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It’s been many years since I paid any attention to White Flower Farm.  I used to order a bareroot rose or shrub from them now and then.  Early in my career, they disabused me of the notion that it was good to order perennials by mail by taking lots of money from me and sending me, in exchange, infant plants incapable of surviving life in the outdoors.

I will admit that when I first started gardening, I found the White Flower Farm catalog enchanting–beautifully photographed and artful combinations of plants–even if the copy was very twee.  In his first book Second Nature, Michael Pollan has a hilarious essay, “Made Wild By Pompous Catalogs,” that skewers the pretensions of White Flower Farm and its fictional proprietor Amos Pettingill, who, Pollan says, “sets the tone for the house”:

Amiably eccentric, opinionated, prudent, aloof from commerce, afflicted with a bad case of anglophilia, ironically self-deprecating and yet at the same time (a trick only the well-bred seem able to pull off) coercive in matters of taste.

When I picked up the catalog this week, I saw that nothing’s changed, except of course what’s fashionable in gardening.  And now vegetables are muscling some space from the perennials.  So now “coercive in matters of taste” has been plastered over the subject of vegetable gardening, and it made me pity every beginner who looks to Amos to light the way.

FIrst, there is the price of WFF’s vegetable seedlings:. $6.95 or 7.25 apiece. The website informs me,”Our stocky seedlings are grown and shipped in 3in pots that are a full 4in deep, so the plants you receive have strong, well-developed root systems.”

In other words, the same kind of good-sized seedling that might cost even a $1.50 or $2 apiece at the farmer’s market.

Fine, it’s your money.  What are you getting if you place your trust in White Flower Farm?

Well, they will take advantage of your ignorance by selling seedlings of things better and more economically started by shaking a packet of seeds over the ground, such as lettuce and broccoli raab.

And they will ship you cucurbits, which are also much better grown from seed, if you have a long enough season.  These are the great fuss-budgets of the garden in terms of temperature and tend to join their maker if you stick their seedlings in the ground before the soil has grown warm and cozy.  What are the chances that White Flower Farm will mail your delicate zucchinis at precisely the right moment, so you can just pop them in and get a decent return on investment? Because if you can’t just pop them in, it is a disaster to have them start vining in their pots.

White Flower Farm will even save you the trouble of reading the variety descriptions by sending you a “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection,” 9 plants for a mere $61, designed for those “who want to get their toes wet without diving in.”  In other words, for customers too scared to do anything without Amos’s okay.

Indeed, the catalog copy insists that a superior taste has organized this collection: “We’ve gathered the best varieties for home gardeners.”

Huh.  Personally, I don’t find the the collection appetizing.  It includes a full two varieties of summer squash.  If I am only planting 9 plants, I can assure you, given how big the plants are and how ridiculously productive, I would only plant one summer squash, and it would be a pattypan, which they don’t mention.  The tomato selection in this garden includes only cherry tomatoes.  C’mon.  What about a big juicy ‘Pineapple’ or a ‘Paul Robeson’?  Don’t beginners deserve those, too?

It also includes three varieties of bell peppers, red, yellow, and orange.  In Zones 5 and below, our peppers only rarely ripen to red. So we’d be planting green, green, and green.  Seriously? Three varieties of bell pepper and no hot pepper or eggplant?

Indeed, the thing that bothers me most about the “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection” is the claim that it’s possible to gather the best varieties for all home gardeners, when gardening–and the performance of different varieties–is so absolutely local.

Last year, I moved my vegetable garden from boggy rich soil in the country to sandy poor soil in the city. And varieties I have been growing for years simply have a different flavor out of this very different soil.

So White Flower Farm’s insistence on its superior taste, which possibly has some meaning when we are talking about ornamentals, is meaningless in a vegetable garden.  The great arbiters of taste in the vegetable garden are the soil microbes particular to your little patch of ground.  They are what divide the ordinary from the superior.  Nobody else is worth listening to.

Here’s my beginner’s vegetable garden collection, but ignore me if you don’t live down the street:

1. Arugula

2. Basil

3, 4, 5. Tomatoes:  1 ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry,’ a crazy sprawler, 1 ‘Paul Robeson,’ and 1 ‘Pineapple.’

6. Eggplant ‘Rosa Bianca’

7. Cilantro

8.  ‘Bennings Green Tint’ pattypan squash

9. On the north end, pole beans, preferably a purple variety like ‘Blue Coco.’

Posted by

Michele Owens
on March 16, 2012 at 6:25 am, in the category Eat This.

6 Comments

  1. I can’t count the number of times a client, friend or neighbor has chased after me with that catalog saying, “but it says it will be great here” (and yes I live in the same state as WFF). It just happened last week when I had to tell a very disappointed friend that yes we can grow lavender here (plan to use it as an annual, and be pleasantly surprised if it comes back well) but it will never look the way it does in that catalog. I’ve always thought that whoever their marketing people are, they are probably geniuses.

  2. I am glad you made this critique. As a young gardener, I was quite taken with their pictures in print, but I always found the cost to growth ratio too high. If they don’t sell us with glossy pics and taste-making copy, they would never sell us. Of course, all catalogs have to sell us something we want to believe in, even if over our better judgement.

  3. I’m like Frank. I too fell in love with their catalog — glossy photos, that air of knowledgeable ‘it’s just us’ anglophile superiority ……. and I have to say the few things I ordered from them did very well. Along with Michele (and probably every other experienced veg gardener in the States) I snorted at both their list of ‘beginner’s garden’ vegs and the outrageous price. Even at expensive ‘organic’ prices, you could probably buy more food for $61 than grow from these plants.

  4. Very well thought out take on the catalogue, indeed most catalogues. I’m not sure we can really blame them for using nice pictures and warm and fuzzy marketing language, since there’s a lot of competition in the plant and seed catalogue industry and they’re all trying to get a share of the pie, but it is misleading.

  5. Ahhh, plant porn! And we’re so susceptible at this time of year. They should sell the catalog (perhaps in a brown paper wrapping to avert innocent eyes), not the plants!

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