Mail Order Gardening: Then and Now
The history of mail order gardening catalogs reaches back hundreds of years, and the month of January honors this event.
They start to show up in mid-December, mixed in with Christmas cards and holiday circulars. Their colorful covers inviting inspection, their interiors offer promises of gardens to come. Crayola-colored blooms of rainbow shades. Of course, "they" are the garden seed catalogs that every gardener covets.
Though the catalog parade begins pre-Christmas, it really ramps up during January which has come to be known as National Mail Order Gardening Month. These publications showcase new and time-tested varieties of plants, gardening tools, greenhouses, bulbs, and a selection of annual or perennial seeds that runs the gamut from A-Z. About the only thing missing is a truckload of compost.
In 2013, over 42 million U.S. households had a home garden or participated in a community garden. Mail order companies are well aware of these numbers, as well as the increase in young people (ages 18-34) involved in growing vegetables. The National Gardening Association attribute this increase to social awareness in food production, government leadership starting with the White House Kitchen Garden and home economic incentives to save a few bucks.
But distributing gardening catalogs through the mail isn't some new idea. In England, William Lucas sent out a seed price list to his customers in 1677, and this concept was carried across the Atlantic to the new colonies.
W. Atlee Burpee & Company, started in 1876 in Philadelphia, entered the mail order business at first selling livestock, poultry and seeds. Burpee sought seeds from abroad and from the United States, developing hybrids and sending out premier seeds. With the advent of the Rural Free Delivery service by the Postal Service, Burpee and other companies had access to customers living in farming communities and rural areas.
Today, there are numerous companies that send out seed and gardening catalogs. I admit that I peruse many of them, checking out the "What's New" pages and looking for ideas. Many have dog-eared pages so that when I'm ready, I can compare apples to apples.
Usually, before I even think about ordering seeds of plants that look gorgeous in the photos or illustrations, I visit our local Master Gardener website to learn about what varieties of vegetables and flowers survive in our region. Here in Central Oregon, there is something like 9 days that have not had a recorded frost. During the summer, it is not uncommon to have several frosts, so anything grown outside of a greenhouse better be hardy.
I make my list from this site as a place to start. Then I go through the catalogs and have columns for which companies carry the seeds (I rarely order plants I'm looking for.) At the same time, I may take this list and visit the local nurseries and farm stores that carry these seeds, as well. I tend to buy onion sets and seed potatoes locally. Again, I'm getting what does well in the region, but will order something new from a catalog if the zone description fits my area.
After making my lists and checking them twice, I cross off those seeds I've purchased locally and what I know I will get as starts from nurseries or individuals. In our area, Craigslist is a great way for local growers to advertise what starts they have, and there is the Master Gardener sale which is another great way to buy starts and support this program. After all that, then itís back to the catalogs to place an order or two.
And each year after the planning process is complete, I call or e-mail those catalog companies who I didn't order from and try to get off their mailing lists. Sometimes this is harder said than done, as the catalogs keep coming addressed to 'Current Resident' instead of my name or my wife's name. Yet, no matter how persistent I am, I may receive the same ones year to year. I'm sure this is big business for these companies and the pursuit of an order outgrows the need to manage their mailing lists. But I keep after them, sometimes sending back their catalogs in an envelope COD. But that is pretty rare as most companies are willing to delete me if I contact them.
So during one of those really cold January days or when the weather gets too nasty to go outside, curl up with some catalogs to see what is new in the world of gardening. And if you place an order during Mail Order Gardening Month you'll be counted among the millions of Americans that like to garden, grow vegetables or bring some beauty into your yard.