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Gardening Economics: Which Seed Catalogue To Use?

by Elliott R. Morss
 
Introduction
 
Well, it is that time again. The seed catalogues are pouring in and we have to decide which ones to use for garden seeds. This has always troubled me. There are so many catalogues to choose from. In 2007, Mother Earth News estimated there were 88 garden seed catalogues in the US. They missed a few. Today, Dave’s Garden lists 7,212 mail order gardening companies worldwide.
 
Criteria
 
What are we looking for in a seed catalogue? My criteria include:
 
  • Comprehensiveness – it is just easier if I can order most of my seeds from one catalogue.
  • Beauty of presentation – yes, I know I can go online, but every year, I like to spend time reading my seed catalogues. I enjoy looking at the pictures, imagining what it would look like in my garden (never as nice as in the pictures), and getting excited about trying something new. Digital information cannot take the place of a beautiful catalogue/magazine.
  • Economy in presentation – do you have to jump around in the catalogue when you are trying to decide what beans to buy, or is everything sensibly organized? And is there a good, easy to find index?
  • Information about planting and growing – even though I have been growing from seed indoors for more than two decades, I do like reminders on “best growing practices”.
  • Quality of the seeds – which company has the best seeds?
  • Seed Prices.
 
Comprehensiveness
 
Throughout this analysis, I am limiting my study to catalogues I have received in the mail that include both vegetable and flower seeds. In terms of comprehensiveness, number of pages is relevant. Table 1 lists my catalogues with number of pages. Johnny’s, with 201 colored pages is in a class by itself.
 
Table 1. – Page Numbers
Catalogue
Pages
Johnny's Selected Seeds
206
Territorial Seed Company
168
Burpee Gardening
147
Pinetree Garden Seeds
132
Park Seed Co.
132
Thompson & Morgan
138
The Cook's Garden
112
Jung Seeds & Plants
100
Harris Seeds
98
Gurney's Seed & Nursery
66
R.H. Shumway's
64
Vermont Bean Seed Company
56
Totally Tomatoes
60
John Scheepers
60
 
I should mention that some of my catalogues are part of the same company: Burpee owns Cook’s Garden while Totally Tomatoes/Jung/Vermont Bean/Shumway are all part of the same entity.
 
Beauty
 
I know, the eye of the beholder. But Johnny’s, Burpee’s, and The Cook’s Garden are certainly pleasing to the eye. And John Scheepers, with its hand drawn pictures, is also quite attractive. Shumway’s and Pinetree are at the other end of the list.
 
Where is the Index?
 
I don’t mind back page (Cook’s, Totally Tomatoes), inside front cover or near-first page (Harris, Johnny’s, Pinetree), or in the mid-section adjacent to the ordering page (Park, Scheepers). But Shumway and Gurney’s, where is your index? Without an index, a catalogue is okay if crops are listed alphabetically and there is no jumping around. But Shumway and Pinetree drive me crazy! For example, Pinetree does not list filet beans, e.g., Maxibel, Emerite in the bean section. Instead, they are found under Foreign Vegetables (French), with no forwarding references from the main bean section.
 
Information on Planting and Growing
 
Johnny’s is best.
 
Quality of the Seeds
 
This is a real problem. Because I cannot do a comparative test of germination rates, I draw a blank here. Some people swear by certain companies. But there are so many variables involved. Assuming all seeds are just as good is probably not a good assumption – I just don’t know.
 
Pricing
 
For comparative pricing data, I focus on price per seed for popular types of selected crops (see separate headings below for what types were included in my sample. In cases where a catalogue did not carry the seed type I was looking for, I chose a one that looked similar.
 
Certain seed companies no longer list price per seed in their catalogues or online. Instead, they give you a “packet” or weight price. Of course, you can call them. I see this as outrageous. Is it deliberate obfuscation? I think so. Major offenders are Burpee’s, The Cook’s Garden (owned by Burpee’s), and R.H. Shumway. As a result, I do not include them in my analysis and I will not buy from them. 
 
Thompson & Morgan has amazingly low prices on is Italian seeds that include Arugula, Basil, Cucumber, and Tomatoes (p. 127 in its catalogue).
 
  1. Beans (Emerite, Fortex, Maxibel, Kentucky Blue, Provider) 
 
Since last year, the average price per seed has increased 23%. Filet beans are more expensive, averaging 7 cents each. Other bush and pole beans can be purchased for 1 or 2 cents. Scheepers has the least expensive beans followed by Harris and Pinetree.
 
  1. Lettuce (Arugula, Black Simpson)
 
The price of Arugula has fallen while Black Simpson prices are up. Thompson & Morgan has by far the least expensive Arugula at .05 cents/seed) followed by Territorial, Pinetree, and Scheepers. Harris has the cheapest Black Simpson at .1 cent/seed.
 
 
  1. Tomatoes (Big Beef, Roma)
 
Good news: tomato seed prices are the same as last year. Totally Tomatoes has the largest selection. It is also the cheapest at 6 cents/seed. Gurney, Pinetree and Harris also have low prices at 7 cents/seed.
 
  1. Peppers (Jalapeno, Big Bertha)
 
The Jalapeno seed price is up slightly from last year while Big Bertha seeds are down a bit. Jung has the lowest price on Jalapeno at just under 2 cents, followed closely by Totally Tomatoes which has the largest selection (Totally Tomatoes focuses primarily on tomatoes and peppers and has great selections of both). Territorial has the lowest Big Bertha price at 6.7 cents on Big Bertha.
 
  1. Herbs (Basil Genovese, Rosemary)
 
Seed prices of both Basil and Rosemary are down. Thompson & Morgan is by far the cheapest on Basil at .07 cents per seed! Harris and Scheepers next at 1 cent/seed. Harris sells the cheapest Rosemary at 1.4 cents per seed.
 
  1. Cucumbers (Diva)
 
Average Diva cucumber seed prices have increased 1 cent from last year to 11 cents/seed. Harris is by far the cheapest at 5 cents a seed. Jung and Totally Tomatoes are next at tie for a distant at 11 cents.  
 
  1. Flowers (Geranium, Marigold, Petunias)
 
Petunia prices are down a bit while both Marigold and Geranium prices are up slightly. Pinetree and Harris have cheapest Geraniums at 20 cents a seed; Pinetree and Jung have the cheapest Marigolds; Gurney and Thompson & Morgan have the cheapest Petunias.
 
Overall Price Rating
 
Of course, you are not going to hop all over for particular seeds. So the following table provides summary data for the catalogues on all items chosen. Specifically, it indicates what percentage the catalogue price was above or below the overall average. So, for example, it shows that Johnny’s seed price for beans was 52.7% above the average bean price while Pinetree’s was 55.4% lower. The overall is a simple arithmetic average of the 7 crops. Blanks occur where the catalogue did not carry an item. Don’t bet your house on the accuracy of these numbers, but they are pretty good. Certainly, one can say the top four are inexpensive sources of seed while Johnny’s is the “Rolls Royce”, and you pay for it.
 
Table 1. - Catalogue Seed Prices % Above/Below Item Average
Company
Bean
Lettuce
Tomato
Pepper
Herb
Cucumber
Flowers
Overall
Thompson & Morgan
104%
13%
7%
137%
6%
89%
133%
70%
Totally Tomatoes
 
 
69%
54%
 
101%
 
75%
Harris Seeds
51%
148%
76%
87%
68%
49%
85%
80%
Pinetree Garden Seeds
62%
105%
73%
65%
113%
88%
77%
83%
Gurney's Seed & Nursery
 
76%
80%
166%
96%
 
100%
104%
Vermont Bean Seed Company
 
 
98%
123%
 
128%
69%
105%
John Scheepers
40%
77%
101%
191%
118%
 
 
105%
Jung Seeds & Plants
217%
130%
95%
54%
119%
95%
84%
113%
Territorial Seed Company
92%
181%
114%
67%
 
 
128%
116%
Park Seed Co.
0%
 
150%
87%
139%
117%
112%
121%
Johnny's Selected Seeds
153%
265%
237%
106%
127%
133%
111%
162%
Ave. Price (cents per seed)
3.0
0.3
9.0
10.9
1.8
11.1
22.4
 
 
Shipping and Handling
 
You can get killed here, particularly if you have a small order. Thompson & Morgan are advertising no S&H costs until February 11. In Table 2, I have listed the catalogue S&H costs for an order of $20.
 
Table 2. – Shipping and Handling Costs
Catalogue
Shipping ($20)
Thompson & Morgan
$0.00
Totally Tomatoes
$4.95
Jung Seeds & Plants
$5.95
Park Seed Co.
$4.95
Vermont Bean Seed Company
$6.95
John Scheepers
$6.00
Harris Seeds
$6.60
Pinetree Garden Seeds
$6.95
Gurney's Seed & Nursery
$6.95
Johnny's Selected Seeds
$6.95
Territorial Seed Company
$7.50
 
Next Part
 
The second part of this series will focus on the economics of growing seed from scratch:
 
  • What lights?
  • What seed starter?
  • What fertilizers?
  • What watering methods?
 
I hope to complete in less than seven days.