As a rural kid, I didn’t have much exposure to gardens beyond the standard country person’s appreciation of a few heirloom flowers (early daffodils, mophead hydrangeas, perhaps a few climbing roses) and the commonest summer vegetables (green beans, sweetcorn, tomatoes).
So my primary introduction to the world of plants and gardening was through books and catalogues. Books were expensive. Our local library only had a few. But catalogues - catalogues could come free or for a few dollars through the mail.
We’d always gotten a few plant catalogues. My father bought seed for his vegetable garden from companies with names straight out of the 19th century - Gurney’s, Henry Field’s. Their graphic design was equally archaic, long newspaper-like columns of text with tiny square images - often black & white line drawings. We also got a few of the classic late-90s horticultural mail order catalogues: Wayside Gardens, Jackson & Perkins, Breck’s. These were were the big glossy-paged color catalogues with incredible photos of larger-than-life flowers in hypersaturated colors.
But, once I’d gotten past the basic excitement and started to actually learn something about plants, these ordinary plant catalogues weren’t enough. It was around this time, when I was 13 or 14, that I read Ken Druse’s The Collector’s Garden, and started to learn about specialty nurseries - where the real treasures could be found.
It’ll take someone with a more academic and journalistic scope to adequately represent the specialty nursery scene of the 90s and early 00s. People who owned these nurseries were mostly rare plant enthusiasts whose interests had gotten a bit out of hand. Many were queer or female (or both). And they had an audience - baby boomers benefiting from post WWII affluence. Their clients owned homes in the suburbs; had comfortable incomes, spouses and insurance; and didn’t think twice about paying top dollar for the latest rare and trendy plants.
By the time that I became aware of specialty nurseries, in the mid-00s, the big two in North America were Heronswood (Kingston, WA) and Plant Delights (Raleigh, NC). All the weirdness and individuality of these businesses manifested through their catalogues. They were low-tech, easy-to-reproduce, intimate, and weird. Reading them, you could picture the individual nursery proprietor sitting around a messy desk, whiling away the long winter nights writing descriptions of hundreds, even thousands of plants.
Besides these two (relatively) well-known sources, there were many others - often far weirder. I remember being overjoyed when one of my grandparents’ neighbors passed along a catalogue for Cottage Garden, in Alton, Illinois. I hadn’t been impressed by this neighbor’s garden. It was filled mostly with plants that she’d grown from various fruit pits and foraged seeds, a warped garden of eden, where all of the trees bore small and bitter fruits, surrounded by self-sown cosmos and daylilies that reached higher than my head. But I loved the catalogue she gave me.
It was the first specialty nursery catalogue that I’d received that wasn’t coastal. These were plants that had been grown only a few hours north of where I lived. If anything, the winters were colder up at Cottage Garden. These were plants that wouldn’t just grow - they’d thrive in my garden. That Cottage Garden catalogue fell apart years ago. But it introduced me to many plants that are still some of my favorites: Canna ‘Australia’, Coleus ‘Kiwi Fern’, Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’, Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’, Salvia guarantica. Within a few years, I was able to take a trip to the nursery (thanks to my ever-adventurous grandfather, thank you!). The owner, Chris Kelley, has continued to be a great friend - offering ever new insight to great plants and introductions to great people.
As my infatuation with rare plants grew, I found ever more sources of the weird and wonderful. Singing Springs Nursery, in North Carolina, had effusive descriptions of all the plants that thrived and grew so easily in my teenage garden. They had salvias and coleus in more colors than the rainbow has ever dreamed. I still have copies of their catalogues from 2005 and 2006. Over a dozen years later, Pam Baggett’s descriptions remain fresh and clear. On Lantana ‘Desert Dawn’, she writes, “I dream of a desert I’ve never seen, where sunrise awakens in a blaze of colors. Lantana ‘Desert Dawn’ is my sunrise, greeting me each day with clusters of deep gold, orange and pink blossoms.” Who wouldn’t want to grown that plant? Her descriptions have a clarity that I wish I could achieve in my own writing.
On the opposite end of the clarity spectrum, there were the endlessly fascinating catalogues from Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan. You knew from a quick flip through the densely printed lists that this was a catalogue for people who knew something. No space wasted on description. And absolutely no photographs. Take this description of Sambucus canadensis ‘Laciniata’: “One of the many cut-leaf elders, the differences between which are rather subtle however we think we finally have the names correct, thanks to Tim Woods”. Not for amateurs.
By reading through these catalogues, looking up things that I didn’t know, I finally got to know a little bit of something myself. Of course, I was growing things, too, with varying degrees of success. As the internet came around, I was able to order from some places that I’d heard of but had never managed to get my hands on a print catalogue - probably because I didn’t have checks, and many of these people required checks or cash to be mailed in exchange for a print catalogue.
From Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hill in Ithaca, NY, I got various forms of Cyclamen hederifolium and and several beautiful variegated forms of Arum italicum. From Gossler Farms in Salem, OR, I got the incredible Corylopsis palustris ‘Aurea’ with coral edges on pleated golden leaves - plus a few vibrant selections of belgian Witch Hazels. From Pine Knot Farm in Clarksville, VA, I got tissue culture hellebores of intricate and beautiful design. From Arrowhead Alpines, forms of Cyclamen, Epimedium, Corydalis. Many of these plants still grow in my parents’ garden.
I had really only witnessed the tail end of the specialty mail order nursery boom. By the time I was in my late teens and headed to college, most of these companies had moved their catalogues and ordering operations online. Many closed.
The weirdness and individuality of those little specialty nursery catalogues are expressed differently now. For awhile, you’d find blogs as such intriguing personal projects - I’m thinking especially of James Alexander Sinclair’s blog and Marc Diacono’s writing for Otter Farm. There were a few books that follow this tradition of the individual eccentric description of favorite plants. Ken Druse’s The Collector’s Garden was at the top of the list. I always loved Lauren Springer Ogden & Rob Proctor’s Passionate Gardening, which had the distinction of representing the arid conditions of Colorado. More recently, Kelly Norris’s Plants with Style continues the tradition. Also, from the UK, Carol Klein’s Plant Personalities.
Today, you’re most likely to find individual eccentric planting projects documented on Instagram. I absolutely love what Christopher Griffin is doing @plantkween, playing with gender and fashion as a component of plant geekery. Valeria Paria, a nursery owner in Lucca, Italy, has been keeping a really wonderful humble and personal record of the plants she’s growing @ilpostodellemargherite. There’s also the endlessly entertaining @plantslutproject and the various iterations of @(boys/girls/gays/etc)withplants.
These efforts aren’t the same as the little specialty nursery catalogues that I loved as a teenager. The world is different. Our industry is different now. Our audience is different. I wouldn’t go back to the way things were, but I’m happy that I was able to witness this moment of wonderful, weird, individual plant geekery through those nursery catalogues.
Maybe we plantspeople of the future have something to learn from those old nursery catalogues. Instead of feeling compelled to make everything we turn out feel glossy and professional, perhaps it’s useful to keeping things a little less polished. Be a little less certain and a little more open. Be weirder, cobbled-together, eccentric, individual. Things might be more fun that way.