"It used to be that you'd get a vegetable catalog or a fruit catalog or flower catalog," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Richard Hentschel. "Many catalogs now contain something for everyone, including the garden gadget addicts."
Some of these catalogs offer heirloom vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruit trees. These varieties have had no, or very little, traditional breeding.
According to Hentschel, "These heirloom varieties can be some of the best- tasting and more unusual-looking fruits and vegetables we get to eat. We do not get to see them in the trade, probably because they do not fit the criteria that commercial growers need, there is not a great demand in the market place or, in a lot of cases, the particular vegetable does not ship very well."
Vegetables have been bred to take on new and often surprising colors. Blue potatoes are available, for example, and peppers that are yellow, red, purple, orange, or even multicolored.
"These look great in salads and other dishes, giving a bright look to whatever you are preparing," said Hentschel. "It used to be that Swiss chard was green; now it can be found in shades of pink, orange, yellow, gold, white, and purple. Newer varieties have a much more slender stalk and can be used to brighten up salads or cooked as you would use spinach. Even our small fruits, like strawberries, come in a variety of shades of red now."
In addition to strawberries and raspberries, other small fruits are gaining popularity. Plant breeders have transformed shrubs, such as currants, gooseberries, and aronia, into plants that are excellent for the home garden. Heirloom and new cultivars of perennial vegetables are available; rhubarb and asparagus are great garden additions.
Catalogs also offer well over 125 kinds of apples, most of which are never sold in grocery stores. Some varieties can be picked from August through mid-October.
While they often have great taste, heirloom varieties are susceptible to foliar and soil-related diseases. To limit the problem, it is important to providing good growing conditions and to pay attention to crop rotation.
Catalogs offer pots, seed-starting soil mixes, markers, and more for gardeners who start their own seeds. Hentschel explained, "You get to start your seeds in flat, individual cell packs like you see when you buy your annual flowers, or even expanding pellets." Pots can be made out of plastic or an organic fiber. Some of the accessories that make starting your own seeds easier include warming mats in sizes from one six pack to a full tray.
"Other items you will find include plant stands with growing lights and self- watering trays," he continued. "You will also be able to pick from a variety of temporary structures for outdoor use to grow out and harden your vegetable plants before they go into the garden."
The catalogs also contain many "must haves" for people who grow their own fruit trees. These include tools and pruners with extra-long handles, branch spreaders, netting to protect the fruit from birds, harvest aids that make it possible to collect the fruit without using a ladder, insect traps and monitors, pruning guides, and a variety of materials to protect the trees from the weather and wildlife.
"There are always hand tools galore offered," said Hentschel. "You will find the traditional ones right along with a modern ergonomic version. Some are more useful and used more often than others, so choose wisely."
If you have not begun to order your vegetable and flower seeds, now is the time. Once a fruit tree catalog runs out of a variety you want, it will not be available until the next year because fruit trees are propagated by hand and are grown based on projected sales.
"If your mailbox is not quite full enough, go to the internet and sign up to get a few more," Hentschel suggests. "It is quick and easy. Wait a bit until each catalog shares their mailing list, and then watch out!"