part 1 of 4 on seed catalogs

Sometimes desire is a tiger caught by the tail. It whips you around and sends you tumbling, arms outstretched. But in the coldest winter time, coasting through the short light of the after-holidays, it does not have to fill you with hot ambition. It might be enough just to see a scrap of paper with the word “seed” written on it and the lovely etchings of a ripe vegetable. Often, these days, desire is triggered by a mailbox gem that is served up with the junk.


This year, the first seed catalog to arrive is one of my favorites, from the homegrown Territorial Seed Company of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Its cover images send my mind to a different climate, with a hod full of lush summer produce and a watering can sprouting cheery flowers, whose shadows etch lightly over a promised “Spring” on the pewter-colored side of the can. But the marketers are even more direct, with a corner flag announcing “240 New Items,” interesting but not essential for a gardener like me who mostly hews to the old standards of heirlooms.

Hefting the catalog out of the stack, however, I notice something else that quickens my editor’s pulse a bit: the binding. This year, unlike the previous ones (if memory serves), the catalog is held together with a “perfect” binding, which is like a softcover book, all the pages glued to a squared-off spine created by the cover. Previously, this had been a “saddle-stitched” production, with two staples holding the pages together. The binding tells me that this edition has gotten larger, even if I hadn’t known about all those new items.

I will confess to being a book geek, enamored with the craft and style of a publication, but my appreciation comes from decades of being connected with the practice, and sometimes having a hand in it. I love a good design, and will turn a book over in my hands, examining it before actually cracking it open to reveal its treasures. However unlikely, this is my regular January practice with the seed catalogs.

Enough, though — on to page 1. A sprawl of lanky red peppers ushers in a sampling of the “New Products.” The pepper looks like it has legs and is walking across a New Mexico desert towards a pale yellow sunset. It is Ghost, a variety which is becoming inexplicably popular. The text warns us that Ghost, also known as Bhut Jolokia, is “300 times hotter than a jalapeno.” Who would need to ruin the rest of a good meal with that? I like a little spicing up, but it would be as useful in my garden as a cat on a freshly planted seedbed.

Near this ghostly hottie, though, is the Blauschokker pea, an old buddy. This pea adorns the cover of my book Edible Heirlooms, and though it is announced as “New!” in the catalog, as a new offering for them perhaps, it certainly is not new to gardeners.

Edible Heirlooms cover

The original variety, sometimes spelled “Blauwschokker,” is an old European shelling pea, or “shellie” if you have an enthusiastic British accent. Its bluish-purple pods had all but disappeared from gardens around here due to lack of consistent supply. In the book, I recommended Blue-podded Capajuner as a worthy replacement. But I spied Blauschokker being sold as starts last year in a nursery, and here is its seed form, ready for planting.

I’ll circle this one, because it looks like a new sprout off the old bush. It’s described as abundant and creating “8-10 delicious peas per pod” in 68 days. I’ve often recommended this variety for its beauty, but its pods have sometimes disappointed me as a bit tough and bitter to try to eat as a snow-pea, and the berries as a bit too dry and starchy to eat raw. So I’ve always dried and shelled them for soup. If this new cultivar delivers on its “sweet and tasty” advertisement, I will be delighted.

Already I am making a mental list and planning my garden — and I am still on page one!

Here are a few other delightful findings in this year’s Territorial offering:

  • The “Drunken Botanist” Cocktail Garden Starter Kit. Inspired by the inquisitive Bay Area author Amy Stewart whose book by that name promises to tell you about “the plants that create the world’s greatest drinks,” this kit gives you three plants chosen by Amy to eventually help you entertain at cocktail hour. The Mojito Mint herb, a tiny Mexican Sour Gherkin, and what they call “the ultimate swizzle stick,” Redventure celery.
  • Edamame! Have you ever grown your own soybeans? The popular Japanese restaurant appetizer grows as readily as other beans in our climate. Simply steam, toss with sea salt, and pop them out of their skins between your teeth. Try the Midori Giant variety, which promises “extra-early maturing” in 70 days — perfect for a cool-weather garden.
  • So many lettuce varieties from which to choose. Maybe just plant the ones with the most entertaining names: Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed (a single savoyed butterhead), Eiffel Tower and Devil’s Tongue (both romaines), Tennis Ball (one of my favorite tiny butterheads, and a star in Thomas Jefferson’s garden too), Green Deer Tongue (loose-leaf), or maybe just a bed of New Red Fire and Green Ice (both loose-leaf).
  • Grafted tomato starts. Get a jump on the season with a tomato that’s grafted onto a rootstock that will be hardier and more vigorous in our climate. The “Mighty ‘Mato,” sold as starts not seeds, is produced by Log House Plants in Oregon and features interesting varieties, from the old Italian sauce tomato San Marzano to the glorious beefsteak-style Brandywine to a double ‘mato plant with prolific Sweet Million and Sungold cherry tomatoes.

When I started this post, I had intended to delve into all my catalogs, pointing out favorites and seeing what is new to grow this year. But as often happens in the quiet hush of winter desire, the urge to slow down and savor overcame me.

So this is part 1. The other catalogs will have to wait for next time, and even though I discussed just one, I recommend a large stack of them close at hand to keep the spark of desire alive for the oncoming spring season.