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Doree Pitkin is a guest contributor to “Green Patch.” She is a
master gardener and former assistant editor of The Herb

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

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

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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