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How my first seed catalog shaped me as a gardener

The Henry Field's 1969 Spring Catalog turned a 12-year-old
into a gardener. Photos: Debbie Arrington

Rediscovering plants (and bargains) from a vintage find

Imagine getting a whole vegetable garden for $1.25.

That was the promise of Henry Field’s 1969 Spring Catalog, my first seed catalog.

I was a 12-year-old wannabe farmer, stuck in the city. I talked my mother into letting me turn concrete reflection pools (surrounded by concrete patio at our mid-century modern Long Beach house) into raised beds for a backyard vegetable garden.  I lugged in yards of potting soil and compost. I daydreamed about watermelons and corn growing outside my bedroom window.

All I needed was the right seeds.

On the advice of my grandmother, I sent away for the Field’s catalog. (She wanted it after I ordered.) Founded in 1892, the Iowa company offered an enticing 128-page array of vegetables and flowers. It was an assortment like I had never seen before.

The "Garden of Tomorrow" included
the Angel Face rose, top center.
Browsing through its pages, I got thoroughly hooked on the idea of growing things. I discovered plants I had never seen before, such as “huge, magnificent clematis” (they are bloom-challenged in Long Beach), a purple rose (the “new 1969 All-America winner” Angel Face featured in Field’s Garden of Tomorrow) and the cover special, “camellia-flowered tuberous-rooted begonias” in a rainbow of colors (five for $1.89 postage paid). Plus there was every vegetable I could imagine, from Chinese cabbage and kohlrabi to purple pod beans and 18 varieties of tomatoes!

With a $20 budget (thanks to grandma), I ordered the begonias to plant in a shady spot next to the back door, the strawberry “pyramid” (a three-tier raised bed with 75 Everbearing Superfection plants, $14.34 postpaid) and the Garden Seed Collection: 13 packets of vegetable and melon seeds (plus a bonus packet of zinnias).

The begonias proved to be the best buy; those tubers bloomed every summer for many years. Piled high on the concrete raised bed, the strawberry pyramid produced just enough berries to make it feel special.

But most of the vegetables failed terribly, victims of poor drainage and shallow soil in the concrete pools. Only the lettuce, spinach and radishes kind of coped with these challenging conditions.  No corn or watermelons.

It was an important gardening lesson; plants need room for roots and good drainage. What happens below the soil (and enough soil) is as important as a place in the sun.

Red Champion, top right, was a new hybrid tomato in 1969.
While clearing out my grandparents’ home, I recently rediscovered that 1969 Field’s catalog. The pages were still dog-eared to plants that caught my young imagination. Paging through it, I realize now how much that first catalog shaped my taste in growing things. Angel Face was one of the first roses I ever bought. I continue to love tuberous begonias and enjoy trying new tomatoes.

Henry Field Seed & Nursery Co. still sells hundreds of vegetable and flower varieties, but no longer prints a catalog; it’s online only (at By individual seed packets, that $1.25 garden collection would now cost about $40; still a bargain for its potential harvest.

Just don’t plant them in a concrete pool.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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