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The Joy of Seed Catalogs

Teresa Mull at The Spectator

Photo by Brigitta Baranyi / Unsplash

There are many reasons to love seed catalogs, the first being how they arrive out of the blue (or, in Pennsylvania’s case, the gray) and all at once. I don’t know if there’s a law as to when the first seed catalog may be dropped in the post, but this year, we got four in one day.

Another thing to appreciate about seed catalogs is how they set themselves apart. You’d think there’d be pretty much one way to peddle a Brandywine Pink Heirloom tomato by now. You’d be wrong.

The W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company, for instance, puts out a glossy catalog that looks as if a team of slick New York advertising execs made it. The photos remind me of a Burger King commercial that shows a tomato bounce and shed water droplets in slow motion onto a wooden cutting board, where it’s sliced until its perfectly symmetrical, succulent insides flaunt themselves. Burpee is like that. And as they’ve been around since 1876 and invented iceberg lettuce, they have every right to market their products professionally.

R.H. Shumway’s self-described “old-time catalog” couldn’t be more different. Though also a veteran company — it was founded in 1870 by Roland H. Shumway, a botanist and Civil War soldier known as “the Pioneer Seedsman” — Shumway’s has not used the intervening years to modernize its mail-order seed catalog. With humorous illustrations and stylized, throwback lettering, it looks and reads like a vintage Barnum & Bailey poster, and some of the produce does sound fit for a circus freakshow: there are “Sweet Goliath Hybrid” and “Chinese Giant” peppers, the “Mammoth Sugar Snow Pea” and the “Bohemian Horseradish.”

Shumway’s delights in its playful approach, recalling an era when people had to make a real effort to convince you to buy things. Tell me “Fancy Pickles,” “Lazy Housewife” string beans, the “Old Homestead Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean” or the “Box Car Willie” tomato are items you can live without!

But then there’s John Scheepers. Interspersed among informative blurbs written in a warm, familiar way are “elegant and detailed botanical drawings” (as they’re described in the catalog’s introduction) that also appear on the seed packets themselves. Bright, delicate wildflowers bloom on the top of one page, a cute little toad rests down below, here flits a copper-colored butterfly and there a golden honeybee. You almost feel as if you’re in the garden already.

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Seed catalogs and their rejuvenating power
There are many reasons to love seed catalogs, the first being how they arrive out of the blue (or, in Pennsylvania’s case, the gray)