For the beginner

| December/January 2001

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.

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