Each year, I get a basket full of seed catalogs, starting in November—barely after the garden is shut down for the season—and continuing into early January, with the biggest spike right around Christmas. On cold winter nights (and, yes, I have certainly had my fill of those!), it’s fun to page through the catalogs and imagine what could be grown in the garden come summer. Even though I do all my seed ordering online, I would never consider looking for seeds that way. It’s too much fun to fold down the page edges and flip from catalog to catalog while making my choices.
It turns out dreaming about seeds and gardens through catalogs is a tradition in this country. During the Master Gardener training course I took in January, I enjoyed viewing an exhibition on seed catalogs that the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has on display until April 3. The arb’s Anderson Library has one of the world’s largest collections of old seed catalogs, including 57,000 catalogs, and “Seed Stories: Catalogs of Life and Gardens in America,” showcases the artful covers of many of these catalogs.
Catalogs reflect not only changes in what people planted but also in how gardening was viewed by citizens. Catalogs from the Gilded Age, for example, boasted big, blows-y blooms, while those from the World War II years not surprisingly gave gardening a patriotic air. The catalog above came out in 1897, and you cannot help but wonder if the imagery is rooted in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which premiered a decade or so earlier.
One thing that intrigued me was the number of Minnesota-based catalogs, which reflects how localized seeds were back in the day. (The globalization of seed, specifically the number of garden seeds supplied through one affiliate of Monsanto has been a big issue among gardeners and garden bloggers.) I was also happy to see the number of women-owned seed companies. Carrie Lippincott, for example, was a Minneapolis woman who specialized in selling flower seed. She aimed her marketing at women (probably those with some money) with lovely drawings of children, flowers, and occasionally fairies.
If you are at the arb in the next few weeks, stop by the Reedy Gallery and enjoy these reflections on seed culture.