I don't know the percentage of how many catalogs sent to an average household actually result in a seed or plant purchase, but I imagine it's low. I can't possibly order from all 25 companies. I'll probably stick with four that I have experience with and maybe try a new one. That means for me, a good customer, 80 percent of the catalogs are wasted paper.
So how does one choose which catalogs are worth the time and effort? Much of it is trial and error. If you receive many seed catalogs you can place them side by side and compare what they offer. If you're lucky you have someone who can make a recommendation. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference.
Many years ago I only received one or two catalogs each year. Typically they were from Gurney's Seed & Nursery Co. or Burgess Seed & Plant Co. The first hails from Indiana, the second from Illinois. From the many catalogs I received from them over the years I gather that they are very big operations with a very large budget for mass mailings. They are low budget providers of gardening products. Naturally I ordered from both because I had few other choices.
Gurney's has a good selection of many different seeds. I've ordered bare-root fruit trees from them on different occasions and have had relatively good results. Last year one of the fruit trees I ordered failed to awaken from dormancy. Whether it was dead on arrival or succumbed from my cold weather, Gurney's faithfully agreed to replace it in this year's shipment.
I no longer order from Burgess because of a very bad experience. Virtually an entire order of live plants was wasted. Poor packaging and shipping methods delivered me many damaged, dead, or dying plant specimens in my first order. Thankfully I didn't pay much for the experience, but I haven't ordered anything from them since. That hasn't stopped them from sending four or five catalogs every year. I had a similar experience with K. Van Bourgondien & Sons, a bulb company that I no longer order from either.
On the other end of the spectrum, High Country Gardens gave me one of the best mail order experiences I've had. Their innovative packaging system virtually ensures that every live plant arrives in the best possible condition. The higher price reflects the extra attention, but it is worth it to get a plant that may not be available at a local nursery. They take pride in their products and it shows. I've visited their nursery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it was a great gardener's adventure. Interestingly, some of their plants can only be obtained through the catalog.
Last year I did a lot of my seed ordering with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Territorial Seed Company. Baker Creek has my favorite catalog, true gardening porn. The pictures explode with color and life and the book format would brighten up any coffee table. Their selection of seeds is incredible and I was very satisfied with what I received. Territorial Seed has a much simpler catalog, but no less incredible offerings. Both catalogs do a great job describing the plants that the seeds produce. Between the two I prefer Territorial's seed packets; they are more specialized and do a better job explaining proper planting methods.
This year some new catalogs caught my eye and interest. R.H. Shumway's Illustrated Garden Guide offers black and white pencil drawings that hearken back to a simpler time in gardening. Similarly, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds also bypasses stock garden photos for pencil art in a sage green shade. Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply offers pencil drawings that are colored in to display the vegetable or flower in true form. They all have unique offerings and good descriptions of the plants. I admit I prefer an artistic catalog to ones with amateurish photos. I may have to place small orders with these companies to see how good the seed packets are.
For most of us seed and plant selection comes down to price. The fanciful artwork or glossy format of the catalog may grab our attention, but the price is what tempts us to buy in the absence of any other knowledge or experience. So how do different catalogs compare?
Let's begin with sweet corn:
Gurney's offers a packet (250 seeds, about 2 ozs) of "Kandy Korn" for $4.99
Jung Seeds & Plants offers a packet (1 oz) of "Kandy Korn" for $2.35
R.H. Shumway's offers a packet (1 oz) of "Kandy Korn" for $2.35
Territorial Seed Company offers a packet (2 ozs) of "Kandy Korn" for $4.00
So let's analyze the data. An ounce of sweet corn provides about 125 seeds and each company is relatively close in price. In order of value per ounce are: Territorial ($2.00), R.H. Shumway ($2.35), Jung ($2.35), and Gurney's ($2.50). Maybe Gurney's costs more to pay for the many catalogs they distribute. Smaller, more specialized seed companies tend to offer better value in my experience.
Let's look at tomato seeds:
Baker Creek offers a packet (25 seeds) of "Brandywine" for $2.25
Burpee offers a packet (50 seeds) of "Brandywine" for $3.95
Gurney's offers a packet (30 seeds) of "Brandywine for $2.49
Territorial offers a packet (40 seeds) of "Brandywine" for $3.05
Totally Tomatoes offers a packet (30 seeds) of "Brandywine" for $2.10
The order of value for these seeds is: Totally Tomatoes, Territorial, Burpee, Gurney's, Baker Creek. It's not a great surprise that the company that specializes in tomato seeds has the best price for a packet of tomato seeds or that the company with the flashiest catalog is the most expensive. Ultimately they're all within a penny of cost per seed. As you might expect, companies that offer seed in bulk can provide bigger savings. Totally Tomatoes offers "Brandywine" for less than three cents per seed if you want a few hundred of them and Territorial Seed cuts that price almost in half for bulk purchase.
This raises the important issue of seed quantity. Though Burpee offers a better price per seed than Baker Creek in the example above, you may not need 50 seeds. For most home gardeners 25 tomato seeds is more than enough and Totally Tomatoes' bargain per-seed price, and lowest packet price, is even more of an incentive to order from them. The same with the first example. Territorial offers the best value for sweet corn seeds, but do you really need 500 seeds? Buying one of the $2.35 packets may make more sense.
So why pay more? I chose the examples above because they represent common, popular seed choices. For many gardeners, myself included, buying unique or special seeds trumps price and many catalogs specialize in being unique and special. In some cases you may be able to find a specific seed in only one catalog.
R.H Shumway offers "Luffa Sponge" seeds; I haven't noticed them any place else. Baker Creek sells squash seeds for fruit that looks like it came from another planet. They only sell heirloom seeds too; that means you can save the seeds from any of the plants you grow and replicate the same plant year after year. Seeds of Change sells 100% organic seeds, including purple tomatillos.
Finding a special seed that interests you may make a catalog your new favorite. Ordering just one packet is hard to do, so adding extra packets of seeds helps fill out an order. That may explain why some of the specialty catalogs above charge a little bit more for common seeds. They hook you with the unique offering and soak your wallet for stuff you can get elsewhere for less. You pay for the convenience of a single purchase.
If you're only interested in common seeds compare prices and order appropriately. For the most part, a "Brandywine" seed should produce the same plant regardless of the source company. Live plants are a little different. Receiving the plant in good condition should be more important than saving a few pennies.
Look for coupons and gifts too. Gurney's is notorious (or famous) for offering up to 50 percent off the price if you order early. Many companies will throw in an extra plant or seed packet with orders. With these extras a higher price per seed packet can quickly be a better value overall. If you become a customer, some companies will give you a code or coupon for savings next year; they want you to come back.
I recommend placing orders from at least one catalog that you haven't used before. You may be very pleased with the results. At the least you'll get placed on a list that should guarantee a five-fold increase in the number of catalogs you receive next year.
Nothing beats walking through a nursery and experiencing live plants. If you can, buy your plants this way. Not only does it support local business, but it helps you see what you're buying. Even the best nurseries have few choices beyond favorite and common plants, so for better selection and for cost savings consider buying from catalogs.
When you find a company you like, keep buying and spread the good news. For me, Territorial Seed is the best overall. Great price, great selection, and superior planting information. They're also one of the simplest and plain catalogs. I'll keep buying from them.
That's not to say they get all of my business. As good as they are, they don't carry every seed I'm interested in. So I'll order from other companies as needed. And I'll keep getting catalogs to wile away the winter day.
I must point out that I've received no payment, fee or reward from any of the companies mentioned in this article. All of this information is from my own experience.
Use these links to order a catalog:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds www.rareseeds.com
Gurney's Seed & Nursery Co. www.gurneys.com
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds www.kitchengardenseeds.com
Jung Seeds & Plants www.jungseed.com
Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply www.groworganic.com
R.H. Shumway's www.rhshumway.com
Seeds of Change www.seedsofchange.com
Territorial Seed Company www.territorialseed.com
Totally Tomatoes www.totallytomato.com