When I was growing up, the winters in North Dakota were long and cold. We didn’t let that stop us from ice skating on the river or sledding on the bluffs. But when we’d come inside and shed all those layers, I’d head to my dad’s Morris chair and snuggle in with one of the many colorful seed catalogs that came through our house. Most of them were from my family’s business, Oscar H. Will & Co., but the annual offerings from Gurney’s, W. Atlee Burpee, Henry Field’s, Farmer Seed and Nursery, and R. H. Shumway were always there, too.
I remember being particularly fascinated with the color illustrations on the covers and in the early “color section” pages inside. I was experienced enough with many of the crops that even the black and white line drawings were captivating. It was those line drawings that piqued my interest in plant anatomy, which I pursued avocationally in the early years and later more formally. Although I was not aware of it, I was being introduced to the language of botany and plant genetics.
Most of my favorite old seed companies have been consolidated or are gone altogether. My new wintertime favorites include Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Territorial Seed Company, and a few others. While it’s interesting to trace the dispersal and disposal of some favorite old brands, I find the passionate interest in heirloom cultivars — and the new and not-so-new upstart seed companies that support their survival — to be compelling.
Now, after haying my sheep on raw Kansas winter days, I like to snuggle up in front of the woodstove with a stack of catalogs and dream of gardening seasons not yet experienced. If you have any favorite catalogs or growing tips to share, I’d love to hear them. Please send your story and related photos to HWill@HeirloomGardener.com — they just might wind up in a future issue of the magazine.