like a nightmare weed patch! But when the garden catalogs arrive in our mailboxes in December and January, we forget the weeds. We forget the bacteria wilts and squash bugs.
We dream of tidy rows of beans, well-trained tomatoes, and mulched paths (yes, paths!) leading to sparkling fountains and potted topiaries. (Okay, maybe not the fountains and topiaries. I’m keeping my dreams a bit more realistic.) These are the stuff that garden dreams are made of!
Like generations of gardeners before us, we eagerly peruse the varieties of peppers, onions, squash, and tomatoes. Promises of plentiful harvests and floral perfection captivate our attention while our gardens hibernate outside.
A Brief History of Seed Catalogs
It seems that gardening enthusiasts have been drooling over seed catalogs forever, but it has only been about 400 years since the first known plant catalog was printed in Holland.
In 1612 a Dutch merchant named Emmanuel Sweerts listed plants for sale in his catalog Floriligium. Before his publication, other plant catalogs only listed ornamental species growing in the private gardens of the rich and famous (can anyone say ‘bragging rights?’). A few years later, the first known French plant catalog was published in Paris by René Morin. As these new plant catalogs gained interest, other nurseries started offering plant catalogs, bringing unusual garden plants to a wider customer base.
Over the years, seed catalogs have provided a wealth of information for gardeners learning how to raise new crops. The addition of illustrations, plant descriptions, and growing information turned seed catalogs into an indispensable guide for gardeners and farmers.
Seed Catalogs Have Come a Long Way!
Early garden catalogs were little more than lists of plant and seed varieties and their prices. The evolution of seed catalogs has brought us a long way from these early lists.
The garden catalogs that arrive in your mailbox contain photos, illustrations, descriptions of plants, planting and care instructions, hardiness zones, and a wealth of information to rival gardening books. In addition to offering plants and seeds, today’s gardening companies often sell gardening books, kitchen gadgets, fertilizers, pesticides, gardening tools, and clothing.
Who needs to go to the garden store when you can curl up beside the woodstove with a few gardening catalogs and a cup of tea?
So, as you ponder which variety of beans to order this year, take a moment to appreciate the history of seed catalogs and the fine companies that produce them.
It takes quite a lot of work to compile the wealth of information included in their pages, making it just a wee bit harder to choose which varieties you will plant in your garden this year!
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Do you order seeds from paper catalogs or do you order from an online company? Leave a comment!
Source: Oregon State University Libraries
Images: Smithsonian Collection of Seed Catalogs can be found here http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/SeedNurseryCatalogs/intro.htm