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Seed catalogs evoke the spirit of spring during dreary days

Seed catalogs evoke the spirit of spring during dreary days

Just as travel magazines can transport us to verdant coastlines or tropical locales on dreary winter days, seed catalogs can evoke sights and smells of springtime for Virginia’s home gardeners.

Seed catalogs have sowed inspiration in Virginia’s gardens and fields for more than a century—many published in Virginia, like W. Grossman & Son from the Petersburg Seed House, Wood’s Seeds from T.W. Wood & Sons in Richmond, and Slate’s Guide to Gardening from W.C. Slate Field and Garden Seeds in South Boston.

In 2021, gardeners can still expect to find vegetable, herb and flower seeds, ranging from familiar heirlooms to newly developed varieties, in catalogs often delivered to mailboxes throughout December and January.

“There's something magical about seeing beautiful photographs of colorful flowers, juicy fresh-picked vegetables, and all types of plants when the weather outside is gloomy and cold,” said Jeanne Grunert of Seven Oaks Farm in Prince Edward County.

A Virginia master gardener, author and garden blogger, Grunert grew up in a Long Island town called Floral Park. The town was founded in 1874 by a horticulturist named John Lewis Childs, who is credited with starting the first mail-order seed catalog business in the U.S.

“So, I love old seed catalogs,” Grunert said. “There’s even a collectible market for them. They used original drawings and paintings—really beautiful art.”

Online exhibits of more than 200,000 vintage seed catalogs can be viewed in the USDA’s National Agriculture Library.

Colorfully worded descriptions complement the glossy images of plants and produce in modern seed catalogs.

“They’ll usually have information you need to grow it, like light and soil requirements, but with nice adjectives to describe the color and type,” Grunert said. “Most do a good job of engaging you and appealing to your imagination, while offering the facts to decide whether the plant is right for your garden.”

While Grunert is methodical in the garden, perusing seed catalogs is an exercise in relaxation.

“I make a list of what I plan to grow, but I’ll also look for unusual varieties,” she said. “Or I may be looking for a particular herb variety or color of marigolds that you can’t get in a garden center. ‘Window shopping’ from the myriad seed catalogs and websites is one of winter’s great gardening pleasures.”

Most seed catalogs can be found in a simple web search, viewed online, or mailed at no cost to the recipient.