George Ball Ruined The Cook’s Garden


Gone.  Gone, gone, gone.  And in their place, photos that look like they came from a 1983 Betty Crocker cookbook, accompanied by faux-folksy text that could have only been written by an intern, like "Pistou Basil:  Discovered in France, where they pair the tiny leaves with aromatic olive oil to make a highly flavorful pesto."

REALLY?  So you’re saying that over in France, they put basil and olive oil together?  What an original combination!  I’m so inspired!

Or this depressing description of the Mini Magic Mix Winter Sqaush:  "They are also beautiful gathered on the porch for a fall harvest presentation." Fall harvest presentation?  Although I’m cheered briefly by the possibility that the ex-employees of Blueprint have found gainful employment again, the joy is fleeting. The catalog is awful, and the pictures make me sad in a way that I can’t quite articulate.  You know those posters of bountiful piles of vegetables that you might see in cheap gold frames on the wood-paneled walls of bad Italian restaurants?  You know how faded and tired the vegetables look, and how they only serve to remind you of the sad fact that nothing you’re about to eat has even vaguely resembled one of those vegetables for the longest time? 

That’s how I feel about the new Cook’s Garden catalog.  The magic has rubbed off. It’s clear to me that there’s nothing special about these seeds, that they don’t come from the leathery old hands of some Italian grandmother who’s been saving them just for some right-thinking eager young American couple like Shep and Ellen.  No, these seeds come from the same corporate seed vat that all seeds come from, a vat probably located in a laboratory in Japan.  Who are we kidding?

Paging through this catalog sent me into a funk from which I still have not recovered.  "Garden Peach" is "the tomato that won our live tasting on The Today Show some years ago," as if I care what happened on The Today Show today, much less "some years ago." A curled parsley is described as "the hands-down winner…based on comparative taste tests," without any indication as to why I should get excited about an unnamed comparative taste test.

I can’t remember the last time a seed catalog made me feel so morose and uneasy. Even Mr. Ball’s introductory note reads like barely comprehensible and poorly translated stereo instructions.  ("we extended our search for flavor to basils, root crops, legumes and fruited vegetables…")

Well, you keep on that search for flavor, Mr. Ball.  If you find it, let me know.


  1. I got it yesterday and was actually struck by the beauty of the photographs. I thought they were much better than any other seed catalog photos I have seen, which always look kind of overexposed to me.

  2. “They are also beautiful gathered on the porch for a fall harvest presentation.” Fall harvest presentation?

    Thanks Amy: that and the basil comment have resulted in a coffee stained keyboard!

    I’m not familiar with the catalogue but I’m familiar with the scenario and this seems to be a common result.

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Amy. I look forward to my Cook’s Garden catalog every year. Last night after putting the kids to bed, I snuggled into bed with my assortment of catalogs to fantasize about this year’s glorious potager (fantasy, right?), and was shocked at the bland and generic new formula for Cook’s Garden.

    I placed my order with Vermont Bean Seed this Morning…

  4. Seeds I ordered from them last year were rotten. I felt dispirited because I’d just taken my gardening habit to the seed ordering level. Buuut I got over it.

  5. This catalog came in the mail with several others and was not even recognized as the lovely one with the woodcut on the cover. That cover would be pulled out to be read while the others gathered dust before being recycled. Too bad. I did save a few Heronswood catalogs before Ball took over. Bad Mr. Ball.

  6. I got that catalog, and the Burpee Seed on the same day – my first plant catalogs in 2 AND A HALF years here in New Orleans! The covers were different, the prices somewhat, but as fun as it was to see a garden catalog again, I was rather disappointed. Today, I got another one – John Scheepers – hoorah! Check it out, nice drawings.

  7. OH MY GOSH! When I read your comments Amy, I ran to the pile of catalogs that arrived last week. Sure enough…the cooks catalog was there in the pile and I had not even recognized it! Gone is the charm of the old catalog. It is a sad, sad day in seed-ville.

  8. I, too, mourn the passing of The Cooks Garden, but do take a look at the Fedco Seed Coop catalogue. Not as artistic as Cooks, but delightfully homespun in its own way. It is worth taking a look at and supporting if you choose to.

  9. I noticed the same ruination, and wondered why I hadn’t seen anyone rue the loss. Now I know why: the first catalogs arrived the day I got mine.

  10. George Ball is the Big Box of horticulture. What our society wants, they get. I haven’t ordered from Burpee since they “moved’ Heronswood, and I never will. I wrote him a letter to tell him so, but of course no reply was forthcoming.

  11. George Ball certainly isn’t a horticultural saint, but I think his demonization has gone far enough. The retail horticulture business has been in decline for about a decade. The gardening book business is in bad shape, too.

    The avid, reading gardeners of our generation are to a large degree, the last of a dying breed. There aren’t that many young people coming up to replace our business at nurseries and mail-order garden suppliers.

    Instead, there is a trend toward increased use of hardscaping and purchasing ready-made landscapes installed by professional (well, sometimes professional) crews. Harry and Harriet homeowner want something that will house the gas grill, a picnic table with umbrella, the kids, their playsets and the dog. They don’t want beds of vegetables or mixed borders. They want something they can water on a timer and forget. They want a lawn the lawn service can handle quickly and cheaply.

    Yes, I lament the decline of the specialty nursery. Yes, I lament the loss of catalogs geared toward those of us who actually read. But let’s face it: we aren’t the people keeping garden centers and mail-order garden suppliers in business. That’s what George Ball, good or bad, is up against. He can’t AFFORD to cater to us.

    Yes, I know we spend what seems like a small fortune on plants and supplies every year. I’ve kept track from time to time, and the total amounts I’ve spent on bulbs, plants and seeds (thank you, Excel) give me shivers. Those sums, however, don’t come close to the money others spend on professional landscaping and yard care. And if you look at individual purchases I make, it’s no more than a hundred dollars here, a hundred dollars there. The non-reading, non-gardening customers are dropping thousands on their uninspired yards.

    Most of the great nurseries and plant suppliers today are labors of love–barely more than hobbies that got away from their owners.

    In short, I don’t LIKE the trend, but I understand all too well why George Ball has “wrecked” yet another great company and another great catalog.

  12. Harry R. said: > I thought they were much better than any other seed catalog photos I have seen, which always look kind of overexposed to me. < I have to completely agree - so many photos of edibles in these catalogs look devoid of life. Flat and washed out - yuck. I don't know if it is bad photos along - part of it is bad (cheap) color printing. If you can't afford good photos and printing - go with illustrations and decent descriptions.

  13. Lisa;

    your points are well taken, but George didn’t have to buy perfectly good companies and ruin them. I wonder if he will make money on these purchases in the long term. There should be room for both big box horticulture for the know-nothings and niche companies for us.

    Of course, maybe that’s why Hinckley and the Cook’s Garden people sold out to him – because they WEREN’T making money. But I suspect it was just overwork and a very sweet price he offered.

  14. bev, I’m with you on the reasons that Hinkley and Cook’s Garden sold out, and to George Ball of all people.

    About 25 years ago, a wonderful new perennial nursery emerged in Southeast Nebraska, about an hour away over mostly dirt roads from where I lived in Kansas at the time. It was called Pinky’s Perennials. “Pinky” had been running a florist’s business in her small town for several years, and had slowly expanded into gardening. The perennials became a retail business, then retail, mail and wholesale. I only bought from Pinky’s for about two years, when she sent out a card announcing that she was closing at the end of the season.

    I naturally drove up to get those plants I couldn’t otherwise obtain, and asked her WHY. She explained that it wasn’t the money–the business was still sufficiently profitable, but that the joy had gone out of it. She went on to explain that she was a cancer survivor, and if there was anything she had learned from that experience, that you shouldn’t waste energy on things you don’t love. The love was gone, and Pinky’s Perennials became a memory.

    I’m worried about Tony Avent and Plant Delights at the moment, because his latest plant descriptions are a bit unsettling. While Avent has always been cheerfully snarky and iconoclastic, more recent plant descriptions are sometimes disturbingly dark. I hope that he isn’t on the brink of throwing in the horticultural towel (or trowel) as well.

    But I can’t fault those who sell or close well-loved horticultural businesses once burnout sets in. I don’t think that Heronswood or Cook’s Garden would have held on much longer in the face of the proprietors’ burnout in any case. If Ball hadn’t bought the businesses, they would just as surely have died a slow death or closed suddenly, effectively “ruining” them all the same.

  15. Not a big deal, but I wrote the comment from New Orleans – the city the post office forgot. The Botanical Garden here does have wonderful plants for sale to locals, for great prices, so despite a lack of catalogs (many plants grown too far North to do well here anyway), we have sources.

  16. I think I’m giving up on posting here – my comments are credited to others – are they usually off, or am I off on how I hit send?

  17. Naomi, maybe you’re looking at the name above the post? That’s the wrong one–your name is below your post.

    You’re not alone; I’m continually confused by this too. A few graphic design tweaks to the blog-software templates here could make this clear for all. (Just adding some white space above each post text would be one way to do it.)

  18. Thank goodness, I’m not alone. I, too, got the catalog and was so disappointed. It’s obvious that they could care less about everything the company had stood for.
    I hadn’t realized it when the company had been sold a few years ago, but that would explain why I had such lousy germination the last couple of years — a problem I’ve never had with Cook’s before so I’d figured it was just me or the wacky weather.
    I feel like I went out for dinner to find my favorite restaurant boarded up.
    Thank goodness for google. Here’s a site with links to dozens of mouthwatering seed catalogs.

  19. Cook’s Garden, ehhhh. Really pretty seed packets with hardly any seeds in them, not nearly enough for the money. Oh, and recipes. On the seed packets. I always thought they were on the seed racks at the nursery to lure in first-timers. There are better seed purveyors out there, just not such pretty packaging.

  20. This is how I came across your blog. I just sat down at the kitchen table with my toast and orange juice and the new Cook’s Garden catalogue. I couldn’t find a page that talked about “who” they were. I have wondered for a few years if the couple broke up who had started this lovely catalogue, so I did a search, and your “rant” came up. I was most disheartened by the commenter who spoke of the dying breed of reader/gardeners but I fear it is so. When we began in our twenties, lots of people had vegetable gardens. Now, we barely know anyone but ourselves. I love your manifesto and will be back to read more.

  21. I’d been saving the seed catalogs for a moment when I had time to savor them. I hadn’t seen the charming Cook’s Garden catalog and wondered where it was, when I found it under the Burpee catalog. Talk about dismayed! I felt like I had lost a close friend. Remember the Letters from the Garden, where we read about the Ogden children as they grew up? Now it’s a curt note from George Ball.

    I immediately did a web search to find out what happened to the Ogdens, and found your blog post. This is awful. I didn’t know they had sold the company a few years ago, although I did wonder why the seed quality had declined. I feel like crying.

    I just have to hope that, at some point, there will be some kind of backlash agaist the Big Box mentality.

    The Burpee catalog has one of the most gorgeous cover photos I’ve ever seen. Incredible. The rest of the catalog is typical Burpee fare, however–oversaturated images of vegetables and flowers that look like they come from outer space, with no useable growing information. I pity the inexperienced gardener who gets ahold of one of these.

  22. I was devestated when I realized what had happened to “The Cooks Garden” I’ve been an avid customer for 18 years. To think that the same horrible thing that happened to Heronswood and Dan Hinkley is happening again leaves me speachless. I heard from a reliable source that Dan never saw it comming. George Ball and Dan had a “Gentlemans” agreement that the company would stay the same…He didn’t even know what had happened until he read it in the newspaper. My heart broke for him. Yes the plant and seed industry is very hard and at times makes you almost hate what you do. However,sometimes the passion can prevail. It’s a very hard and demanding business to be in. I E-Mailed the new “Cooks Garden” and let them know how I felt and demanded they take me off their mailing list. Their response was as cold as I expected it to be…

  23. As the “cook” of The Cook’s Garden, and original co-founder back in 1984, I greatly appreciate all of your kind words about the catalog and comments about the new format. Passion and enthusiasm for gardening and cooking motivated us to publish The Cook’s Garden 25 years, and we had no idea that the catalog would still exist. It has been rewarding to discover new salad greens and veggies that we could share with other dedicated gardeners, and there is no question that Mary Azarian’s woodcuts added a magical appeal to the catalog. The 2008 catalog is definitely a new twist for Cook’s, and while I was not involved in the decision, I was actually delighted by the beautiful photographs of Four Seasons lettuce of Reine des Glaces, and other examples which show off how exquisite lettuce and mesclun can be. And Ros Creasy’s cover photo is a perfect example of how the food we grow translates into delicious eating, which is always been at the heart of Cook’s Garden. Just like in the little “tip jar” on this blog page reads change is good, the photos are meant to offer inspiration and encouragement to gardeners. For the record, I remain an enthusiastic gardener and cook, and truly believe that whatever it takes to keep the connection for everyone to keep growing food from seed and enjoy good eating from their garden – is the ultimate universal goal. Our original reason for selling the business was to provide a better product for our customers, since our “temperature controlled facility” was a wood stove in a drafty barn. It’s been an interesting journey, yet I am delighted that Cook’s is still in print and offers gardeners the same heirloom lettuce, radicchio and mesclun that we first discovered 24 years ago.

  24. Well, it actually appears that Mr. Ball may have actually did some homework in this change. The following link is an informal poll about how individuals like their catalogs from the Dave’s Garden site. It appears that the photo catalogs are a clear winner. Seems Mr. Ball is just providing the customer what they want.

  25. Good luck to anyone trying to order online from Fedco seeds! Plan on spending an hour or more on this process. There seems to be a real problem in moving from “view your order” to “check out.” Just keep trying to add to your list to make up for out of stock seeds and still reach your $25 minimum so that you can use a credit card. My solution – order from Pinetree Garden Seeds where you can speak to a real live human being.

  26. We looked forwarded to the catalog every year and now it is just another overly commercial catalog with the same mundane stuff that goes from the mail to the recycle bin.
    I find it interesting how many people start businesses as Cook’s garden and tell the world how it is a love and all the good reasons you should buy from them but when it comes down to it, they just sell to the highest bidder just like the companies that are in the news everyday.

  27. That’s just what I was thinking. Shepherd in his articles seems passionate against corporate seed trends, esp. genetic engineering. At the Seed Savers annual convention a few years ago (at the end of a very colorful speech about world seed travels), he said he was a Vermont chauvinist and compared it to Kerala as a special, sustainability-conscious community. Now he’s apparently living in West Virginia. Something must’ve happened, for which I sympathize w/both of them. But were they not well off enough to prove their values by not selling the Cook’s Garden NAME to, essentially, Burpee’s. In these days, most seed companies except true-blue Fedco sell Seminis-produced seeds AND won’t tell you which are which (at least, according to a Kitchen Garden thread). So, surely, to buy from BURPEES or any affiliate is to empower the gene giants. Looks like Monsanto and Seminis eventually WILL cram genetically engineered seeds down our throats… since even the Ogdens did this and Ellen just whitewashes it and keeps her eyes on the foodie $$ trail. Couldn’t they have sold the company w/o selling the name (correct me?) ?

  28. For the first time ever the snap beans we planted, from Cook’s Garden, did not come up. Our fault, or the seeds?
    If so many, once original, seed companies have sold out to George Ball why not produce one big catalog that encompasses them all? Unhappy about the whole ownership thing, so we’ve started saving our own seeds. ,

  29. i miss the beauty of the old catalog. just fortunate to have had it when I was a gardener. and so it goes with the new plastic age, cellphones etc. I hear highmowing seeds is good, sounds right anyway. old farmer

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