Garden Catalog Review: Burpee

As we are in the grip of bitter cold, this is a good time to sit inside and peruse the garden catalogs. To my mind, garden catalogs are a genre of literature like historical fiction or vampires. Or perhaps they are best thought of as fact-based graphic novels. In any case, they are as worthy of review as other forms of literary diversion.

Burpee’s 2014 cataolog was the second one to arrive in my mailbox this year. Burpee is a venerable company, plus it has a name that can elicit giggles from small children. Even so, I haven’t ordered anything from Burpee since the late 20th Century. However, as is often the way with catalogs, my subscription seems to be permanent.

burpee 2014

Overall, the Burpee catalog has a vaguely retro feel to it. The cover features a child’s hands holding a massive shiny red tomato and proclaims: “NEW! ‘Steakhouse Hybrid’ TOMATO. The world’s biggest beefsteak!”

If you enjoy looking at pictures of perfect tomatoes, raspberries, string beans, and sweet corn (and who doesn’t) – then this is the catalog for you. Most of Burpee’s 150 glossy pages are devoted to exactly that.

Burpee’s does carry some heirloom varieties, but they are mostly about the hybrids. For instance, they have 16 hybrid varieties of cucumber, but only two heirlooms.

The catalog offers plants as well as seeds. You can buy a three-pack of tomato plants for $17.95 plus shipping – which personally I would not do for several reasons, starting with price.

'Celebrity' Tomato
My tomatoes will never be as big as the ones in the Burpee catalog.

Actually, Burpee suffers from an “everything for everyone” syndrome. Their target audience may not be into organic gardening, but just in case they have a page of organic seeds. In addition to the core offerings for edible gardens, there are also roses, annuals, perennials, and grasses. However, their selections for the ornamental garden are often disappointing. For example, they have only five varieties of roses. If you’re only going to offer five varieties, then why bother?

I do enjoy the anonymous testimonials. For instance, “Georgia gardener” says of sunflower ‘Solar Flare’: “Amazing, vivid, lustrous colors!” And “New Jersey gardener” states unequivocally of ‘Big Daddy’ tomato: “Now THAT is a tomato!”

The catalog writers express themselves just as enthusiastically. However, I do have a few quibbles with how they present their offerings. For example, other than a symbol for sun or shade, little to no cultural information is provided. Does the plant prefer moist or dry soil, acid or neutral? The reader is left pretty much without a clue.

Also, Burpee lists some plants by common name and others by the botanical name. This is a recipe for confusion. Ornamental plants, at least, should be listed by botanical name first.

So basically, grab yourself a Burpee catalog if you want to daydream about the anticipated glories of next year’s vegetable garden. But if you want a wide selection of ornamentals or heirloom edibles, I’d have some more catalogs as backup. Which, believe me, I do.

29 Comments on “Garden Catalog Review: Burpee”

  1. Ha! Yep! I just got that one too! And I honestly have only ordered there once…zinnias. But felt bad about it afterwards as I have learned and know much more about quality seeds and supporting those companies who actually look to better the environment through there product.

  2. I get a catalog called The Cook’s Garden, which oddly enough resembles Burpee’s AND comes from the same city. I occasionally order from Burpee, but less and less. Most of the seed catalogs must share the same mailing lists, as I get many from companies I’ve never ordered from. They are all fun to peruse on cold winter nights, though.

  3. The Burpee catalog was the first one to arrive in my mailbox — despite the fact that I have never ordered anything from them. I agree with everything you’ve said about it. The second one to arrive was from Plant Delights; This is much more my type of catalog, with meaty reading and lots of material for garden dreaming. Have you ever read Katherine S. White’s collection of essays, Onward and Upward in the Garden? It includes the delightful reviews of plant and seed catalogs that she wrote for the New Yorker; I think you’d enjoy it.

  4. When it comes to catalogs, an useful read on the net before ordering is to check the list of seed companies that are owned by Monsanto. Burpee is not one of them, but Seminis is. Seminis controls 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world market (75% of tomatoes).

  5. Alain’s comment above is scary! I will definately try to check which companies are owned by Monsanto and avoid them at all costs. The tomato plants you mentioned are very expensive; I can buy 6 plug plants of tomatoes for €1 or €1.20, yes, they’re small but they grow really well, last year I grew from seed but in some ways tht is for my enjoyment rather than anything else.

  6. I thumbed through mine but then recycled it. I only buy seeds from companies that can certify they haven’t been pre-treated with pesticides, such as Botanical Interests, Baker Seed Co, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. High Mowing Seeds are also excellent and completely clean.

  7. Lately I have purchased quite a few seeds form Burpee, mostly out of not having the time to investigate other sites. While I’m not sure I’d abandon them completely, especially since I had a lot of success with some of the seeds, it is good to have other names to investigate and see what’s out there. I don’t have a lot of garden space to experiment, so I really need plants that will produce reliably and be tasty vegetables. Thanks for the review, it got me to go through the mail pile and see what I have had come in.

      • Agree, I have too many options for plants that I can look and pick the one I want. We have a smallish family owned nursery near me that carries a great variety of seedlings they grow in their greenhouses to fill in the gaps. Just never sure what they’ll have year to year, aside from the common ones.

  8. I too got the Burpee catalog and I enjoyed it, although I didn’t order from it. But then, most of my garden catalogs are purely for entertainment, or to give me ideas. Fortunately, I no longer fall for the pictures in them. I realize they are all zoom lens, photo-shopped, color enhanced, or something else that will result in their looking nothing like that in my garden. But they are fun to read anyway. My top fantasy catalog is White Flower Farm. The most fun to read, and the one with the most interesting plants, is Plant Delights.

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