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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 Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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