Every year it’s the same. The holidays are over, the decorations are put away, and seed catalogs begin their annual arrival in my mailbox. When they do, I love sitting down at a table with a cup of coffee, spreading my little beauties out, and creating my wish list for the coming growing season. Flipping through the perfect pictures of flowers, vegetables and trees can make any gardener, me included, giddy with excitement.

Photo by Marie Woodward

But, as I was looking through my cache of catalogs this year, I also noticed something different. My seed catalogs are not as thick as they once were. In addition, they don’t contain as many reference guides. I was curious as to why.  So, I called a few of my favorite catalog companies to find out. It turns out many are now using their printed catalogs to sell the gardening “sizzle” while relying on their websites to provide comprehensive planting and growing information.

Andrew, a representative from Prairie Moon Nursery, explained to me that they have limited space in their catalog and so are encouraging customers to come to their website, where they try to provide all the information anyone could want or need, including a key to help gardeners rapidly identify each plant’s needs and characteristics.

Having talked to Andrew I began to think about – and see – my catalogs differently.  Oh, there are some companies that still include a reference key with their seed offerings.

Symbol key from Select Seeds

But, these are fading, being replaced with QR codes, that will take tech-savvy gardeners to websites which offer more information and more varieties of plants.

QR code from Roots & Rhizomes catalog

No doubt, such websites are bigger, better, and more comprehensive.  And, many also offer video tutorials on all things garden related.

In addition to offering detailed information on their websites, many companies now invite gardeners to use social media to stay up-to-date on inventory and special events.

Social media invitation from Baker Creek heirloom seeds.

Is the computerization of the catalog a bad thing? Well, it depends. Most gardeners have smart phones and computers, which allow an easy transition to a more digital experience. Still, there some gardeners who do not have the technological skills or the interest to use such devices, which can limit their choices in seed and plant selection. But fear not, ye technology averse! All is not lost!

There are catalogs that will never transfer to digital. Susan, at Johnny’s Select Seeds told me they have a large Amish clientele, so going digital exclusively is definitely not in their future. Their 243-page catalog offers literally thousands of plants and comes with an easy to read key on every page. That said, they also have a great website for those who prefer shopping digitally.  Burpee, too, has not decreased their catalog size in two years, though they now include QR codes to guide customers to more varieties and additional information on their website.

Johnny’s Seeds Research Farm in Albion, ME (from Johnny’s Seeds catalog)

At the other end of the spectrum is Stark Brothers, best known for fruit trees, who decided a few years ago to go paperless because their inventory moves so quickly that they want to keep it updated daily.  Asked if this affected the senior gardener clientele, Jennifer, a Stark Brothers representative, said they get around that by helping technologically averse gardeners via phone calls. She also reported that many seniors use their grandchildren to help them navigate the Stark Brothers website.  

David Austin’s 2022 English Rose Collection catalog.

As helpful as the web is, for me, nothing beats sitting at a table or sofa on a snowy day wish-listing with my David Austin English Rose Collection for 2022. Although this catalog has evolved into a somewhat smaller version of what I’m used to, the photos remain lovely and the QR codes let me take a deep dive to learn more about my selections.

I don’t think catalogs will go the way of the dinosaur or horse drawn carriage, but I do think the trend will continue:  Hard copy catalogs will become more focused on marketing – providing “eye candy” and inspiration for all things gardening, while the seed companies’ websites will be the go-to source for  the nuts and bolts of  growing plants successfully.  

So, with that in mind, sit back, pour that second cup of joe, get that pen and paper ready, open those catalogs and Think Spring!  I certainly will!

Marie Woodward