Picture of seed catalogs
Image by Jean Thomas

The podcast, Nature Calls: Conversation from the Hudson, focuses on Seed Catalogs

Episode Five: Understanding Seed Catalogs

In this episode, join Master Gardener Volunteer and this podcast co-creator, Jean Thomas, in an informative conversation about seed catalogs. Learn about their history, their changing content and how to read them. This will be followed by a new segment, Pests and Pathogens, featuring Dede Terns-Thorpe and Jackie Hayden who discuss how to diagnose plant problems. The episode concludes with Joan Satterlee, who provides insights into Tools of the Trade, focused on a plant identification tool, iNaturalist. Listen in!

Hosts: Tim Kennelty and Jean Thomas

Interview Guest: Jean Thomas


Seed Catalogs: The American Seed and Nursery Industry, Bibliography and Biographies, Smithsonian Library collection Website:sil.si.edu/silpublications/seeds/bibseednur.html;

Brix scale of sweetness: ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/HYG-1650;

Catalog list:

Baker Creek… www.rareseeds.com

Burgess Seed & Plant… www.eburgess.com

Burpee…. www.burpee.com

Johnny’s Select Seed… www.johnnyseeds.com

Jung Seeds & Plants… www.jungseed.com

Pinetree Garden Seeds… www.superseeds.com

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds… www.kitchengardenseeds.com

Select Seeds… www.selectseeds.com

Territorial Seed Company…www.territorialseed.com

Pests and Pathogens (Dede Terns-Thorpe and Jackie Hayden): Diagnosing a Plant Problem 101 (psu.edu) ; Fact Sheets - Cooperative Extension: Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases - University of Maine Cooperative Extension (umaine.edu)

Tools of the Trade (Joan Satterlee): https://www.inaturalist.org; iNaturalist Seek App; iNaturalist: Getting Started


Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our team's goal is to present science-based information about gardening and all things nature in New York's Hudson Valley. Hosts, Jean and Tim, along with team members, Teresa and Linda, are Master Gardener Volunteers for New York's Columbia and Greene Counties. So if you're interested in gardening, or nature, or nuggets of information about what's happening outside your door, settle in. Enjoy the conversation! Whatever the season, we have something to say.

Jean;  Hey, Tim, do you ever hear John Bartram?

Tim: I have, Jean. Actually, yes.

Jean: Have you read any of the books about him and all his buddies?

Tim: I can't believe you're asking me that question because I have. Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf has a great book that I'd recommend.

Jean: And she's written several other really interesting, Cruising Through History, to do with plants.

Tim: So what about John Bartram?

Jean: John Bartram pretty much started mail order catalogs and he was best friends with Benjamin Franklin. Well, he found and put into production a tree, called Franklinia, in honor of our friend Ben. It's a good thing he did, because there was never another found in the wild. It was considered extinct since 1803. All the Frankliniana, related to cameliias, by the way, and tea, that exist now our children of the ones Bartram grew from seed. We wouldn't have even had them if it weren't for John Bartram,

Tim: I actually planted a franklinia tree, and it didn't do well. I think I planted two. I don't think they grow in our area, but it was a beautiful tree. But you're going to talk about seed catalogs. And I think the amazing thing about seed catalogs and this is what you really talk about is how much information they have. I mean, I look at them for the pretty pictures. And it's kind of the guilty pleasure at this time of year, but you're gonna talk about all the interesting stuff and seek catalogs. Right?

Jean: Yes, it goes into the families. It goes into the activities, It goes into the gene pools, and what areas they thrive in. So it's kinda like I consider all my gardening like gossip.

Tim: Yeah, I don't think people realize how valuable they are.

Jean: Oh, it's good. Just pretend it's a Kardashian when you're talking about a tomato,

Tim: Kardassia. Okay. And we have a new feature in this edition. It's called Pests and Pathogens, which is great, because that's what we got a lot of questions on garden pests.

Jean: That's mostly what gardening is, unfortunately.

Tim: Yeah.pests. Right?

Jean: Animal, insect, ...

Tim: And I think this week's edition is going to be really helpful because it's about diagnosing plant problems. And that's probably what many, many calls we get as Master Gardeners.

Jean: And our friends, Dede and Jackie are doing this little process jointly. And they're awesome.

Tim: Yeah, this is going to be a great one to listen to.

Jean: And we have another new feature, showing up about once a month called Tools of the Trade.

Tim: Yeah, that's going to be great.

Jean: And Joan Satterlee is teaching it.

Tim: Yeah. And it's on all those wonderful garden resources, apps and websites and books that we all use, right?

Jean: I use iNaturalist and I am like the least technical person on the planet.

Tim: It's an amazing app, because it uses artificial intelligence that takes all these photos and it's able to identify when you take a picture of something: a beetle or a plant or a butterfly. I use it all the time in the garden, do you?

Jean: Yeah, I especially like the artificial intelligence part of it. Because I can feel like I'm handing over the power.

Tim: You probably need some artificial intelligence.

Jean: I've got to get some somewhere...

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And there's a simpler version of iNaturalist out there too, if you use iNaturalist, called Seek,that Joan talks about as well.

Jean: I have never used that one. How was it different?

Tim: You don't have to register and it's actually great for kids.

Jean: Oh, then it's perfect for me.

Tim: Yeah.It's perfect for you.

Jean: All right, then let's listen in.

Tim: Today's conversation is about seed catalogs. We'll discuss the history of seed catalogs the changing content of seed catalogs, and how to read a seed catalog for the information you need to purchase seed. Today we're talking to Jean, Jean Thomas, Master Gardener Volunteer about seed catalogs. It's so exciting to interview you, Jean.

Jean: I'm so excited to be here, Tim.

Tim: So, tell us a little bit about the history, about the origin, of seed catalogs.

Jean: Okay, sure. Tim. John Bartrum was a Quaker from Pennsylvania. He was one of the wave of explorers in the 1730s, who fanned out around the world in a massive plant hunt. The modern world demanded more and more new plants. Bartrum and the dynasty of four generations he built, 'discovered' (that's in air quotes), and nurtured thousands of specimens for shipping around the world. His customers included all the founding fathers of the revolution, as well as just about every wealthy European on the continent, and in the British Isles. He developed the custom Bartram Box for safe shipping, and he wrote the first catalogs. These were merely lists of the available plants and seeds with their prices, and they were called broadsides. They looked like posters, but there were no pictures except an occasional line drawing or anything but a short description of the plant. By the time the new country was established, there were already thousands of trees and shrubs in England, grown from the trees and seeds and plants ordered and shipped in Bartram boxes. Other nurserymen imitated Bartrum and a bustling industry grew up. None were ever as successful as Bartrum's, however. Being besties with Benjamin Franklin probably helped a bit.

Tim: Now there's lots of great books on John Bartram too. So Jean, you insist that although seed catalogs may seem boring to many of us, there's a seed catalog for every gardener. What do you mean by that? A catalog is just a catalog, isn't it?

Jean: No, Tim, it's never that simple. Just like anything else, there are good ones and bad ones. And sometimes one can be good for one gardener, but bad for another. Fortunately, in this age of online shopping, we can still get our hands on actual paper catalogs. Actually, we can take advantage of both versions by making our choices from an actual catalog, and then ordering online from their website. In my experience, I just get more value from turning pages, and comparing plant choices in a book, than browsing through an online catalog. And some of these catalogs are masterpieces, both visually and educationally. The choices range from the specialty plant geek type, like John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seed, to the frantically excited types like he used to see in the magazine section of the Sunday paper. Burgess Seed does some of this with gaudy and unrealistic illustrations.

Tim: Okay, I admitted I love some of the beautiful seed catalogs. But why would I buy from a seed catalog instead of just going down to my local nursery and picking up some packets of seeds?

Jean: Well, it's like comparing a fast food restaurant to a nice local restaurant. Either one has its strong points. If your needs are pretty basic, and you're not too concerned about selection, seeds from the local retail outlets are just fine. For many new gardeners, it's a great place to start. And for many traditional gardeners, it's just fine too. It's when we start looking around for more variety that we realize how little variety is available in stores. Over the past decades, the seed industry has been downsizing to fit the available marketing space. Some seeds have vanished from the market because they cost more to produce than they earned back in sales. Having said that, there has been a great interest and renaissance in seed production. And a lot of wonderful small companies have popped up with an increasing variety of seat availability. There's several locally in fact. Turtle Tree Seed Company in Ghent, Columbia County, and Hudson Valley Seed Company in Accord, in Ulster County, are both thriving producers of local seed. We have links to both on our website at ccecolumbiagreene.org. or go to the gardening tab then click on the Nature Calls tab.

Tim: So it's not a quality issue then.You're saying that the seeds in stores are of high quality. There's just not as much variety.

Jean: Usually they are. There may be fewer seeds per pack or, in the case of seed mixes, a smaller percentage of the desirable seed portion. In fact, many of the seed companies you see in the stores have catalogs or websites you can visit offering a wider selection than in the stores. The one thing you might want to double check is the sell by date on the pack. Sometimes older seed gets mixed in by mistake. Even then, many seeds are viable past that date but with a smaller germination percentage.

Tim: Okay, so let's assume I want to explore the world of sweet corn for instance. It seems that there's really a lot of varieties available that are engineered to have a short growing season and are either bi-colored or white kernelled. I missing the old fashioned all yellow corn that was solid and satisfying. I'm looking at a vegetable growers catalog. How do I find that?

Jean: Okay, you just told me that you want what's called an heirloom variety. Look in the section of the catalog that has sweet corn. Some catalogs even have a symbol that indicates heirloom status. Others describe the hybrid status and age of the variety. But the catalogs also give you a wealth of information besides color and age of the particular variety. For instance, old fashioned yellow corn takes longer to ripen than more modern types. Each corn lists the number of days to harvest and number of rows on the cob. Many tell you how many seeds per pack. Also, in case you didn't know, a corn plant requires about three square feet to develop, and then rarely provides more than two ears of corn. And the rows should be about four feet apart, usually planted in a big block to improve pollination. Pretty big space demands on a small garden. Oh, and by the way, Tim, all yellow corn has only been around since the early 20th century, when Burpee developed a non-hybrid yellow corn called Golden Bantam. And then in 1924, an Ag lab in Connecticut hybridized to corn called Red Green.

Tim: Interesting. So I've been flipping through some of my seed catalogs I just received, and I need a few definitions from you, Jean. What's an heirloom? And what's the safe seed pledge? And what does it mean when they say that seeds are certified organic?

Jean: Okay, good series of questions, Tim. I'll go through them one at a time. An heirloom plant is one with a long history of cultivation. Most often it's open pollinated, which means that seeds are true to type and don't require crossbreeding between two different varieties. Although there are some hybrids that have a long enough history to be considered heirloom to some gardeners. The open pollinated plants produce seeds that can be saved and used year after year, with the results being predictable. Many tomatoes have been passed down through generations and are famous for their history. From the brandywines, dated back to 1885. and the mortgage lifter tomato, my favorite, traced to the Great Depression. Heirlooms are wonderful for their superior taste and fascinating history. But hybrids took over the market for a reason. Authentic heirlooms are susceptible to disease and environmental problems. While resistance has been bred into the hybrids. There's a whole alphabet soup of letters after the name of most hybrids that list what their resistance to. For instance, Jetstar descendant, Jetsetter, VF F, N,A,S,T is resistant to four races of wilt disease, nematodes, alternate areas stem canker and stem phillium leaf spot. Hmm. Let's move on to the safe seed pledge. Most seed growers are very sensitive to the dangers of bio-engineered seed or plants, whether GMO or chemically treated for various resistances. They pledge to not knowingly buy or sell treated plants or seed. Some go a step further and provide seed and plants that are certified organic. This means the plants can be grown for certified organic production under USDA regulations of the National Organic Program.

Tim: You're blowing my mind here as far as how much information there on a seed packet. So why? would? then? What more information is there in a catalog than then just a seed packet?

Jean: Well, Tim, it's pretty much a win win situation there. When you buy a packet of seeds there's already a huge amount of information available. And when you order from a catalog, there's additional information that just won't fit on a seed pack. Both will tell you these things: the Latin name, usually; whether the plant is an annual or perennial; how deep to plant the seed; how big the adult plant will be; what distance to space the seed; and number of days to germination. There's usually a hardiness zone map with planting dates, and there's a 'sell by' freshness date. Sometimes country origin is shown. There's a paragraph or two explaining how to take care of the plant and what kind of light and moisture it requires. So you ask what else does a catalog have to offer? Let's flip through some pages. Most catalogs have a set of symbols to give you more information. Depending on the philosophy of the catalog producer, there may be symbols indicating if the item is organic, or hybrid or heirloom. Most have symbols that show sun and water requirements, number of days to ripeness for veggies. Many have symbols about deer resistance or pollinator friendliness. The good ones list the botanical name next to the common name which can avoid mistakes. If a catalog omits the Latin, be careful, especially if they use cute names for the plants. The main exception here is vegetables. Most common veggies don't need it. We know corn from tomatoes, from cucumbers, already. Here the varieties get thorough descriptions. For example, echinacea is familiar to most of us. It's a coneflower, hybridized from native prairie flowers. Jung Seed lists a dozen on a page in its 2022 catalog. Jung uses symbols to indicate info about the plants, so they have a symbol for full sun and other partial shade, a little pair of scissors for cut flower value, and the initials P P. For availability as a live potted plant. The little butterfly symbol is not all but two of the flowers. The butterfly symbolizes that it is pollinator friendly. Two lack the symbol and they are theones with double blooms. They aren't producing what the pollinators want. If you're gardening for pollinators, this can be important and the catalog writers know this. If vegetable seeds from an organic source are a priority, Jung marks the relatively few available from them as such, with a red ink and a higher price. Other catalogs are entirely from organic sources. Before I go any further, I must say that every catalog has good and bad points. Some have inadequate information about the seeds. Some have awesome gadgets and tidbits of extra information about plants that head off disappointment. I like them all. Anybody eavesdropping on me when I indulge in reading through a stack of catalogs will over hear "I didn't know that" as frequently as "what a load of compost:, in the same catalog.

Tim: Jean, I think I was just looking at the pretty pictures. I've been missing an awful lot with catalogs. I bet there's more you have to tell us about catalogs. Yes?

Jean: Oh yes. Some other things. Many catalogs have symbols for are OG, which equals certified organic. AAS is All America selections. Deer resistance, bird favorites. Vegetable sections often have separate codes for diseases specific to the type of vegetable. We've already mentioned the possibilities with tomatoes. With peppers, some catalogs have a scale of heat depicted along with the description of the plant. Burpee doesn't use symbols but manages to fit a ton of information into the paragraph allotted to each seed.

Tim: Well, Jean, what if I'm growing just a few veggies and a couple of flowers? Would it catalog have any value to me then?

Jean: Well, if you're interested in exploring the world of gardening, catalogs are fascinating. They have lots of pictures, which you like. So you can expand your horizons beyond whatever you've been doing for years. I like the description some of the catalogs that include historical or geographical trivia. For example, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, produces a catalog you can purchase in retail stores. It is huge and full of so much information. It can even be found at Barnes and Noble bookstores, as well as the Tractor Supply Store. I have the free smaller version right now. And it's awesome, even with a much smaller table of contents.

Tim: So I bet catalogs, seed catalogs, have really changed since the olden days of Bartram, probably in your youth, right, Jean, when you were growing up? Obviously, there's many more things available. There's many more plants available. But what else?

Jean: Well, for starters, the Smithsonian has a catalog collection that goes back to the days of Bartram. So if you really want to check things out, I think we have a link to the Smithsonian as well. There are a few relatively new developments. Many producers now list the actual number of seeds per pack, in response to the outcry of frustration by those of us, unable to throw away perfectly good seeds, and ending up with a Russell Stover candy box full of old seed. GMO status is an important issue, and most catalogs brag that they have taken the safe seat pledge, that the seed they sell are GMO free and untreated. Most discuss heirloom varieties as well as plants that have been in cultivation for many years. Depending on the definition of heirloom. They mark whether a plant is cold hardy or heat tolerant. Some will offer pelletized seed. Some mark that a plant is container friendly. A continuing trend is to offer more live plants and most catalogs have always offered products to better plant, grow and harvest your gardens. This latter category is where you might find some hyperbole and some really neat gadgets.

Tim: So I'm a worrier. And is there anything I should be worried about in terms of catalogs? or dangers or anything that I should be avoiding?

Jean: Well, yeah, Tim, I am worried about the fact that some also offered garden chemicals, including herbicides and insecticides. These are almost always, in my experience, costlier than your local garden centers or big box stores. It also makes me nervous to have packages of potentially dangerous chemicals delivered on your doorstep. Whenever you purchase chemicals, research the side effects, as well as the uses suggested. Please check with experts before using any chemicals in your garden or home and don't go by a few lines in a catalog.

Tim: Man, I didn't know there was so much to learn about catalogs. We don't have time today but there's another feature I think of seed catalogs that we should talk about. Many seed sellers also sell bulbs. Right? And nursery stock. There's tricks to reading those too. Let's talk about that sometime in the future. Okay?

Tim: Okay, Tim. You're on.

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Stay tuned for Pests and Pathogens.

Dede: Welcome to garden Pests and Pathogens. I'm Dede Terns-Thorpe and I'm here with Jackie Hayden. We're Colombia and Greene County Master Gardener Volunteers and today we'll be talking with you about diagnosing plant problems.

Jackie: Diagnosing is a key to coming up with the correct control mechanism. And where do we start?

Dede: Well first, define the problem to determine if a real problem actually exists. Double check normal plant characteristics to accurately describe the symptoms and signs for any abnormality. Next, we should look for patterns on more than one plant or plant species. If we see the symptoms on only a few plant species, it could be an issue with pathogens or insects.

Jackie: And how would you describe pathogens?

Dede: That could be a fungal, a bacterial, or a viral disease. The location and the type of the damage are an important clue in determining any insect cause damage diseases. Look for chewing, sucking damage, as well as leaf curling, or puckering, galls, or skeletonized leaves. A broad damage pattern would indicate physical, mechanical or chemical factors that are at play. These could be caused by wind, hail, temperature, light or moisture extremes, nutritional disorders, or pesticide and pollutant toxicities. At least half of all observed landscape problems are not caused by insects or diseases.

Jackie: What if you only find damage in one of two plants?

Dede: If it's a one-time event, it would indicate a non-living cause. Or is it getting worse? If so, look for a living organism creating havoc with your plant. In addition to insects, leaf miners, borers, roots, feeders, can all impact the health of your plants. Spider mites, slugs, rodents, and birds are also known to feed on plants causing damage.

Jackie: What if only one or two plants look affected?

Dede: A great question, Jackie. Many pests and diseases are plant specific but symptoms affecting more than one plant or genus may indicate environmental problems. By combining information, you can determine the probable cause and determine if corrective action is needed. For example, if you see all or a major portion of a tree, shrub or plant dying, suspect an issue with the vascular system. This could be caused by a toxic chemical in the soil or an extreme temperature or moisture condition. A gradual decline could be caused by root rot or wilt disease. If scattered branches start to decline and gradually die, suspect a living organism such as a cankor pathogen, a shoot blight or a borer.

Jackie: What if a branch or branches die off all of a sudden? Does this change the probable cause?

Dede: Another great point and yes if a branch dies suddenly, or affected branches are concentrated on one side of a plant, suspect weather, animal damage or chemical drift. Similarly, shoot die back can be caused by freeze damage as well as cracking or gurgling. A gradual decline of shoots, with the retention of dead leaves, could be caused by bacterial disease or pathogenic fungi. Leaf deformities can be caused by the drift from chemicals, heat, or moisture stress, as well as chemicals taken up through roots. Fungal leaf spot and stem rots are often tan to dark brown and many are circular.

Jackie: Do these bacteria penetrate healthy plants?

Dede: No. Actually, bacteria do not actively penetrate healthy plant tissue but rather they enter through rooms or natural openings. Bacteria leaf spots are often angular because they're limited by leaf veins. Infected tissue may appear oily or water soaked and sometimes has a foul odor. Viral diseases affect individual host plant cells that spread cell to cell. They may also be spread by insects.

Jackie: What is it you should look for?

Dede: Symptoms to look for include the lack of chlorophyll formation in normally green foliage, stunting or other distortion of leaves and flowers. or harmful rings or lesions.

Jackie: What if you can't figure out the diagnosis? What should we do?

Dede: Okay if you need help diagnosing your plant's problem, your local Cooperative Extension Office can help. Bring us a sample, like an affected branch. One that has some healthy, as well as problematic leaves, can aid in the diagnosis. Also take a picture of the plant's environment so we can see the environmental factors. We'll do our best to diagnose the issue and give you suggestions as to how to manage the problem. Hopefully these situations will never arise for you. But if they do, I hope this helps you know what to look for to determine if you have a problem caused by a garden pest, and needs to be managed, or whether it was just one of nature's flukes. Thanks for listening. And we hope this helped you with some of these pesky pests.

Jackie: Have a great day, and we'll see you in the garden.

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Stay tuned for Tools of the Trade.

Joan: Hi, and welcome to Tools of the Trade, a recurring segment of this podcast that highlights a website, app or book that we as Master Gardeners find to be essential resources. I'm Joan Satterlee, a Master Gardener Volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties.

Joan: One of the most frequent inquiries, we, Master Gardeners, receive, is about the identification of a plant or insect. While there are many wonderful field guides and other identification resources available, the 'go to' resource for many gardeners is an app and related website called iNaturalist. iNaturalist is one of the world's most popular nature apps which allows you to identify and record plants, insects and animals. iNaturalist is a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists, built on the concept of mapping and recording observations of biodiversity. It is both a website and an app that allows you to record observation of plants and animals in nature using photographs. It also allows you to share what you found and contribute to a global database of biodiversity information used for both science and conservation.

Joan: iNaturalist was first developed in 2008 as the Masters final project. Eventually, the developers teamed up with the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic to create what is today one of the most popular nature resources. Finding and making observations is as simple as exploring, being curious, and taking photos of plants, insects and animals. You can also take photos of evidence of specific organisms like tracks, nests, shells, or skulls. iNaturalist uses artificial intelligence that suggests a list of possible identifications. And then if you upload these observations, the AI naturalist community works together to refine and confirm the identification. iNaturalist helps anyone explore their surroundings, improves their observation skills, and connects them to the naturalist community. The iNaturalist app and website are completely free with no hidden charges or upsells. To get started, you simply download the iNaturalist app from the Apple Store or Google Play. The app is compatible with both iOS and Android smartphones. Once you have downloaded the app, you need to set up an account with a username and password. Now you're all set to get out there and make observations.

Joan: You might want to start with some plants in your garden. Find a subject and tap the 'take photo' button. You'll be given options to retake the photo and add photos. When you're ready, tap the box that says 'What did you see?' If you have a Wi Fi connection, the iNaturalist artificial intelligence will provide possible identifications based on your photographs. You can quit here or save the observation for the iNaturalist community to review the photo and confirm the identification. iNaturalist has many other features, and I'll include a link to the 'Getting Started Guide' so that you can explore further. If you want an even simpler ID tool, download the Seek app. Seek was created by the same folks who developed iNaturalist. Seek uses the same artificial intelligence and it is a good choice if you don't want to create an account or share your data. It is especially good for beginner nature observers and kids. Whether you decide to use iNaturalist or Seek, you'll be amazed at how much you can learn. Just get out there and start observing. That's it for this edition of Tools of the Trade. Until next time, I'm Joan Satterlee.

That concludes another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We would like to thank Sandra Linnell and Deven Connolly from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties for production support. And a special thank you to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. You can find links to any of the topics mentioned in this episode at our website at ccecolumbiagreene.org. Comments and suggestions for future topics may be directed to us at colgremg@cornell.edu or on the CCE Master Gardener Volunteers of Columbia and Greene Counties' Facebook page.

For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, visit our website at ccecolumbiagreene.org or visit us in Hudson or in Acra. Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal programming and employment opportunities.

Last updated May 3, 2023