Good Taste, White Flower Farm Style, versus Good Taste, Kitchen Style

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It’s been many years since I paid any attention to White Flower Farm.  I used to order a bareroot rose or shrub from them now and then.  Early in my career, they disabused me of the notion that it was good to order perennials by mail by taking lots of money from me and sending me, in exchange, infant plants incapable of surviving life in the outdoors.

I will admit that when I first started gardening, I found the White Flower Farm catalog enchanting–beautifully photographed and artful combinations of plants–even if the copy was very twee.  In his first book Second Nature, Michael Pollan has a hilarious essay, “Made Wild By Pompous Catalogs,” that skewers the pretensions of White Flower Farm and its fictional proprietor Amos Pettingill, who, Pollan says, “sets the tone for the house”:

Amiably eccentric, opinionated, prudent, aloof from commerce, afflicted with a bad case of anglophilia, ironically self-deprecating and yet at the same time (a trick only the well-bred seem able to pull off) coercive in matters of taste.

When I picked up the catalog this week, I saw that nothing’s changed, except of course what’s fashionable in gardening.  And now vegetables are muscling some space from the perennials.  So now “coercive in matters of taste” has been plastered over the subject of vegetable gardening, and it made me pity every beginner who looks to Amos to light the way.

FIrst, there is the price of WFF’s vegetable seedlings:. $6.95 or 7.25 apiece. The website informs me,”Our stocky seedlings are grown and shipped in 3in pots that are a full 4in deep, so the plants you receive have strong, well-developed root systems.”

In other words, the same kind of good-sized seedling that might cost even a $1.50 or $2 apiece at the farmer’s market.

Fine, it’s your money.  What are you getting if you place your trust in White Flower Farm?

Well, they will take advantage of your ignorance by selling seedlings of things better and more economically started by shaking a packet of seeds over the ground, such as lettuce and broccoli raab.

And they will ship you cucurbits, which are also much better grown from seed, if you have a long enough season.  These are the great fuss-budgets of the garden in terms of temperature and tend to join their maker if you stick their seedlings in the ground before the soil has grown warm and cozy.  What are the chances that White Flower Farm will mail your delicate zucchinis at precisely the right moment, so you can just pop them in and get a decent return on investment? Because if you can’t just pop them in, it is a disaster to have them start vining in their pots.

White Flower Farm will even save you the trouble of reading the variety descriptions by sending you a “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection,” 9 plants for a mere $61, designed for those “who want to get their toes wet without diving in.”  In other words, for customers too scared to do anything without Amos’s okay.

Indeed, the catalog copy insists that a superior taste has organized this collection: “We’ve gathered the best varieties for home gardeners.”

Huh.  Personally, I don’t find the the collection appetizing.  It includes a full two varieties of summer squash.  If I am only planting 9 plants, I can assure you, given how big the plants are and how ridiculously productive, I would only plant one summer squash, and it would be a pattypan, which they don’t mention.  The tomato selection in this garden includes only cherry tomatoes.  C’mon.  What about a big juicy ‘Pineapple’ or a ‘Paul Robeson’?  Don’t beginners deserve those, too?

It also includes three varieties of bell peppers, red, yellow, and orange.  In Zones 5 and below, our peppers only rarely ripen to red. So we’d be planting green, green, and green.  Seriously? Three varieties of bell pepper and no hot pepper or eggplant?

Indeed, the thing that bothers me most about the “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection” is the claim that it’s possible to gather the best varieties for all home gardeners, when gardening–and the performance of different varieties–is so absolutely local.

Last year, I moved my vegetable garden from boggy rich soil in the country to sandy poor soil in the city. And varieties I have been growing for years simply have a different flavor out of this very different soil.

So White Flower Farm’s insistence on its superior taste, which possibly has some meaning when we are talking about ornamentals, is meaningless in a vegetable garden.  The great arbiters of taste in the vegetable garden are the soil microbes particular to your little patch of ground.  They are what divide the ordinary from the superior.  Nobody else is worth listening to.

Here’s my beginner’s vegetable garden collection, but ignore me if you don’t live down the street:

1. Arugula

2. Basil

3, 4, 5. Tomatoes:  1 ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry,’ a crazy sprawler, 1 ‘Paul Robeson,’ and 1 ‘Pineapple.’

6. Eggplant ‘Rosa Bianca’

7. Cilantro

8.  ‘Bennings Green Tint’ pattypan squash

9. On the north end, pole beans, preferably a purple variety like ‘Blue Coco.’

Posted by

Michele Owens
on March 16, 2012 at 6:25 am, in the category Eat This.

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16 Comments

  1. 1st January 1970 at 4:00 am —

    I can’t count the number of times a client, friend or neighbor has chased after me with that catalog saying, “but it says it will be great here” (and yes I live in the same state as WFF). It just happened last week when I had to tell a very disappointed friend that yes we can grow lavender here (plan to use it as an annual, and be pleasantly surprised if it comes back well) but it will never look the way it does in that catalog. I’ve always thought that whoever their marketing people are, they are probably geniuses.

  2. 24th February 1982 at 3:49 pm —

    I am glad you made this critique. As a young gardener, I was quite taken with their pictures in print, but I always found the cost to growth ratio too high. If they don’t sell us with glossy pics and taste-making copy, they would never sell us. Of course, all catalogs have to sell us something we want to believe in, even if over our better judgement.

  3. 2nd November 1990 at 3:29 am —

    I’m like Frank. I too fell in love with their catalog — glossy photos, that air of knowledgeable ‘it’s just us’ anglophile superiority ……. and I have to say the few things I ordered from them did very well. Along with Michele (and probably every other experienced veg gardener in the States) I snorted at both their list of ‘beginner’s garden’ vegs and the outrageous price. Even at expensive ‘organic’ prices, you could probably buy more food for $61 than grow from these plants.

  4. 5th December 1993 at 2:39 am —

    New fad? WFF now its expert. Easy in nursery sales. Ornamental horticulture is full of snake oil salesmen.

  5. 9th September 2014 at 3:57 pm —

    Very well thought out take on the catalogue, indeed most catalogues. I’m not sure we can really blame them for using nice pictures and warm and fuzzy marketing language, since there’s a lot of competition in the plant and seed catalogue industry and they’re all trying to get a share of the pie, but it is misleading.

  6. 10th November 2014 at 9:05 pm —

    Denver’s more or less regular frost-free periods are from early May to (maybe) mid-September. I’ve never had more than 3 ripe Paul Robeson’s on a plant. As good as they are, that’s pretty resource-intensive. It doesn’t stop me from trying, though.

  7. 9th November 2015 at 9:54 pm —

    Fred, mine weren’t terribly productive last year, either, the first year I tried them.

  8. 10th August 2016 at 12:45 am —

    I loved their catalog years ago, before I knew better. I wish I’d read something as helpful as this 20 years ago.

  9. 18th November 2016 at 5:05 am —

    The catalogue is wonderful eye candy and I love looking at it and seeing different varieties, but I stick close to home for actual plants. Though this year I did order their Amaryllis bulbs at half-price after Xmas. They did not disappoint — I have 4 in full bloom right now, each has at least 2 flower stalks. And I have never had bigger blossoms. At half price they were a great deal.

  10. 19th November 2016 at 3:36 pm —

    I grew Matt’s Wild cherry once as I like trying different varieties every year. I like Johnny’s for a good informative vegetable catalog but still didn’t order early enough to get all that I wanted….
    I do like the pictures and container garden ideas that WFF has but the prices are unrealistic.

  11. 22nd November 2016 at 5:48 am —

    I love your idea of a beginner’s vegetable garden for your street. I’m changing my garden location, and though it’s only a mile away and a tenth the size (so I’ll be looking for additional places to garden), it’s much sunnier. The soil doesn’t look great, but I’m going to bring some of my garden soil and compost.

  12. 24th November 2016 at 6:01 am —

    Another fun catalogue to read for the descriptions is the Duluth Trading Company. No plants, but it does have gardening wear. It’s what the cool consruction workers and the “educated” get your hands dirty people wear.

  13. 24th November 2016 at 9:44 am —

    Greta article…………if only the ranters would carry this same feeling over to shopping at the Box stores. A while back the rant mentioned the Burpee organic seed packs at Lowes that were a good price. Turns out these are the same seed packs on my seed racks and every garden center that carried Burpee’s organic seeds.

  14. 24th November 2016 at 1:48 pm —

    WHOA. Stop right here. With me. I LOVE White Flower Farm and have designed and installed three gardens in Manhattan with (other than a few added vegetable plants) were 100% White Flower Farm plants.

  15. 24th November 2016 at 2:39 pm —

    **blush**. I thought everyone was being vulgar and calling this company WTF! …White Flower Farm WFF… I get it now! But then again…

  16. 24th November 2016 at 8:56 pm —

    Sometimes it’s just mere convenience that these catalogs exist for, out there someone is selecting their order and waiting for their goods, at least they are trying to grow their own. There are others who will never attept this and will continue buying supermarket rubbish and filling landfills with their packaging-rant, rant….

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Good Taste, White Flower Farm Style, versus Good Taste, Kitchen Style