Organic Gardening: Johnny’s catalog a handy reference guide

Brian Allnutt
Special to The Detroit News

              With a diverse assortment of organic and conventional seeds as well as tools, the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog is one of the more popular sources for home gardeners. Among other things, it’s a slickly produced document with good photographs. But this catalog is more than a catalog.

              For the amateur or professional grower of vegetables, herbs or flowers, Johnny’s serves as a handy reference on things like optimal germination temperatures – there is often a “germination guide” that gives a graph of what temperature-range seeds do best at–seeding rates and time to harvest. This information can prove critical. Peppers, for example, germinate best in the eighty to ninety-degree range and as the catalog tells us “germinate very slowly in cooler soil.” In Michigan’s cooler climate, knowing this can make the difference between having a harvest and not having one.

              The catalog reader may also not know that for peppers, “exposing the seedlings to controlled cold treatments can increase the number of flowers and fruits”, at least this reader didn’t. And that’s just one of many insights the catalog offers up in its encyclopedic sidebars. This info can be especially useful when growing a less common plant like Italian dandelion or one of the specialty offerings such as “mini broccoli” or broccolini.

              Other important points to note in the informational offerings are tips on harvesting and storage–which growers often forget about when they’re fixated on just getting their plants to grow–as well as preferred treatments for pests and disease, and assorted concerns like preventing cabbages from splitting, blanching leeks and harvesting squash blossoms.

              The variety descriptions here are often more thorough than in similar catalogs and symbols help growers find varieties that do best in heat, attract beneficial insects or tolerate cold. This is all useful regardless of where one ends up buying her seeds.

              Johnny’s has also brought their expertise into the digital realm, with videos on their website that give instruction on how to use the tools they sell, installing season extension equipment and harvesting techniques. In addition, the website contains PDFs with more specific instructions on producing different vegetables, flowers and herbs.

              Of course, Johnny’s isn’t the only place to get this information, but it does a good job of gathering a lot of knowledge in one place. And the catalog is a slim volume that you don’t have to worry about getting wet if you keep it on your potting bench; it’s free and another one will be arriving next year.

      Now increasingly, gardeners are looking to regional seed producers to find varieties adapted to their local climate and support a distributed food economy. In Michigan, we’re lucky to have a few of these: Nature and Nurture Seeds and Ann Arbor Seed Company. Nationally, other seed catalogs that do a great job are High Mowing Organic Seeds and Fedco Seeds. But most growers I know end up using – or at least looking at – a number of sources for seed every year and it’s always good to have Johnny’s in the mix, if just for the catalog.


Brian Allnutt is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at