Notes for the beginning gardener: Seed catalogs and mind-gardening

The seed catalog is a lifeline for the gardener in the winter months. And in a strange way, seed catalogues have come to represent a rarified form of literature, tangentially related to gardening but existing in their own space, the way maps and atlases lose their reference value and become objects unto themselves. This probably wouldn't be possible if we didn't have winter to remove us from our gardens proper and set us daydreaming about the perfect rows, perfect crops, and perfect flowers in the garden of the mind.  A good seed catalog feeds these winter daydreams.
Much of this literary tradition started right here with the Ferry-Morse Seed Co., which was located in downtown Detroit. An early titan of the mail-order seed business, Ferry-Morse also invented the retail seed rack for display in stores. Readers of contemporary seed catalogs can still find the Detroit Dark Red Beet, a standard among home gardeners and market growers 100 years after it was first introduced. Morse also sold an "Early Detroit" tomato that has fallen from favor, but might be due for a revival. (For more information on these and other Morse seeds check out Amy Elliott Bragg's excellent article, "How Detroit Changed the Backyard Garden.")
Heirloom seed catalogs like Baker Creek provide many heirloom seeds that connect the reader with various bits of regional history from across the country, like the Po'suwageah blue corn from the Tewa people of New Mexico or the Ancient Giant Red Trentino Cabbage Turnip from northern Italy, which is as big as the old woman's head in the picture! But even a standard catalog like Burpee's will contain heirloom varieties with interesting provenance.
Contemporary seed catalogs also very often provide as much information as they do standard marketing. One good example is Johnny's Selected Seeds out of Winslow, Maine. The Johnny's catalog is as much a reference document as a catalog. Cultural information and seeding instructions accompany nearly every plant category. I keep a copy of this catalog close at hand in spring when I'm seeding transplants so I can reference preferred germination temperatures and other key data. Johnny's sells many organic seed varieties, which is the grower's best shorthand for determining if a seed is not genetically modified, since all organic seeds are non-GMO.
For those looking for as much art as information, the Fedco seed catalog from Waterville, Maine, is full of hand-drawn illustrations, fanciful descriptions of seeds, and anecdotes from gardeners all around the country. Their seeding chart should be torn out and affixed to the refrigerator. Fedco also sells a number of organic seed varieties and refuses to carry any genetically modified seeds. Unfortunately, their delivery schedule is sometimes as whimsical as their catalog, so these seeds should be ordered as far in advance of planting as possible.
High Mowing is another great catalog and source for seed. They are one hundred percent organic and GMO free, and their seed quality and customer service is consistently exceptional. They don't carry quite as large a selection as the other catalogs above, but they make it easy for the gardener to know they are getting good seed that is well suited for organic production.
Not all gardeners who garden organically use organic seeds. But it makes sense that crops grown organically and seeds produced under organic circumstance would be better adapted to organic growing. However, not all plant varieties are available organicall, and I sometimes use non-organic seeds.
One common mistake that novice gardeners make is to confuse hybrids with GMOs. Plant hybrids are produced using traditional breeding methods that have been around since the early 18th century – crossing two varieties to create a distinctive plant. These are often very popular and high producing varieties, and they still can be considered organic depending on how they are produced. Such varieties are often referred to as F1 hybrids.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, are open-pollinated plants that have not been hybridized. People prefer these for many different reasons, but an important feature is that seed can be saved from these plants and used to produce plants that will remain "true to type," i.e. they won't revert to one of the two types used to produce the unique hybridized plant. That said, it's still very difficult to save seeds from some types of vegetables, as honeybees and the wind have their own preferences in regards to propagation. Generally speaking, seed is produced under very controlled circumstances and is best left to experts or knowledgeable amateurs.
Genetically Modified Organisms diverge from both hybridization and heirloom seed saving in that they are produced using highly sophisticated technology that often implants DNA from entirely different life-forms (fish, bacteria, etc.) into the plant genome. It is beyond the scope of this article (or this author's intelligence) to explain all the issues related to GMOs. Suffice to say, some people are quite wary of them.
Other prefixes often attach themselves to different plan varieties, such as DMR for Downy Mildew Resistant or PMR for Powdery Mildew Resistant. These plants are usually still produced using standard breeding and selection techniques, and many are organic. These kinds of resistances, or the increasingly popular use of organic fungicides like Natural II, can be extremely helpful for organic gardeners who don't want to spray or treat their seeds with conventional fungicides.
Of course I'm just scratching the surface here when it comes to catalogs and seed information. It's important that the novice gardener not become overwhelmed. The wonderful thing about gardening is that even with very little knowledge, the gardener can generally succeed in producing some amount of food or flowers. Indeed, catalogs themselves are perhaps best absorbed by osmosis, leafed through and then fallen asleep with on the couch. In the winter months, the gardener may thus advance her knowledge of gardening's finer points by dipping into them in the haziest states of consciousness to find at the end of this interval that she knows things she didn't know she knew.
Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.