Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The aesthetic seduction of seeds

Well, my posts might get a leetle less frequent at this time of year (also, ridiculous weekend followed by brain-numbing cold; you're lucky you get me at all).

I did want to mention that among the slow avalanche of seed catalogs arriving at my house, I received yesterday the one I actually bothered to pay for, from the D. Landreth Seed Company.  They are in serious financial straits, and I encourage you again to jump in and order something from them, either a $5 catalog or a holiday gift or actual seeds.  The catalog is a marvel.  My one complaint is that the print describing the seeds is a bit small (aging eyes), but it's readable online where I'd be ordering anyway.  The rest of it is just great fun, with full-color reproductions of old catalog covers (from the 1800s to early 20th century mostly; the company has been around since 1784 but the catalog not that long) and engravings, plus pearls of wisdom, research stats, complaints about their competitors, etc. from the same period.  If you like history, and that moment when you read historical sources and realize how much and how little has changed, you'll enjoy it.

They have a really quite decent selection of seeds, including some collections (the African-American Heritage one is a collaboration with Michael Twitty and really interesting) and it's definitely one of those catalogs where you page through saying "ooh, I'm going to get that... and that..."  We'll see how my orders actually come out, but I'll get some stuff from them to be sure (prices are good, too).

Landreth is also the kind of company where, when you order a bunch of old seed packets (for purposes of... framing for decoration, I guess; I just thought they were cool) that they sell on the website, you get a call from not just customer service but the company president, to be sure you know the packets don't contain seeds.  Apparently some people thought they did; hope they didn't think they could plant them as a time-travel device.  (Though it is a fascinating idea.)

The packets evoke the days before what you got to illustrate your purchase was most often a photo of the flower or fruit or whatever end result is desired, impossibly perfect and yet, because it is a photo, daring you to challenge the perfection as unrealistic.  Drawings of unrealistic produce let you in on the joke more, I think, though possibly the gullible were once just as susceptible to them.  Not that I haven't had perfect produce out of my garden on occasion, and it's the privilege of the market to sell based on the product that tops the curve.

Seed catalogs (and with them, though not always matching one-on-one, seed packets) seem to fall under the general headings of "trying for pretty, with varying success depending on financial resources" and "trying for utilitarian, with varying success depending on how much we also want to include pretty photos."  Landreth (like Shumway's, but more successfully) goes for historical aura, but also shoves photos of most of their offerings into the center.  Their modern seed packets have modestly-representative photos on them, like most of the packets you buy in hardware stores; it's not art, but it tells you what you're supposed to be getting.  I for one like to see photos or good drawings, even if I don't believe them; it's habit and human failing, as if the lack of a picture somewhere means that the plant won't do its thing.  Some companies - Seeds of Change is one - edge over into really good photography, both in the catalog and on the packets; Seed Savers Exchange does this too, and their catalog is a pleasure to look at.  Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds goes almost too far in this regard; it's hard to tell in my photo, but their seed packets are downright seductive, and the catalog (huge and glossy) is basically food-gardening porn, which I find amusing considering their squeaky-clean home-schooled-Christian image.  The other end of the scale are companies like Johnny's and Pinetree, which have no pictures and little information on their packets, and catalogs that don't get fancy even if they are (in Pinetree's case - and Fedco, too, come to think of it - must be a Maine thing) occasionally quirky.  Johnny's has more money and can afford glossy photos, but their pride is in giving you tons of information and a wide selection, not in making you pant with longing.

And then there's the pretty-drawings crowd, which in the group above includes Renee's, Territorial (photos in the catalog), and Southern Exposure, but there are others.  Artsy, sometimes folksy; seducing with design and words rather than with enormous shiny watermelons.  I buy from them all in turn, depending on my mood and my needs, and I'm not denying the effect of presentation in my choice.  Go ahead, seed companies: cater to my desires; make me want you.  (Just please no more cute Caucasian toddlers holding jumbo produce, or I will throw up.)

GBBD tomorrow - I have blooms, and not just on seed packets, either!

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