Seed Catalogs and Your Fantasy Garden

This essay previously appeared in the November/December issue of Northern Gardener.

By Samantha Johnson

It’s winter—or it will be before we know it.

When it comes, peace and quiet fill our once-vibrant gardens. Dormant bulbs slumber under a comforter of snow. Empty garden beds wait for next year. It’s the season of holidays, warm food and cozy fireplaces. For the gardener, it’s a time of reflection and anticipation, too.

Seed catalogs have been enticing gardeners for a long time! This one is from Miss Lippincott's seeds from 1896.

Seed catalogs have been enticing gardeners for a long time! This one is from Miss Lippincott's seeds from 1896.

Soon enough, reality sets in, and we know that between us and springtime stand day after day of white and cold and snow and ice and Winter Weather Advisories. If it weren’t for the seed catalogs that arrive in December, that stretch from January to March might seem interminable.

But the seed catalogs do come.

Into that barren, white winter world bursts a flash of color—mostly greens but some reds, some yellows, sometimes even purple. It’s a time for jubilation on the brilliant December day when we find the first seed catalog in the mailbox. It’s a seed of hope, a bit of reassurance that spring is coming, a spark of a reason to dream.

And those cold winter days are perfect for garden dreams. No plan is too far-fetched, no idea unreachable. So we make lists. Lists of 17 kinds of summer squash that we want to grow, lists of 22 tomato varieties that we “must try,” lists of potatoes that excel for mashing or baking or storing (we’ll need some of each, of course).

A funny thing happens when we fall into those colorful pages. Suddenly, our garden is perennially perfect, with the ideal growing conditions to suit any plant regardless of such menial limitations as soil pH or USDA Hardiness Zones. Our imaginary garden is limitless in size, too—in it, there’s nothing we can’t grow. And, of course, we have the energy, know-how and time to grow it all—and grow it perfectly.

And so we pore over the catalog pages. We make our choices by name first—Lazy Housewife pole beans and Rouge vif d’Etampes pumpkins. Then we savor the descriptions of each variety. Words like “best” and “biggest” and (be still my heart) “abundant producer” pop up throughout the descriptions like a siren song. Who could resist a cucumber that matures a full 10 days earlier than any other variety? And words like “disease resistant” are veritable music to our ears.

But the melody doesn’t stop there. No, because some catalogs also come equipped with coupons—coupons for Significant Savings that call you to action and offer impressive discounts for early-bird shoppers. So we fill out the order forms under the influence of the seed catalog spell, and we have to make two or three copies of the order form to fit everything that we’ve picked out and we add up our purchases and it totals a jillion dollars, but—never fear!—we have the Significant Savings coupon. But even with the Significant Savings coupon, our order still totals a half-a-jillion dollars and then—finally—reality breaks in and the daydream ceases.

Not that we really mind. Because a garden—even a garden that faces the harsh realities of space limitations, climate considerations and financial obligations—is a magical place in and of itself, regardless of whether we spend a jillion dollars, a half-a-jillion dollars or restrict our spending to something more reasonable.

So we close up the catalog for a month or three until the day before the coupon is set to expire. We narrow down our lists, we responsibly place a modest order of “just what we need,” and we forego three varieties of potatoes in favor of only one or two.

But for those fleeting moments in December, for that exciting time when the catalog first arrives, for that splendid split-second when anything in the garden seems possible “next year,” anything is possible. We can grow 17 types of summer squash in a 10-by-10-foot garden area and they’ll never—never!—fall prey to powdery mildew. Because gardens in December exist only in the realm of our imaginations, and seed catalogs are the wand that spreads the magic.


Wisconsin-based Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). Visit her at


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