A Tale of Two Cities. . .I mean, Catalogs

– Posted in: Catalog review

So we got this new (meaning, we’ve never gotten this one before, the company’s actually 9 years old) seed catalog in the mail the other day, and I’ve been elected to post about it. They’re called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and you can find them on the internet here. They’re all about rare, organic, old, vegetable seeds. They do have some flowers, but nothing that rare as far as flowers are concerned, nor a very large selection. As far as the vegetables are concerned, though, it was certainly an eye-opener on the diversity within a species!

The first clue that there was going to be some really out of the ordinary stuff in this catalog was in the cucumber section. Now, almost everyone has seen the lemon cukes by now, but they also had pictures for “Mexican Sour Gherkin”, which looks just like a miniature watermelon, and Hmong Red and Chinese Yellow, as well as Poona Cheera which looks sort of like a mix between a sweet potato and a cucumber. In the cucumber section was also where I first noticed the quotes they were putting in (in this case, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius–and a lot of courage–to move in the opposite direction.” –Albert Einstein”).

At this point, it was impossible not to start making comparisons between them and Fedco. (That’s where the tale of two catalogs comes in.) But more on all of that later. First I want to finish drooling over all the many varieties found pictured in this catalog . . .they don’t even have a picture for everything they’re selling, though I’m sure they picked the most diverse pictures to use.

Things started getting truly weird when we got to Eggplant. The first picture is of “Thai Long Green”, which is lime green and quite slender. The next picture is for “Thai Green Pea”, which looks almost exactly like a slightly over-mature green pea (and the same size, too), and I would have never known it was an eggplant if someone hadn’t told me. Then there is also “Thai Yellow Egg”, which looks like an egg yolk with a stem coming out of it, and “Cambodian Green Giant,” that looks sort of like a green bell pepper, except that its bottom half is white. “Rosa Bianca” looks similar to a head of garlic, and “Ping Tung” looks like a tomato–and these are all eggplant!

Their melon selection is mind-boggling, as is their squash section. I have never seen such a large selection of melons of all shapes, sizes, colors, splotches, stripes and patterns. The same could be said of the squash, which often times looked like over-sized gourds, and came in colors from slate grey, to purple, to green, to tan, to hunter orange.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I got to the tomatoes. I know there are whole catalogs full of nothing but tomatoes, pages and pages of red fruit. The first 12 tomatoes here are green tomatoes. I grew some green tomatoes in this past year, so that wasn’t too surprising, though I confess to say I’ve never seen a green tomato the shape of a fat pork sausage. Next comes the neon orange tomatoes (including “Orange Banana”), and then then pink tomatoes (including an accordian shaped fruit, which was deeply fluted, and “German Lunchbox”, which looked almost exactly like an apple, complete with a yellow blush at one end and little yellow speckles all over it). Then we get a dozen purple tomatoes, complete with one that looks just like a Barlett pear. Then we finally get to the red tomatoes. . .and then the striped tomatoes. . .and then the white tomatoes!. . .and then the yellow tomatoes. I must say, the white tomatoes look quite gross. They look rather akin to the tomatoes I find up in the garden after a couple hard frosts and a chance to half rot–in a word, disgusting. And the yellow tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes, candle shaped and lemon or plum shaped. . .It was almost a surprise to actually see a mostly round yellow tomato!

And now we get to the part where we compare catalogs, between Fedco and Baker Creek. Both of these companies are against gene-altered plants, plant variety protection, and are apt to spread their ideas throughout the catalog. Fedco’s carries itself in such a way that even if you don’t agree with everything they say, you have to admire their poise and good humor. Baker Creek carries itself in such a way that even if you do agree with a lot of what they have to say, you still find them extremely annoying, and wish they’d please be quiet. This is most obvious in the quotes they choose to print; Fedco’s are usually more obscure (you’re not that likely to have heard them half a dozen times before), don’t repeat themselves, and can often be humorous or slightly subtle. Baker Creek, on the other hand, picks only quotes that are as blunt as a sledge hammer, have been heard before, and, to top it all off, after a few pages they got tired of finding new ones and instead switched to repeating one quote over and over again, like a grating recording that one gets stuck with when one is put on hold. They insisted on putting the quotes in a larger font and a different color, so it was impossible to ignore them. Several pages in the front and several pages in the back, as well as a centerfold spread (and this catalog is much slimmer than Fedco’s), were devoted to nothing more than Baker Creek propaganda, including pages of country music singers and people dressed up like cowboys.

Fedco’s is apt to print very long descriptions, talking about everything from yield, growing conditions, how it compared to other varietes, and taste. Baker Creek was more worried about telling you how old it was, where it came from, and how there are a lot of varieties in danger of becoming extinct, and how well it would sell in the markets, how nice they looked–and, oh, yes, of course they all taste great.

For instance, Aunt Ruby’s German Green.

I described it like this:

The cousins of the Brandywines, “Aunt Ruby’s German Green” tomatoes were quite a novelty, but that is about it. They didn’t produce very well (that is, very many), though perhaps it was a bad year to ask. (Then again, droughts aren’t that much of an anomaly around here, so if they can’t take the conditions they’re just out of luck.) They aren’t totally green when ripe–they get a slight tinging of pink on the bottom, which spreads throughout the inside of the fruit. Their taste was described to me as “incredible” by the person who recommended them to me. To me, they tasted (and here I must borrow some Rundy-speak) like a Brandywine with all of the red sucked out. Sweet and fruity, yet with none of rich “red” taste that makes you think TOMATO. As fruit, it was interesting. As a tomato, when it was sliced and placed amongst other tomaotes, no one would eat them until last. It just didn’t taste right on a tuna fish sandwich or hamburger. So it was fun to try, but not really worth my time.

Fedco’s describes them like this:

One newspaper writer describes it as “a voluptuous chartreuse beauty, sassy and spicy like apple pie.” If you think green tomatoes are good only for mincemeat, your first taste of Aunt Ruby’s will change your mind forever. I rate it second only to Brandywine for flavor and it is on just about everyone’s top ten list. Oblate 12-16 oz. fruits blush lightly yellow and develop an amber-pink tinge on the blossom end when ripe. Watch closely and don’t allow them to get too soft before picking. The green flesh of this beefsteak is faintly marbled with pink. Flavor sweet and tart, rich and spicy. The central large tomatoes are the best. Flavor deteriorates when cold weather sets in. Created a sensation at our staff taste-testing in September 1996, where it was rated “good” or “excellent” by all who tried it. Aunt Ruby’s is not just the best green eating tomato, it also makes a delicious basis for salsa verde. From Ruby Arnold of Greenville, TN, who got it from her grandfather who brought it from Germany.

And Baker Creek describes them like this:

One of the largest green beefsteaks. Can grow to over 1 pound and are just delicious. They have brilliant, neon-green flesh with a strong, sweet and fruity flavor, much tastier than most red tomatoes. This family heirloom from Germany is beautiful. The 2003 winner of the 2003 Heirloom Garden Show’s taste test.

This description gets under my skin for several reasons. First if all, it’s a very poor description–what, exactly does “tasty” mean? Secondly, they seem very biased in the favor of green tomatoes. “Emerald Evergreen” is said to be “one of the best”, “Green Zebra” is “A favorite tomato of many high class chefs, specialty markets, and home gardeners. . .[and] the most striking tomato in our catalog.” “Green Grapes” is said to “Makes most red cherries taste bland in comparison. “Green Sausage is “The latest ‘Must Have’. It is is simply outstanding!” After awhile, you just can’t believe all the superlatives. Apparently all their tomatoes are better than any other tomato. Another thing that bothers me is its poor description of how it looks. If you pick these tomatoes when they’re still neon green, they taste like a green tomato–I mean, like an un-ripe tomato. They’re not ripe till the color fades and the pink blush begins. The fact that they do such a poor job describing a fruit I know makes me very leery of their descriptions of fruits that I don’t know.

In the end, the catalog is a nice picture book (and probably a very good place to find rare vegetables). But it certainly does not make very good reading material, nor does it make it very easy to figure out what to get.

About the Author

Talitha spent the last few years doing an absurd combination of work and school, and found it wasn’t very pleasant. Now she’s doing work, school and a garden, and life is a little better! She also enjoys photography and hand feeding her ducks. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4 AHS Heat Zone: 3 Location: rural; Southern Tier of NY Geographic type: foothills of Appalachian Mountains Soil Type: acid clay Experience level: advanced beginner Particular interests: herbs, vegetables, cutting garden, cottage gardening

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

Talitha December 1, 2006, 9:32 am

Hi Deanna,

I think you might have misunderstood me.

I like trying new varities. (Which seemed to be what you meant by being “adventurous”.) The problem is that I have limited time and space, and so I need help choosing what to try. That’s why I find detailed descriptions so helpful.

Also, I didn’t call their prodcut descriptions blunt, I called their political quotes blunt. The politics seemed to be a just a little too in-your-face for my tastes.

I don’t really care who writes the descriptions. I don’t hold anything against Jere (or anyone else) who writes all the descriptions. I just don’t, personally, find them very helpful.

The fact that I find his political views a little too “in-my-face” would not stop me from buying from him, and I don’t know why people keep implying that’s the case. All it does is make my personal perusal of the catalog a little less pleasant than it could be.

And I’m very happy that you enjoy your catlogs. My review was never intended to tell people they shouldn’t (or wouldn’t) enjoy his catalog–just that I, personally, find some aspects of it to be less enjoyable than others aspects of it.

One thing I have said, and will say again, is that it is an awe-inspiring picture book on the diversity of vegetable varieties, and for that reason alone it is well worth a look through, even if you aren’t in the market for unusual plants.

Deanna Nowlin November 30, 2006, 6:15 pm

Maybe, I’m just a little more adventurous than the people here. I find each year trying new things as part of the fun. I’ve found that the few tomatoes from the BC catalog that have been disappointments were because of environmental influences and when I tried them again, I liked them.

I started ordering from BC when I was a newbie and liked the rather blunt descriptions regarding the varieties. What I have found annoying in other catalogs is the descriptions that sound like they are reviewing wine: “Smoky with a hint of sweetness, “and “Sweet with citrus undertones” I have never had problem with that kind of hyperbole in the BC catalog.

Jere Gettle has never hidden the fact that these descriptions are his own. One watermelon received a description that included, “I (Jere Gettle) personally prefer a stronger taste, but still good.”

I don’t know why people have a problem with his political views. I have received catalogs from companies that had an open religious bias that I did not agree with but I still ordered from those companies.

I find his catalogs refreshing, informative, and very straightforward.

Deanna Nowlin

Bill Jeffers November 29, 2006, 4:39 pm

Catalog blurbs are intended to sell product, therefore do not always reflect the entire truth about many many tomatoes with regard to flavor, texture, crack tolerance, disease tolerance, productivity, etc. If they were blatantly truthful, many varieties simply would never sell a packet of seeds.

However, there are truly some outstanding “green-when-ripe” and “purple” tomatoes … Cherokee Green and Cherokee Purple being among the very best in the taste category.

My pet peeve is not with over glamorizing run of the mill tomatoes … rather its outright lying about their “heirloomity,” their true origin, and in particular not giving credit to the persons or companies who actually developed the particular tomato in the first place.

I suspect many companies do not include the correct information about where a particular variety comes from because either they are too lazy to investigate the matter or have obtained the variety by other than ligitimate means and simply rename it to avoid paying the breeder for his or her labor and proprietary rights.

This last comment is not made directly in reference to any of the companies whose catalogs are reviewed in the original article and I find all of them valuable with regard to preserving and making available cultivars that the “mainstream” seedsmen just don’t bother to make available to us heritage gardeners.

Thank you Bakers Creek, Johnny’s, Fedco, and several others (Victory Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply, Totally Tomatoes, Mariseed, Seed Savers Exchange, Sandhill Preservation, et al) for your dedicated efforts and yes … for your catalogs and even for your sometimes flowery embellishments of truth.


Talitha November 26, 2006, 5:34 pm


Everyone’s tastes are different; it’s good to hear another point of view.


I think you said it quite neatly when you said “His cagalog is really great for diversity and rare seeds, but it helps if you are already well versed in open pollinated crops.”

I don’t (personally) find the catalog enjoyable to read, but it wouldn’t stop me from ordering them. I would just find it necesary to research my varities some where else.

Fridom Snowbird November 26, 2006, 4:08 pm

Hey Tabitha;I agree with your post.I have ordered quite a lot of varieties from this company.I do agree with the O.P.stance but not the politics.I have grown hundreds of vars.of heirloom tomatoes in the past.In all honesty orange,yellow and white tomatoes are bland,insipid and overly sweet.Most companies describe purple and black tomatoes as having a Rich taste.Murky is more accurate.
Spears TN.Green is a great tasting green tomato but it doesn’t even come close to the taste of say-Red Calabash,Church or even Costaluto Genovese.
I personally do not go by their ratings because they over sell things I know aren’t worth growing.
Jere Gettle describes himself as a “Hippie” even though he was born in 1980.
I also grow several bi-colored tomatoes,but not for taste.
His catalog is really great for diversity and rare seeds,but it helps if you are already well versed in open pollinated crops.
I do post on several OG type websites and find it amazing how many people refuse to purchase from this co.simply because of all the left wing politics on the website and catalog.This would never stop me,but it does stop a lot of other people.
Again Tabitha-Great article.Fridom-

Jeffery Goss, Jr. November 26, 2006, 2:44 pm

Actually, I like the “blunt” quotes in the catalog. I also like their straight-and-to-the-point descriptions of varieties. I do agree that subjectives like “tasty” shouldn’t be used in seed catalogs, but Baker Creek actually uses “sensational” words a lot less than some other catalogs.


Talitha Purdy February 8, 2006, 8:46 am


Thank you for the catalog, for selling such a wide variety of plants, and the great photographs!

I like to write as honestly as possible when talking about catalogs (even if it inculdes talking about nit-picky stuff), because purely positive fluff, well, it get’s under my skin. (Does that surprise you?! I haven’t found a good brand of skin thickener, I guess. ;))

However, I remain entirely unrepentant about green tomatoes. I’ve never worried about being in the “in” crowd, and I’m not worried about anyone’s taste test except mine. Though taste tests can be valuable when trying to choose a new variety, once I’ve grown the variety myself, my opinion (and anyone I’m trying to feed my tomatoes to)is all that decides whether I buy it again. Everyone’s tastes are different, and a flavor one person likes can be unpleasant to someone else. That’s why descriptions that describe the taste are so helpful. “Tasty” means it tastes good to you. “Fruity”, “Sweet”, and “less acidic” can describe a tomato that is tasty to you, but doesn’t suit my purposes. With a more detailed description, I know what I’m getting into, and I’m more likely to find something I’m happy with.

Jere Gettle February 7, 2006, 6:24 pm

This review has been so much fun!

“Aunt Ruby’s German Green
One of the largest green beefsteak. Can grow to over 1 pound and are just delicious. They have brilliant, neon-green flesh with a strong, sweet and fruity flavor, much tastier than most red tomatoes. This family heirloom from Germany is beautiful.”

-Talitha says- “This description gets under my skin for several reasons.


First if all, it’s a very poor description–


what, exactly does “tasty” mean?


Secondly, they seem very biased in the favor of green tomatoes.


okaY all kidding aside, I do this thing for fun, It is my life’s hobby and yes I have grown hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and Aunt Ruby’s just happens to be a winner and a favorite of hundreds, you need to go to some tomato taste tests, green varieties ARE ranking very high!

You need to get out more, green tomatoes are everywhere in the “in” crowd.

Did you see our “spear’s tennessee green” tomato being listed as one of the best and a “house favorite” in -Organic Gardening Magazine- ?

What you said about Baker Creek Seeds is Cool, just please stop picking on poor helpless green tomatoes.

Thanks for the review!


Patrick Wiebe January 26, 2006, 5:44 am

I can’t say much about the printed catalog, because I live overseas, and they don’t ship it abroad. I have placed several orders off the Internet, and they are fast and efficient. There are never problems with germination rates, etc. They do have one of the best selections of vegetables.

Some seed companies, like Sand Hill Preservation Center, don’t even offer descriptions of their tomatoes, because with so many tomatoes it’s just too hard to adequetly explain their differences. Also, in different climates and growing conditions, you are likely to experience different results anyway. I personally find tomatoes I like by trial and error and discussing the matter with others.

OldRoses January 13, 2006, 11:09 pm

I have heard the complaint from others that the descriptions of Baker Creek products in their catalog in no way match what grows in the garden. And, yes, I agree that Jere can be annoying, but rise of gene altered foods and loss of genetic diversity is as serious as global warming. He has an agenda (which I happen to agree with) and is doing what he feels necessary to get the word out. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease! In the meantime, stick to what you know! Order only from catalogs that you have had success with in the past or that people whose opinions you trust have had success with. I have never ordered from Baker Creed because I grow heirloom flowers, not veggies. I agree with you that their selection of flower seeds is very poor. If you are interested in heirloom flowers, try Select Seeds. It’s my favoritest catalog in the whole wide world!!!!! The selection is incredible as is the quality of the seed.

Talitha January 12, 2006, 5:41 pm

Hmm. Interesting. . .some of that I knew, some of that I still don’t quite understand.

I did think that with larger companies the catalog would be written along side the trials. . .and obvisously their descriptions don’t change every year either. The way I thought it worked was that as each variety was added to the offereings, it would be tested (or, rather, tested before they added it too their offerings) and then immediately entered into the catalog (as I also presumed that it wouldn’t be one person in charge of writing the whole catalog with a larger company).

I agree that style is a large part of it as well, and good deal of my post was simply my opinion that I do not appreciate their style.

But the part that really gets me isn’t necessarily their lack of descriptives, or their style, but their seeming false information. “Aunt Ruby’s”, my test case, is an heirloom tomato. They describe it as neon green, and everyone else (myself included) describes it as having a pink blush. I read their entry as not only false, but one that result in people picking their tomatoes too soon and thinking they don’t like a tomato that really deserves a chance.

Do you think that I’m over-reacting (wouldn’t be the first time!), and that they had a different strain of “Aunt Ruby’s” than what I had? Do you think it changed in the several years since it was grown, or it’s conditions change the way it looks? I feel that if they’re not going to provide a description other than a series of meaningless superlatives, and if they’re not going to provide information about harvest time that is accurate, or something else worthwhile and helpful, then they might as well not even write a description. A name and an item number wind up being just as helpful. What’s the point of a description that doesn’t describe?

Judy Miller January 12, 2006, 11:54 am

Even if you grow it yourself, you may not eat that variety every time you re-do the copy (here in January for example, there is not a fresh garden tomato to be had). But the copy writing is done when the catalog is being produced, not the garden.

Or, given the probable size of the staff at Johnny’s & Fedco as well as Baker Creek, the writer may not a gardener at all, or at least not the grower of the test gardens. The former two firms may make their descriptions closer to reality than fluffery, but I can tell you they couldn’t possibly be growing/testing/writing all done by one person. Not on that scale. Or if they’re large enough to have a dedicated writer, she’s not the sole grower.

And they aren’t going to be growing each variety anew every year for testing. Otherwise the gardens would be impossibly large, with not much new information gleaned each year. And our putative writer-tester would be run ragged.

Baker Creek may simply be writing in a certain style, like Daniel Hinkley’s garden confessionals or the glossy newsprint catalogs that come out this time of year promising blue roses, all superlatives all the time. Or it may be that they grew each one but it’s been several years.

For example, I went through a radish phase and have grown I suppose 40 different kinds. I can still remember which ones I hated (the yellow ones), and a few favorites, but the rest sort of blur, and even when I look back at my notes, I just can’t remember with the clarity of having them in hand/on the plate as I write.

In my case it’s easier with perennials as the plants are there all season long reminding me of their qualities, each year, even if they are not in the test or stock beds in a particular year, and I can be reminded to tweak a description.

And style plays a big part here too–trying to communicate why I think someone/everyone needs a certain plant. I’m trying to create the warm rich full feel of a lush garden, well stocked cupboards and entrancing vases of flowers because that’s how I feel about the garden. Johnny’s may be more in the vein of cookbook heaven, and Baker Creek may just not have been as successful in tamping down the missionary zeal we plant fanatics get. If you visit them they probably load you down with baskets of tomatoes & squash until you don’t know what you have.

Talitha Purdy January 12, 2006, 7:40 am

Judy, educate me. What, exactly, do you mean by “copywriter’s”?

I must say that I presumed that they had grown everything themselves, but perhaps I am spoiled by Johnny’s and Fedco’s, both of whom have large trial gardens for testing out varities?

Judy Miller January 11, 2006, 7:16 pm

partially because
they suffer from
catalog copywiter’s overdose.

Having written seed catalog copy over the years and plant catalog copy yearly, I can sympathise. One’s brain & stomach get sick of the whole undertaking and you either resort to brainless cliches (especially if they have not grown the thing but only read someone elses’ copy) or have to mightily resist
making things up.

they may suffer from
Daniel Hinkley Disease
wherein the sufferer believes
what he/she writes is just too, too precious and well written and oh so clever that the reader will forgive them the endless repetition of
cranky anti-customer anecdotes
and prose that makes purple seem faint.
they may feel, a la Hinkley, that their opinions (in this case including their version of the “country lifestyle”
are so popular that they forget the reason the reader asked for the catalog was for growing plants, not getting a lecture.

(I could not resist playing with the centrized text.)