Well, it’s that time of year again; the seed catalogs are arriving fast and furiously. How to choose among all that gloss? No worries, I’ve done it for you. Here are my 2011 top catalog picks. For the second year running, Johnny’s is my first pick for North American seed suppliers. Johnny’s is one of the few companies that actually grows the varieties it offers, continually updating the selections from its trial gardens, and this level of concern and expertise is readily apparent. The catalog is a veritable gardener’s manual, offering easy-to-read charts comparing various varieties, noting the pluses and minuses of each for your growing zone. Given the company’s Maine headquarters, the selections are necessarily New England centric, but the culture info is broad enough for easy use throughout the United States, and is an absolute must-read for cold climate gardeners from coast to coast. A bit pricey at times, but almost always worth it. Catalog information and ease of use A+; Offerings A+; Pricing B
Seed Saver’s Exchange, you’ve come a long way, baby! Originating as a granola-crunching back-to-earth movement in 1975, the organization has been rejuvenated by its new board, finally taking seriously its mission to make the rarefied world of heirloom varieties accessible to the general gardening public. The 2011 print catalog is an absolute visual delight offering antique varieties you’ll find nowhere else. (And note the emphasis on print; while it is possible to order online, Seedsavers’ website isn’t terribly stimulating compared to the lush in-hand version, a complaint common to all the vendors mentioned here, and hopefully soon remedied in this electronic age.) Join the exchange, and receive a 10% discount on your catalog orders, as well as access to additional varieties available only to members. Catalog information and ease of use A+; Offerings A- (A++ if you are looking for only heirlooms); Pricing B
OK, this was a close call, but English seed supplier Thompson & Morgan sneaked (or is it snuck) into the number three spot this year. It’s not however, on account of the catalog, which I find hard to read and outdated graphically. It’s because T&M carries flower varieties you’ll find from no other vendor, including one of my favorite summer annuals: salvia coccinea ‘Cherry Blossom’. If you’re into cottage garden plants, this is the place to go. Note: the company’s American division ships to gardeners in North America.
Catalog information and ease of use C; Offerings A+; Pricing C
Stokes, based in Buffalo New York, is another traditional favorite of mine for high quality seed at reasonable prices. (A combination that is harder and harder to find.) Textually dense, the catalog is extremely informative but a bit hard on the eyes.. My advice: peruse the glossies with their florid descriptions and high prices (White Flower Farm, ahem!), then search the same thing in suppliers like Stokes. (For you readers north of the border, Stokes also has a catalog for Canadian gardeners.)
Catalog information and ease of use B+; Offerings B+; Pricing A+
Tomato Growers Supply eked into the top five this year by the narrowest margins, edging out a perennial favorite Renee’s Seeds, an all-internet vendor. Tomato Growers Supply can’t be beat for the sheer magnitude of the tomato and pepper varieties offered. However, I’ve noticed that the prices have risen significantly in recent years, with the seed count declining. The postage and handling charges are high as well. I’d also like to see more info about regional differences in seed choice: a tomato variety that thrives in LA is not the correct choice for Wisconsin. Still, an excellent resource for those like me interested in very specific varieties.
Catalog information and ease of use B; Offerings A+; Pricing C
6) Renee’s Seeds: A reliable, sometimes quirky source for out-of-the-way heirloom and antique varieties. Also, an all-Internet based supplier, which saves an untold number of trees.
7) Territorial Seeds. Based in Oregon, probably the premier supplier for the Northwest, and chock-full of interesting varieties for that region.
8) Seeds of Change. Though to some degree supplanted by the Seed Savers Exchange, which offers a much wider selection of varieties, this New Mexico based company has many selections perfect for the southwestern gardener.
And one last bit of advice: many popular varieties sell out early, so shop now for best selection!
PS: I’m now accepting nominations for 2012. If you know of a supplier you think worthy of mention, leave a comment for me below, and I will check them out. My trials include growing at least five varieties from each supplier in my own garden, so nominations must be received by March 15 for the following year.