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As inclement winter weather settles in, we remove the frosted summer vegetable and flower plants out of our gardens and contemplate the now-bare beds and think of spring.

Seed catalogs begin arriving in the mail in the fall and early months of the new year and offer colorful and tantalizing dreams of what the next growing season ahead may hold. Many of us enjoy sitting down with these catalogs and perusing the many offerings, both familiar and untested, imagining the delicious spring greens or summer tomato dishes that will grace our tables. Some seed or plant catalogs are packed with information. Others are filled with not just seeds to buy, but stories about those who saved and preserved rare or noteworthy vegetables, so that in growing them, we grow a story as well as a plant with traits worth preserving. Some plant catalogs are inspirational as well as educational, and are strewn with an array of flowers we have never met, in color combinations we have never imagined. Promises of joy are found on each page.

Rather than doing a survey of all that the catalogs that are available, I have chosen a few that are particularly informational and inspirational, and that have a range of varieties to chose from that will preform well wherever you live. The catalogs are free.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog is an excellent practical primer on vegetable, herb and cut-flower growing, with book-length information included. It is a valuable asset for both the home gardener and the commercial grower. The information is a study in the concise and is presented in a no-frills format that can be read at a glance. From photographic lineups where different varietals of vegetables are displayed side-by-side for easy comparison and selection, to comprehensive growing information, there are many facts packed into each page. The catalog offers hybrids and heirloom or open-pollinated varieties and many disease-resistant vegetables. Most of the varieties offered have wide regional adaptability. The photos are informative, but not inspiring, but the information contained is invaluable. The seeds are high quality and dependable. In the first couple of pages, general seeding rates per acre or by the foot for each crop, and average yields by 100’ or per acre are clearly delineated in easy-to-read charts. This is followed by days-of-sowing-to-transplant-size information and days-from-transplanting-to-mature-crop timelines. As you flip through the catalog, each vegetable variety has a sidebar containing very specific information such as culture, transplanting, direct seeding, row covers, diseases, insect pests, ripeness, storage, days to maturity, average seeding rate, seed specifications, and packet seed count.

The catalog lists vegetable varieties by type. Rather than group beans or melons into just one heading, they divide them up into different kinds. Beans are divided into bush and pole types — both round and flat podded. Also included are filet beans, yard long, fresh shell, lima, fava and soy. The melon section has many succulent selections and lists them as cantaloupe, French, honeydew, Crenshaw, and Galia or tropical melons. Each variety has a block of information describing each melon type. Of particular note are the Galia types. These very productive cantaloupe-like melons from Israel have perfumed, succulent, very juicy green flesh rather than orange. The flavor is extremely sweet and has strong hints of citrus, banana, and pineapple. Johnny’s ‘icebox’ type small watermelons come in yellow, white and orange and are particularly tasty. For those wanting to grow microgreens and salad greens, the selection and display of them is unparalleled.

If you are interested in cut flowers, Johnny’s has comprehensive information and lists many varieties selected or bred specifically for this purpose; both annuals and perennials. Color mixes and single colors are available. Filler greenery like eucalyptus and plants that dry like ornamental millet, wheat and straw flowers are included.

Information: 877-564-6697; johnnyseeds.com.

Baker Creek Rare Seeds

Baker Creek Rare Seeds is a catalog that begs to be read like a book in a comfortable chair and offers many hours of tantalizing and educational reading. Through its colorful pages it is possible to travel the world and meet a mind-boggling array of vegetables, herbs, flowers and seed crops from every place and environment on the planet. The photography is outstanding. In some cases, varieties are disappearing in their place of origin, and growing them gives us the opportunity to help perpetuate the valuable rare, historic or unusual selections found in its pages. Many of us live in areas with challenging growing conditions, and will be able to select varieties from regions that resemble ours. Vegetables and fruits from Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Japan, India, Burma, Malaysia, Russia, Africa and many other areas are offered. The people that saved or perpetuated these plants are as interesting as the varieties themselves. Some varieties like the Bateekh Samarra melon from Iraq are reported to have been grown “in the Abbasid Period over one thousand years ago.” To taste its citrusy green flesh is to taste history. Watermelon seeds believed to be hundreds of years old were found in the 1920s in a cave in Arizona, and the seed is offered as Art Combe’s Ancient Watermelon. This melon is described as super sweet, and very drought and heat resistant. The corn selection has selections like Country Gentleman dating from 1890, a corn with kernels in a zigzag rather than row pattern, to varieties grown by native peoples like the gorgeous Big Horse Spotted Corn from the Osage tribes, to a variety called Glass Gem with translucent kernels in a variety of glowing colors. Giant sized vegetables are well represented, too, and the squash section is a world of both monstrosities in size and the diminutive — like the Futsu type of Japanese pumpkins, each a still-life of beauty. The tomato section needs some time to study and admire. It looks as though the fruits were imagined and designed by artists, rather than being a product of nature. The color range begins with green and culminates with the striped selection — each more stunning in hue and pattern than the next. The Black Pineapple, Pineapple, Berkeley Tie-Dye Pink are some of the most colorful and flavorful. Making choices in this catalog will be a difficult task.

Information: 417-924-8917; rareseeds.com

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials plant catalog

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials nursery has a plant catalog, not a seed catalog. It is included in the list because, Annie, the founder, began the nursery to supply open-pollinated, heirloom or old-fashioned flower varieties — the kinds that allow you to save their seeds and “will still blow in the wind.” She doesn’t carry dwarfed and super-doubled flowers that are bred so far from their original shape as to be practically unrecognizable. Many of the varieties she carries will seed themselves if the conditions are right, or their seeds can easily be saved. These varieties are noted. One plant usually produces many seeds, so a purchase of a single plant can yield many for years to come. She also has many rare plants, wildflowers impossible to find anywhere else, or hard-to-find flower colors. Annie is especially fond of old-fashioned varieties that have fallen from the commercial trade. Dianthus and sweet peas, are a specialty among many others. Her website and catalog is a useful resource to learn how to grow happy plants. The descriptions describe in detail where plants will grow, how to grow them, if they need compost, when and how to cut them back, how to keep them blooming, and what plants to combine them with. Each is a delight to read. There are many glowingly colorful videos on the website. It is a real and joyful resource to all gardeners.

Her print catalogs, issued twice a year for spring and summer, are a dream. Each page is a study of gloriousness. Purples mingle with pale yellows and chartreuse flowers on one spread, on another oranges, apricot flowers and blue, glow. On yet another, raspberry colors, deep pink and purples stand out. The catalog is replete with color combinations most of us have just not thought of and each page spread is an education in color and form.

It’s as if you haven’t truly seen flowers and their potential before. All photos are shot at Annie’s retail nursery in Richmond. It is a place of joy and pilgrimage, and the catalogs are a reflection of that. Plants that support butterflies, hummingbirds and bees are noted throughout the catalog as well as practicalities like deer resistance and drought resistance. You will find yourself keeping the catalogs and pulling them out when you need any inspiration or ideas.

Information: 888-266-4370; anniesannuals.com

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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