A Catalogue Raisonne

A catalogue is a book that describes a collection of some sort.  A catalogue raisonne usually refers to an exhaustive list of artworks that can be attributed to a given artist. Both describe to my mind a seed book.  How so?  A seed catalogue may represent an exhaustive list of what nature has created.  Or it may be an exhaustive list of what a seed house has created in conjunction with nature.  I read seed catalogues in the winter, though I grow little from seed.  Reading about gardening is one way to keep involved when no digging can be done, and the garden is in hibernation.  The catalogues provide information about plants that can be grown from scatch.  They also detail the merits of particular cultivars, advice on germination techniques-I like reading it all.  Of course the first purpose of a particular seed catalogue is to sell their seeds-so every variety sounds like a must have.          

As I am easy prey to the thought that I must have everything and anything associated with gardening, I read the seed catalogues, cover to cover, hanging on every word.  Buck is enormously amused that I will read a seed catalogue devoted exclusively to tomato seeds, and based on what I read, make a list of my top 7 tomatoes to grow-even though I never go so far as to order the seed and actually grow them.  I read, reread, and saved every plant catalogue published by White Flower Farm; I learned a lot about perennial plants by virtue of that rereading.  I have also read plenty of nonsense in catalogues-there really is no substitute for trying things out yourself.  I have a collection of vintage and antique seed catalogues which I treasure.  Most of them list seed that is no longer available.  The drawing of John Shrimpton chrysanthemum pictured above-an artist’s charmingly rendered idea of what the purchase of a packet of seeds might bring to a garden.        

Sutton’s Seeds has been in business in the UK since 1806.  This says a lot about them, and it says a lot about the importance of gardening in England.  My Sutton’s catalogue from 1935 lists many varieties of Sutton’s pansies.  Does this mean that Sutton’s actually hybridized and produced seed themselves?  I see no Sutton’s pansies on their current web catalogue.  I am sure how seeds are produced has changed considerably since 1935.  But as I have no plans to actually grow pansies from seed,  I have as much interest in the 1935 version as the 2011 version-maybe more. 

Many of the early 20th century American seed catalogues were illustrated with black and white drawings, or etchings. Who knows when photography became more common in seed catalogues.  Many of these renderings are quite beautiful in and of themselves.  Drawings and photographs of the plants and flowers that would grow from seed are an essential sales tool.  Can you imagine a seed catalogue illustrated with pictures of the seeds themselves?  Even I would find that daunting.  A seed catalogue is a catalogue raisonne of  hope as much as anything.  Buy some little black specks catalogued as cyclamen seed, and someday you will be rewarded with a plant with strikingly marbled foliage and masses of delicately beautiful flowers.   

The transformation of a seed into a flowering plant or tree or shrub has been scientifically documented in lots of ways.  But that in no way completely describes the process.  You might call this the art created by nature.  I call it a miracle. 

Anniversary salvia was a variety offered in the 1927 seed catalogue published by Marshall’s Seeds-in honor of their 25th anniversary in business.  They were located at 150 West Twenty-Third Street in New York City, New York, at that time.  William Emerson Marshall was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and eventually apprenticed at the seed and nursery establishment John Downie.  In 1891, he emigrated to the US, and obtained a position in the greenhouses of the W. B. Dinsmore estate in New York.  Employment at a number of seed houses culminated in his opening Marshall’s seeds in 1902.  The 1927 catalogue states “Mr. Marshall’s sole hobby is gardening, and he spends his spare time in his garden in Bayville, Long Island.”  An extensive biography of every employee is printed in the beginning of the catalogue.   

The stories of the lives of the people who worked at Marshalls is at least as interesting as their Green Flesh muskmelons, and the beautiful etching accompanying the description of the plant.  They were all gardeners-but for the head of the packing and shipping department.  It was noted however that he was the star pitcher of the Marshall’s baseball team.

This fabulous black and white photograph of a trug loaded with peas had to have sold countless packages of Sutton’s Pioneer Pea seeds. I very well might have bought these seeds myself.  Not so much so I could eat the peas, though I do like peas.  What is so compelling here is how beautiful they are. And how beautifully arranged and photographed they are.

Customer service-Maule’s Seeds had that as well.  If you wished to pay for your seed over time, a specially color coded order blank was available, which stated “I am faithful in the settlement of my obligations, and give you my pledge that you may feel safe in trusting me as agreed.”  A credit system based on honor-much like a certain local produce stand I patronize. They are not always there-it takes lots of time for them to grow their vegetables..  I get my corn, and put the money in  the cigar box.  That I am able to do this, yet another raisonne d’etre for a gardening life.