Garden Catalogues 2014: Which One Is Best?

Introduction

Well, it is that time again. The seed catalogues are pouring in and we have to decide which ones to use for the garden. This has always troubled me. There are so many catalogues to choose from. In 2007, Mother Earth News estimated there were 88 garden seed catalogues in the US. They missed a few. Dave’s Garden lists 7,687 mail order gardening companies worldwide. Horticulture Talk presents data on how at least some of these companies are interrelated. Table 1 presents information on company linkages for catalogues I regularly receive (I continue to wonder if all seeds ultimately come from one factory in China).

Table 1. – Seed Company Connections

Source: Horticulture Talk

Criteria

What are we looking for in a seed catalogue? My criteria include:

  • Comprehensiveness – it is just easier (and shipping costs less) if I can order most of my seeds from one catalogue.
  • Beauty of presentation – yes, I know I can go online, but every year, I like to spend time reading my catalogues. I enjoy looking at the pictures, imagining what it would look like in my garden (never as nice as in the pictures), and getting excited about trying something new. Digital information will never take the place of a beautiful catalogue/magazine.
  • Economy in presentation – do you have to jump around in the catalogue when you are trying to decide what beans to buy, or is everything sensibly organized? And is there a good, easy to find index?
  • Information about planting and growing – even though I have been growing from seed indoors for more than two decades, I do like reminders on “best growing practices”.
  • Quality of the seeds – which company has the best seeds?
  • Seed and supply prices.

Comprehensiveness and Information

Here, there is no contest: Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue, at 210 pages is the most comprehensive and informative.

Beauty

I know, the eye of the beholder. But Burpee’s and The Cook’s Garden are certainly pleasing to the eye. In addition, the John Scheepers’ catalogue, with its hand drawn pictures, is also quite attractive. Shumway’s and Pinetree are at the other end of the list.

Where is the Index?

I don’t mind back page (Cook’s, Totally Tomatoes), inside front cover or near-first page (Harris, Johnny’s, Pinetree), or in the mid-section adjacent to the ordering page (Park, Scheepers). But Shumway and Gurney’s, where is your index? Without an index, a catalogue is okay if crops are listed alphabetically and there is no jumping around. But Shumway and Pinetree drive me crazy!

Quality of the Seeds

Who knows? Nobody does a comparative test of germination rates, so I draw a blank here. Some people swear by the seeds from certain companies. Dave’s Garden has an ongoing rating survey for its members. But there are many factors that go into the ratings. Germination rates are only one of the criteria used. Rating results of selected companies for the last year are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. – Ratings of Selected Catalogue Companies

Source: Dave’s Garden

Because Park, Gurney, and Burpee’s got the most negative votes, does that mean their seeds have the lowest germination rates? I doubt it: many of the negative ratings result from some screw-up in a mailing or from a real/imagined surly catalogue phone person. Assuming all seeds are just as good is probably not a good assumption – I just don’t know. But in looking at seed prices below, no allowance is made for different germination rates.

Pricing

In 2010, I started rating catalogues on the prices of their seeds. I soon realized that seed price differences meant nothing in comparison to the other costs of growing vegetables. I even went to the trouble to determine whether it saved you money to grow vegetables rather than to buy them at the super market. So in what follows, I look at the costs of starting seeds indoors, the cost of seeds, and outdoor costs.

a. Growing Seeds Indoors

For this, you need a light, soil, and soil holders. My preference is to use 3 inch circular peat pots with soil. Pellets made from peat or coir are the soil and holder all in one. As can be seen from Table 3, pellets are about half the cost of a soil and separate soil holder. Soil on average costs 94 cents per quart. Figure you can get 4 holders full of soil from a quart. That means one pot of soil would cost 23 cents plus the cost of the pot (22 cents) for a total of 45 cents. The pellet (soil and holder together) costs only 23 cents per pellet.

Table 3 includes average cost and percent difference from the average for selected catalogues. A minus percentage means the provider’s product cost less than the average by that amount, i.e. Pinetree’s light is 59.4% cheaper than the average – $86.14. The catalogues in Table 3 are ranked by the overall overage percent difference for the products each sells.

Table 3. – Seed Starting Costs from Selected Catalogues

b. Seed Costs

For comparative pricing data, I chose price per seed for popular types of selected crops. In cases where a catalogue did not carry the seed type I was looking for, I chose a one that looked similar. A question raised above about whether price differences are great enough can be answered by using an example from the table. Let’s assume you plan to pay $40 for seeds. Jung’s seeds overall are 21.1% less than the average while Burpee’s are 53.7% more expensive. That means Burpee’s would cost you $61.48 and Jung’s $31.97 in comparison to a $40 average purchase. In short, buying the Jung seeds will save you $29.51 over the same seeds from Burpee’s. I emphasize that this statement depends on the seeds from both vendors being equally good.

More generally, the table indicates that seeds from Harris, Jung, and Pinetree are the least expensive. Thompson and Morgan feature a limited Italian line that is very inexpensive.

Table 4. – Seed Price Differences

It is interesting to look at what is happening to seed prices. In Table 5, average seed prices in 2011 and 2014 are compared. Big Beef and Arugula prices are up dramatically. Only Diva prices have fallen.

Table 4. – Selected Seed Prices and Changes, 2011 – 2014 (in cents)

c. Outdoor Needs

My experience is that for outside gardening, a bit more equipment is needed. At a minimum, this includes a bean inoculant, tomato cages, and trellis swine for beans, peas, and cucumbers. Information on these prices are given in Table 5. Here, Johnny’s, Park, and Harris have the lowest prices.

Table 5. – Garden Equipment Prices

Pet Peeves

I could not close without mentioning my pet peeves about garden catalogues:

  • Not providing seed counts. Because I am not a high-volume gardener, I only buy seed packets. Most catalogues provide some data on packet contents, but is often weight rather than number of seeds. If I am buying a packet of seeds, I want to know how many seeds I am getting not how much they weigh!
  • Fertilizers. Catalogues normally list all sorts of fertilizers. Well, I am not going to get 7 different fertilizers. So what do they recommend as an all around good fertilizer?
  • Seed Starting. Again, I want to know what they recommend. Should I do soil in peat pots or pellets or what? They should know better than I.

Concluding Thoughts

Well, my pet peeves will not get me done. A new gardening season starts soon, and using some of the information above, I have to start ordering!

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of archive.org):
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