For the beginner
Doree Pitkin is a guest contributor to “Green Patch.” She is a master gardener and former assistant editor of The Herb Companion.
There are so many herb seed catalogs. How can I tell a good source from a bad one?
Ah, winter—the time for herb-garden musing through seed and plant catalogs, plain and fancy! It’s great fun, but you’re right: a dazzling catalog does not an excellent company make. Glorious photographs tempt us, but gardening success takes more than inspiration. It takes solid information, and the better nurseries and mail-order companies provide it.
Good herb mail-order companies pack their catalogs tight with advice about growing the herbs they offer, sometimes omitting photos in favor of line drawings or skipping the visuals completely in favor of information. As a new herb gardener, you might find a general herb reference book helpful in forming an idea of what the herb looks like, whether it is suited to your garden, and how to use it. Use it side by side with herb catalogs that don’t offer extensive photographs.
In general, companies that specialize in herbs provide the best plants and seeds. These companies stake their success on yours. When you are pleased with your herb garden, you’re likely to place repeat orders with that company. To that end, these companies emphasize customer service, and not just for ordering. If you call to ask a question about an herb in the catalog or get more information before deciding on an herb, you’ll find a kind person at the other end of the line who will help you make the best decision for your situation. You need not place an order first to get such information, but bear in mind that these companies aren’t for general reference. For that, visit your local library.
Specialized herb companies also offer the newest and most specific cultivars of a given herb family, such as numerous oregano cultivars and a variety of sages, all accurately identified and shipped. It’s fun to try several different oreganos, for instance, and compare them in the garden and the kitchen, perhaps developing your own particularly tasty pizza-herb blend. General catalogs that include herbs seldom offer much variety, and few of their employees can accurately answer phoned-in questions about herbs.
Another clue to the quality of the company producing the catalog is the information given for each herb. In general, the more information given, the better the company. To read an herb catalog accurately, familiarize yourself with the key to symbols, usually found in the front of the catalog. Each herb entry includes these symbols, that tell you the amount of sun a given herb requires, USDA Hardiness Zones, blooming time, and other characteristics. The text of the entry should include a brief description, something about the cultivar, and perhaps a note about the history and breeding of the herb. In the best catalogs, you’ll find invaluable notes from the garden and sometimes the kitchen: “Does poorly in heavy clay,” “Suitable for xeric use,” and “Puts the fire in curry!”
Less information in the plant entry indicates a casual approach on the company’s part, and a less helpful attitude. I’ve seen catalogs that note a particular herb as “Does well up North!” or “Hardy.” North of where, I ask, and “hardy” in what circumstances? A catalog with such scant information—and the company that puts it out—won’t help you much in your quest for a wonderful herb garden.
Will you get what you see in the catalogs? If you’re ordering from a good company, you will receive the particular herb seed or plant you requested, barring outright error. Whether your seeds and plantlets will achieve luxurious beauty, fragrance, and taste is less certain. Catalog illustrations and descriptions, designed to sell herbs, present the best herbs raised in the best conditions. Few herb gardeners can recreate this environment, so your mature herb isn’t likely to match the photograph. But if you follow cultivation instructions, control pests, and give your herbs a little TLC, you’ll grow excellent herbs and have a lot of fun along the way.
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