Better Than Googling

Seed catalogue at the Lenhardt Library

Seed Sourcing through the Lenhardt Library

It's January, and it's time to order seeds for your garden. You type seeds into your search engine—only to get 257,000,000 results. Next you type in seed catalog. Hmm, down to 19,100,000. You need an editor. That's where we come in.

An Exclusive Database

Found only at our Lenhardt Library, the Nursery Catalog Database—and its companion, a physical file of catalogs—is a gardener's dream: an already-edited and constantly updated list of hundreds (currently 784) of seed and seedling resources from companies all across America. The database is organized by title, and can be searched and parsed (and thus personalized to your needs) in helpful ways.

Looking for heirloom apple varieties? Search apple and you'll pull up all resources that have apples as a primary or secondary subject. That could lead you to both the catalog and website of Urban Homestead in Virginia, which specializes in heirloom apple trees.

Looking for shade-tolerant plants? Search shade and you may discover that Munchkin Nursery and Garden, located nearby in Depauw, Indiana, specializes in shade perennials.

Have an unusual interest? So do the mushroom folks at Garden City Fungi (, the banana experts at Going Bananas (, and the Kitazawa Seed Company (, which has been selling Asian vegetable seeds since 1917. The database tracks website names for each company, too.

Developed by staff at the Garden, the database is accessible only through the Lenhardt Library's computers—so visit the library and one of our helpful librarians will work with you to find what you need. Or you can call the library and "talk database" with a librarian.

Peruse the Pages

Edit your choices through the database, then settle in at the library with the catalogs themselves. The collection fills a four-drawer filing cabinet adjacent to the library's public computers. Inside are current-year or last-received print catalogs, brochures, and mailers from companies large and small. Although catalogs cannot be checked out from the library, you are invited to pull them from the file and look through them at your leisure. Take notes, make copies, snap photos with your smartphone, or bookmark websites on your laptop. Afterwards, library staff will even refile the catalogs for you.

Seed library filing cabinet

How many seed catalogs do you get in the mail? We get hundreds.  
These four drawers may hold the key to your garden next year.


Five to Find

Our horticulturists and landscape designers use both the database and the catalog file to find interesting and unusual seeds and transplants. Wondering whether we have favorites? Here are five companies that are tried-and-true resources out in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden:

Seed Savers Exchange. A real American treasure, Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, Iowa, seeks out, documents, and propagates heirloom seeds. Their catalog is both a study in diversity and a good read—filled with the stories behind the seeds they've saved.

Johnny's Selected Seeds. Every page of their catalog is rich with scientific information on plant traits, soil requirements, and growing tips.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Baker Creek's photography is so striking that their catalog's a favorite with both beginners and professional gardeners, whether held in hand or seen on the screen.

Nourse. A Massachusetts fruit resource that specializes in "the best berry plants since 1932."

Ball Horticultural Company. Although home gardeners can't buy directly from this local (based in West Chicago) resource, the website has a helpful "Plant Search" feature with information about newly developed varieties.

A cup of coffee (yes, you can bring a covered cup to the library!)…a comfortable library armchair (they really are comfortable)…a stack of seed and nursery catalogs to leaf through…it's a smart way for a gardener to spend a January day.


Karen Zaworski was a garden writer and photographer.