Ministry of Controversy

Why Are The Catalogs Better Reading Than The Magazines?

Bewitched_p39353_150x200I was recently "selected" for a free issue of a gardening magazine called Garden Gate and dutifully settled into bed with it this week in order to report on this pub. 

The magazine bills itself as advertising-free, so you might think that they’d just let ‘er rip and tell the truth about everything.  Actually, no.  As far as I can tell, the business model depends on your going to their on-line store and buying stuff directly from them.

And the content is so namby-pamby inoffensive, they might just as well have a bunch of blowhard advertising clients of the kind that used to so rattle Darren on Bewitched.  Actually, "inoffensive" doesn’t quite describe it.  Depressing and insulting, comes closer.  Apparently, we gardeners have a hard time comprehending even two-syllable words.  Or any plants more daring than daylilies and hostas.   

Apparently, we also really, really like being sucked up to.  My issue of Garden Gate devotes six pages to the favorite plants of the magazine’s readers.  Guess what the readers like?  You’ll never guess.  Daylilies and hostas.  Maybe a good nursery will be able to introduce you to these novelties. 

This is democracy at its worst.  God, for both information and style, give me a benevolent dictatorship like the Plant Delights catalog any day! 

There are certainly better magazines than Garden Gate, but as a general principle, I’d rather settle into bed with a catalog.  Why is that?

Clearly, there is a huge passion gap operating here.  The good catalogs are put together by people who are insane for plants and know everything about their specialty.  The magazines?  By editors whose jobs appear to hang on their ability to appeal to a demographic that the Garden Rant community does not fit–uncultured, sheltered, conservative, sentimental, easily spooked. 

The interesting thing is, I can’t think of any other subject besides gardening where the same is true, where the commercial content so frequently trumps the editorial.  I mean, I’d certainly rather read Vogue than the Bloomingdale’s catalog any day.  I’d rather read Bon Appetit than Williams-Sonoma.  I love House & Garden and am bored to tears by Restoration Hardware.  I’d rather read the op-ed columnists at the New York Times than the brochures I get from politicians.  But I’d far rather read the White Flower Farm catalog than even a supposedly serious magazine like Fine Gardening.  More stylish.

Am I alone in this?

Posted by on September 28, 2007 at 10:32 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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34 Responses to “Why Are The Catalogs Better Reading Than The Magazines?”

  1. naomi says:

    I used to read BBC’s Gardener’s World Magazine when I lived in Seattle. It has great articles, funny writers and interesting plants. Helpful for experienced and serious amateurs. I learned tons from this magazine. Plus, it’s great for Pacific NW readers, because of the similarity in climates. I haven’t found it yet in the DC area, but you should try this magazine. It will give you faith in garden magazines again

  2. Oh, well, the British are much better at this stuff. I wasn’t including them.

  3. Beth says:

    What are the best gardening catalogs?

  4. eliz says:

    Oh god yes. The Plant Delights catalog and the Old House Gardens catalogs are very well-written with humor and opinion. I love others like Brent and Becky’s and Bluestone just to learn about all kinds of new plants.

    I get WAY more fun out of any of them than any magazine and that includes the better ones like Garden Design.

    I think the catalogs are much more attuned to our obsessions–and our problems. Brent and Becky’s for example, is very forthright about bulbs that will be more difficult.

    YES! Great post!

  5. Oh my goodness! White Flower Farm for the photos. Plant Delights for the laughs and the mind-expanding introduction to new plants. Fedco Seeds also for the laughs, and for a shocking and useful degree of opinionatedness on vegetable and fruit varieties. Brent & Becky’s Bulbs for the good photos and lots of editorial opinions, including favorite bulbs and combinations. Good cultural information, too, such as the suggestion that a pot of calla lilies be sunk in a pond.

    Those are just my favorites. I’m sure my partners have loads of others. I know Elizabeth orders really interesting annuals from catalogs.

  6. layanee says:

    I subscribed to Garden Gate and found it as described but for new gardeners who are totally intimidated by latin names and anything more than hosta and daylilies it fills a gap perhaps. Love the White Flower Farm catalog even though product has become run of the mill. I really enjoy The American Gardener magazine which comes with a membership to the American Hort. Society. Informative and not too glitzy and, fellow blogger, Kathy Purdy from Cold Climate Gardening has a nice article on colchicums in it! Oh, and Gardens and Gun, of course! LOL (Actually that magazine,while woefully misnamed, has some very good articles. P.S. I love Darren Stevens!

  7. White Flower farm full of cutting edge new horticultural introductions ? huh ?? someone is deprived.
    I think not. Not where I come from and they don’t offer any of the new cool plants that grow in my climate. Where are the grevilleas, the restios, proteas, cussonias or bromeliads ? – nada.
    When I receive WFF catalog I simply file it in the round file with other lame garden catalogs or send it to my sister who is a beginner gardener and needs pretty pictures of plants in order to visualize a simple planting of hosta, tulips or daylilies.
    Plant Delights is always a hoot to read and is saved in the bookshelf next to other worthy horticultural publications such as Garden Design , Fine Gardening and Alfresco ( a cutting edge garden design magazine from New Zealand ) , all of which offer more information than just a microcrosm of plants.
    There is more to gardening than just plants , especially overpriced commonly found plants .

  8. jodi says:

    Hmmm. Pity us poor Canucks, who have two toronto-centric gardening magazines from which to choose. Oh, they might both occasionally surge out to the rest of the country, but by and large they fixate on what’s close to them. and as for catalogues, I don’t know if I can have Plant Delights sent here, but I’m going to try. Some American catalogues don’t send to Canada because they can’t ship here.
    Thankfully, I have good gardening blogs to read to keep me up to date, educated, and entertained! Because the magazines, even Horticulture and Fine Gardening, tend to leave a lot to be desired anymore.

  9. But Michelle, you are a designer! Of course you don’t need White Flower Farm.

    But for an amateur like me, those photos of simple combinations–generally with some interesting use of color–have been instructive and inspiring. I don’t want to over-emphasize this–I wish they’d print some new ones once in a while. But the quality of those images is certainly higher than the photography in most gardening magazines.

    And for, the record, I do not look to them for new introductions. I haven’t liked the quality of the plants I’ve gotten from them.

  10. Frances says:

    The funny thing about that free garden gate is that they have been sending me the exact same magazine every so often for the last 8 years. It is the same exact magazine. How is this possible? Anyone else with this experience?

  11. fransorin says:

    You’re not alone, for sure.
    I drool over some of the catalogues when they hit my mailbox…not just White Flower Farm, which also offers terrific photos: but others like Digging Dog and Canyon Creek Nurseries as well as some of the seed catalogues like Seeds of Change.

  12. Frances, how interesting! I just checked my copy of Garden Gate and it has no date on it. I just checked the website and it’s not the current issue. Is it possible that they just send out the same “sample” issue over and over? That might explain how weightless the whole thing is. But is this really a way to attract subscribers?

  13. Pamela says:

    I enjoyed your post and the comments; I now have a list of new catalogues to research. I feel like such a novice!

  14. Colleen says:

    I think Garden Gate just sends out a kind of “sampler” type issue in that mail promotion. I’ve gotten the same one like three times.

  15. Pam/Digging says:

    White Flower Farm’s catalog doesn’t do anything for me. Like Michelle, I put it in the circular file rather than bother with all those temperate-climate woodland plants I can’t grow.

    However, I enjoy looking at the High Country Gardens catalog, which is full of xeric perennials and grasses. I don’t think I’ve ordered anything from them though. Also, Yucca Do’s online catalog is full of great ideas.

  16. chuck b. says:

    Unless it’s changed drastically, which is possible, I like Garden Gate. I don’t [think I] subscribe to it, but I do have several issues. (My number one favorite periodical is Pacific Horticulture, because the best information is *always* local.)

    The Garden Gates I have offer nice, very specific planting suggestions with a superimposed grid patterns so you can actually see how much space to allocate for each plant relative to other plants, and they’ll suggest alternatives for different zones.

    I think I have one issue that goes through all the various milkweeds and discusses their various virtues and liabilities. Plants never have any liabilities in commercial catalogs. (Which alone disqualifies Michele’s thesis in this post.)

    Lots of good technical information in Garden Gate too which is nice if your garden library isn’t so extensive.

    Maybe it’s changed.

  17. tibs says:

    20 years ago Whiteflower farm was the first catalogue I ever saw except Michigan Bulbs and Springhill, both of which gave no Latin names, were not reliable, and I never ordered from. (when I was little I would take the Springhill catalogue from the wastebasket and sneak it upstairs and read under the bed. Plant porn for the ignorant). Whiteflower Farmswas grand. it opened the door into all the other plant catalogues because it got me on mailing lists. There were no perrenial plants to be found at local nursuries excpet very very common ones. For someone just getting into perrenial gardening, it is a good read.

  18. Ellis Hollow says:

    I love wholesale catalogs. The stakes are higher and the information and quality is generally higher too. Plus the audience for them is knowleable folks with a low bs tolerance.

    I’ve got a Hoffman Nursery ornamental grass catalog on my desk now. It’s gorgeous. Don’t ask me to name two others. I tend not to remember them because I never order from them. But I’ll pass along others as they pass through.

    Having been a magazine editor, you have to realize that in the grand scheme of things, the articles are simply stuff to fill the space between the ads. It’s a business, and increasingly every move is scrutinized because of the high costs of printing, paper and postage.

    The reason you keep getting the same issue of Garden Gare? Someone with a spreadsheet figured out that the costs of printing it and mailing it to you (and everyone else on the list that you happen to be on) would be more than recouped by subscription sales and orders generated by that mailing. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that (cost of acquisition of new customers etc.), but not much.

  19. Kathy says:

    Me too. I’m a catalog reader. And the photos are nice to look at. I haven’t looked at a garden magazine in years.

    My favorite is seed catalogs. I love Sand Hill Preservation Center’s and Johnny’s Selected Seeds’. White Flower Farm is very nice for perennials. Also bulb catalogs like McClure and Zimmerman. Catalogs have a lot of information.

    I suppose we’re a smaller market than would-be gardeners. Oh well. Blogs and catalogs…

  20. Kathy says:

    Me too. I’m a catalog reader. And the photos are nice to look at. I haven’t looked at a garden magazine in years.

    My favorite is seed catalogs. I love Sand Hill Preservation Center’s and Johnny’s Selected Seeds’. White Flower Farm is very nice for perennials. Also bulb catalogs like McClure and Zimmerman. Catalogs have a lot of information.

    I suppose we’re a smaller market than would-be gardeners. Oh well. Blogs and catalogs…

  21. Kim says:

    I’m more of a website reader, but if you’re talking about printed pieces my two favorites include one of each, a catalog (Plant Delights) and a magazine (Gardens Illustrated.) Yes, GI is a UK publication… yes, I know that Brit pubs were exempted in this whole deal. But still, I PORE over them when they show up in my local bookstore. I have almost purchased enough from the newsstand to justify a subscription. :)

    But back to the catalogs vs. magazines issue. Seriously, don’t you think that it may have something to do with the fact that catalogs do a much better job of allowing you to dream? They’re not showcasing particular plant species or maybe featuring a gorgeous garden that doesn’t have the particular magic you’re looking for… no, they’re showing plants, just plants. And you’re a gardener. It’s like the difference between showing Picasso someone else’s painting and showing him some new brushes and pigments. Obviously the latter is going to be more engaging, no?

  22. Brooke says:

    I love Mother Earth News, they have lots of neat articles on sustainable and organic gardening. And the non-gardening info is interesting too. Also, there is a neat magazine called “Grit”, kind of like Mother Earth.

  23. In addition to Plant Delights, which leaves me in tears of laughter, I like Forest Farm’s catalogue for its gardening quotes. (It’s also good to read on those insomnia nights, especially the Japanese maple listings.) Sometimes I go back and reread the articles in old Heronswood catalogues. For sheer, perverse, fun I enjoy reading bad catalogues, such as the 1s with creative names for plants like “Early Snow Glories” and, yes, “Lavender Mountain Lilies.”

  24. eliz says:

    No one has mentioned SELECT SEED. It has plants AND seeds and is mainly annuals. I get my white heliotrope from them as well as many interesting nicotiana varieties, some fantastic coleus, and old-fashioned geranium varieties you will not find elsewhere. It’s not Plant Delights but it has personality.

    Also–COLORBLENDS! I should not like this but they have these wild tulip combinations with names like Stop the Car. they often do not give cultivar info, but by now I can. Pretty well-written. Awesome photography. Pure porn.

    Also: THE LILY GARDEN. Those blonde beauties who run this place are to die for and their lilies are available nowhere else. They offer the $50 bulbs I’ve been drooling over. They are serious about their lilies.

    Also: the tropical/weird plant catalog–LOGEES. Tres exotique!!

    I love, love, love plant catalogs.

  25. Jane says:

    As a gardening magazine publisher, I’m going to answer that question with “They aren’t.” However I see your point and want to add to the list my very favorite catalog, especially for holiday shopping: Lee Valley Tools.

  26. Cmore Green says:

    Gee it’s fun reading blogs. I didn’t notice Edible Landscaping’s catalog mentioned, though I think you would enjoy it, I do. And you can order the owner’s music cd from the back page too. You’ll find the selection refreshing and the info excellent(and both esculent). And about those… lower eschelon…garden cats, they are invaluable when doing collage projects with kids. I hope by “round file” you are referring to your recycle bin. How do bloggers ever find time for a day job? Me, I gotta go check on a newly reconstructed garden pond and get these two tubs of fish on bubblers out of my kitchen. It’s been fun.

  27. MaryContrary says:

    Johnny’s is a reference book for we growers of edibles.

    But, really, who needs pictures? I love the chatty letter home quality of Mary Stuart Sierra’s twice a year offering from Lower Marlboro Nursery. There are photos in the on-line version of the catalogue (although no on-line ordering), but none in the photocopied and mailed to my home version — which I much prefer. Plus, MSS is a fellow southern Maryland homegirl who has helped me tons over the years in my effort to learn more about propagating and growing native plants.

  28. MaryContrary says:

    Johnny’s is a reference book for we growers of edibles.

    But, really, who needs pictures? I love the chatty letter home quality of Mary Stuart Sierra’s twice a year offering from Lower Marlboro Nursery. There are photos in the on-line version of the catalogue (although no on-line ordering), but none in the photocopied and mailed to my home version — which I much prefer. Plus, MSS is a fellow southern Maryland homegirl who has helped me tons over the years in my effort to learn more about propagating and growing native plants.

  29. Ron E. says:

    Coincidentally, I just let our subscription to Garden Gate lapse. A year or two ago my partner, who is not a big gardener–but is a big magazine junkie–received that free trial issue in the mail, and signed up for no apparent reason. As a novice, I found it somewhat helpful now and then (not very often), but painfully dry, in terms of the writing, the photography, and the layout. Far from garden porn, it looks and reads more like the horticultural version of Reader’s Digest.

    Canning GG freed me to subscribe instead to both Garden Design and Horticulture, which I find more inspiring, even if I’m unlikely to actually do 90% of the stuff they cover. (Bonus: through a special offer, you can get 3 years of GD for roughly the cost of one year of GG.)

    At the risk of brownnosing, I have to say I am learning far more from Garden Rant and some other blogs than any print publication I’ve seen so far–and enjoying the writing infinitely more, too.

  30. David in VT says:

    Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a sports blog: Mum fans are LOSERS. Oh, you’d probably plant a DAYLILY.

    Come on. We should celebrate gardeners of all levels — even folks who read Garden Gate, plant mums or like daylilies. Or, if you don’t want to celebrate them, talk about something else.

  31. El says:

    In your post, Michele, I am still trying to figure out what it is you are asking of magazines that you’re not getting. Is it edification? Or a screed? I myself try to figure out myself why I am so drawn to catalogs like Fedco and Johnny’s and the inimitable J.L. Hudson and generally eschew even fine magazines like Fine Gardening, and I realize what it boils down to is that the catalogs are pitching products to me, the magazines lifestyles. I’ve got the lifestyle. But I’d love recommendations about the products.

    But I hear you. I’ve been at this gardening thing for a solid 15 years now, and I’m looking to transition, rhetorically speaking, from Seventeen to Glamour, and just am not seeing the magazine products out there that’re satisfying my growing self!

  32. El, I think what’s missing in the magazines is personality.

    The best catalogs have it.

  33. Jenn says:

    You have to class Garden Gate firmly where it belongs.

    It’s a gateway drug.

    Yes.

    It goes out to thousands of people that have evidenced some passing interest in gardening as a hobby, and tells them what they can grow.

    Successfully.

    Which is?

    Daylilies and Hostas.

    Don’t be too quick to condemn a process that brings new gardeners to our Eden. Everybody has to start somewhere.

  34. Lisa says:

    It depends on the catalog, and depends on the magazine. I’d far rather read “The Garden” (Royal Horticultural Society publication, monthly, comes with your subscription–about $80 a year at current exchange rates) than almost any catalog. The BBC’s “Gardens Illustrated” (also rather expensive) ranks right up there with the good catalogs, although below “The Garden”. Most plant society bulletins or journals are great. In the generally available American category, I think “Horticulture” and “American Gardener” (American Horticulture Society publication–comes with membership) are the best of those available. They are better than bad catalogs at least.

    Among the catalogs, you can’t get me to give up: Plant Delights, The Lily Garden, Klehm’s Songsparrow Nursery, Chiltern Seeds, Old House Gardens, Alplains and Forestfarm. I keep and treasure my old (pre-Burpee) Heronswood catalogs. I also love Jane McGary’s and Ron Rathko’s lists, but bare text listing plants and seeds by latin name in .pdf format isn’t to everyone’s taste.

    In the keep handy because I know I’ll refer to them or buy category: buy: Van Engelen, John Scheepers (same company, I know), Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, High Country Gardens, High Country Roses, Bluestone Perennials. refer–all of the above, plus: Chamblees Roses, Antique Rose Emporium, White Flower Farm, Digging Dog Nursery, Telos Rare Bulbs, Thompson & Morgan, Secret Seeds, Annie’s Annuals, McClure & Zimmerman. I buy from the “refer” catalogs–just not each and every year.

    Some of the above also qualify as pure full-color flower porn. I confess that by the time “the season” (doesn’t matter which season) has started, I’m usually so starved for more plant pictures and descriptions, and happily browse catalogs and lists even for things I know I won’t buy (mostly because I’m running out of room). This is about where my preference shifts from ‘Horticulture’ magazine to catalogs in general.

    For pure browsing joy I like: Schreiner’s, Cooley’s, Oakes Daylilies, Johnny’s Seeds, Stokes Seeds, Seeds of Change.

    Once I’m completely starved for flower porn, I’ll happily peruse: Dutch Gardens, Breck’s, Van Bourgondien, Van Dyck’s, Jung Seed, Gurney’s, R.H. Shumway (and its affiliate companies), Wayside Gardens, Park Seed, Henry Field, Jackson & Perkins, Burpee, Heronswood (new) and Roots & Rhizomes.

    Among the companies I wish still had print catalogs are: Odyssey Bulbs (I KNOW I’ll end up buying something) and Chalk Hill Farm Clematis. Yucca Do’s website is far superior to their very abridged catalog.

    I love sitting down with nothing but a booklet/sheaf of black-and-white text and a highlighter. Unfortunately, I end up highlighting almost everything…

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