I love thumbing through the seed catalogs, and look forward to their arrival every year. On the other hand, I do wonder about the environmental impact of having so many seed companies sending thousands upon thousands of catalogs through the mail. So I have resolved not to request any more catalogs and I have started searching for seeds online.

I was inspired to shop online this year, in part, by Renee’s Garden seeds, which only sells seeds from its website (www.reneesgarden.com). Her website is very easy to use. Click once, you have a basic description, cost and a drawing. Click on “How to Plant and Grow,” and you get lots of info. Click on “Photos,” and there they are — especially helpful for flowers. I have learned from her articles that are also on the website. (See Kohlrabi, for instance.)

THERE are dozens of seed catalogs in print and online for a variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables.

THERE are dozens of seed catalogs in print and online for a variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables.

In my online search for interesting catalogs I found an old friend, Dan Nagengast, who now owns a seed company in Kansas called Seeds from Italy (www.GrowItalian.com). Dan was in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, when I was there. I called him right up and learned that he and his wife have been market gardeners for 20 years, and recently bought the company. He told me that seeds from Italy do well here, and that his company has seed racks throughout New England.

I use lots of fennel seeds in cooking (they add a nice licorice flavor), and love fennel bulbs for use in salads, but have not grown fennel in ages. Dan confirmed that there are two different kinds of fennel — bulbing fennel and a wild fennel that produces flowers and seeds that are wonderfully powerful, adding a licorice flavor to soups and stews. I shall order seeds of the wild one, Fennel Sylvatico. I’ll also try their chicory, a green that Dan recommended, and a few kinds of beans — they sell 35 named varieties.

I grow lots of heirloom seeds — varieties that have been around for a long time and that are good for seed saving. Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) is one of the leading companies for heirlooms — their online catalog boasts of 1,400 varieties this year. But, quite frankly, finding what you want with that many varieties is a bit overwhelming for me. A paper catalog would be easier to manipulate. Their honesty is overwhelming. Describing one called “Big White Pink Stripes Tomato,” they write “Lovely big, globe fruit … a sweet tropical taste with hints of melon. A lovely tomato with low yields; yes, low. But who cares? It is so gorgeous!” I’ve never seen a catalog admit to low yields.

A great source for organic tomato seeds is in Carmel, Calif.: Tomato Fest (www.tomatofest.com). Gary Ibsen and his wife grow about 600 varieties of tomatoes. Like Renee’s Seeds, they only sell from their website. They have a PDF file that you can print out to read if you must — but it’s 82 pages. They have been growing tomatoes for many years (and until 2008) they had a tomato festival each fall, hence the web address. I like the fact that the website allows you to search for things like “Cooler climate varieties,” or “Gary’s Personal Favorites.” Unlike almost all other seed companies, they grow all their own seeds.

Then I spent some time on the Seed Saver’s Exchange website. The Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization that is “a member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.” Anyone can buy seeds from them. If you become a member you get the seeds savers exchange yearbook which connects you to other seed savers who grow and save heirloom seeds (and you can sell your seeds, if you wish). This year there are more than 20,000 kinds of seeds available to you. You also get a quarterly magazine and other benefits, including a 10 percent discount on seeds.

I love the names of heirloom seeds, they tell a story, or the opening line, if you have an imagination. There is the Lazy Housewife Bean, a tomato called Black from Tula (which turns out to be from Russia, not Auntie Tula), or the Rat Tailed Radish (Native to South Asia. Grown for the crisp, pungent, edible seedpods — up to 6 inches long — and not for the roots. Pods should be gathered before fully mature and eaten raw, pickled, or chopped in salads. Takes 50 days.). The Seed Saver Exchange Catalog online is not overwhelming — they only have a tiny percentage of the varieties offered by members. About 40 kinds of beans, for example, not hundreds. It gives planting specifications and a photo for each.

And of course, seed racks are great for purchasing seeds. I am a big fan of supporting local businesses and of course, there are no shipping charges for seeds purchased at your local feed and grain store. I like buying seeds of known companies, not the cheapie seeds of some big box stores as I have no idea how they were grown, or where. And of course, organic seeds are better even if sometimes a tad pricier.

FOR A LIST of seed companies Henry Homeyer likes, visit www.Gardening-guy.com. He is the author of four gardening books.

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