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Mail Order Seed
As winter settles in, Texas gardeners eagerly await the postman's delivery of their seed catalogs. The fall crops are safely stored, the garden has been seeded to a cover crop of cereal rye. There is little to do except dream and plan for next spring. Pouring over seed catalogs is good therapy for the midwinter blues that often afflict avid gardeners.
We enjoy seeing all of those colorful pictures in our seed catalogs and feel sure that the vegetables will grow as well and be as prolific and attractive as in the catalog pictures. Few of us consider our seed catalogs to be indispensable; however, our forefathers treasured theirs. A century ago most rural Americans lived relatively isolated lives, and one vital contact with the rest of the world was through the mail order catalog. The arrival of seed catalogs with pictures of new flower and vegetable varieties and humorous illustrations was eagerly anticipated each year.
During the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century most individuals grew and saved their own vegetable seeds. A wider assortment of vegetable kinds and better varieties were obtained by trading seed with neighbors. The first truly commercial seed company in the United States was started in Philadelphia in 1784. The advent of commercial seed companies enabled the development of practical methods to hybridize and produce "pure" high yielding vegetable varieties and to disseminate them through the mail.
Novelty varieties were featured to a far greater extent in nineteenth century catalogs than they are today. Such oddities as earth almonds (today known as the weed, nutgrass or nutsedge), dishcloth gourds, Chinese yams, melon peaches, and nest egg gourds (a white egg shaped gourd used to fool nesting hens) were commonly advertised. Of course, these can only compare to our present day craving for such exotics as spaghetti squash, tree tomatoes and climbing strawberries.
The old seed catalogs also contained some fascinating varietal names such as Lazy Wives' Pole Bean, Yellow Tankard or Maules Gate Post Mangels, Large White Passion (lettuce), Georgia Rattlesnake (watermelon), and Swan's Egg or Cow Horn (turnips).
Of course, present day vegetable varieties have more sophisticated names as such as Greensleeves and Green Genes (bean), Drumhead and Stonehead (cabbage), Honey Rock (cantaloupe), Short 'n Sweet (carrot), Sugarhat (chicory), Lemon (would you believe a cucumber?), Deer Tongue (lettuce), and Honeycomb (sweet corn).
Regardless of a variety's name and origin, it may perform better or worse than others used in your area. Testing the new, highly promoted varieties against an established standard is the only effective means of determining which varieties are the best for gardens in your neck of the woods. Remember, most of those pretty, mouth-watering pictures were taken at the site of that variety's development where it performs at it's best.
The varieties featured on the catalog covers and inserts in brightly colored pictures are the very ones that the company believes to be it's best variety introductions. Before you launch into a detailed study of your catalogs, make a realistic list of the vegetables that you intend to plant. Next to each vegetable that you want to plant, write the name of the variety that has done best in your garden. If it is a vegetable that you intend to grow for the first time, consult gardening friends and/or get a listing of the Cooperative Extension's recommended varieties before entering it on your list. A list of those recommended by the Texas Cooperative Extension and sources can be found at:
Casually, leaf through each catalog to acquaint yourself with its features and format. Don't-I repeat don't-make out an order to that company right away. Wait until you have browsed through several catalogs. When you have calmed down from the initial excitement generated by the thoughts of having all these luscious vegetables in your garden, sit down with your catalogs and a copy of the Cooperative Extension recommended varieties for your area, which you can get free from your county Extension agent. With these references, you are prepared to make sound judgments about varieties that will permit you to complete your seed order with confidence. But, of course, you must know how to interpret and judge what you read in your catalogs and that is the purpose of the information presented here.
It is adventurous to try new varieties and novelty vegetables, but try hard to avoid buying all the highly glamorized wonder vegetables. Give a new plant or an untried variety very limited space in your garden.
Home garden catalogs of the popular seed companies contain information that helps people select the best variety for their garden. Color pictures are not necessary. Some of the best seed companies have no color pictures in their catalogs, just honest variety descriptions written clearly and concisely.
Buy only as much seed as you can use without waste. Buying the larger at smaller per-unit-cost is sometimes economical, but not always. Order only as much parsnip seed as you intend to plant this season because parsnip seed retains it's germination vigor for only one year. In contrast, if you start your own tomato plants from seed and have settled on a variety which you intend to plant for several years, then order several years' supply because you know that the seed will remain viable for at least four to five years if it is kept cool and dry.