Seed catalogs going virtual


Johnnysvirtual300What’s a seed-seller to do when suddenly there’s a huge surge in
vegetable-growing across the American landscape that causes them to run out of catalogs by July?  Go virtual, of course.  That’s what Johnny’s Seeds in Maine did this year, after they’d already upped their 2007 printing by 230,000 to a very impressive 680,000 copies. 

And what makes this different from the usual list of products found on supplier websites is that it’s a high-end PDF version of the actual catalog, with that cool page-turning feature, just like Zinio uses for the online magazines it produces. 

Alisa Keimel, who does marketing and PR for Johnny’s, tells me they can’t yet tell yet if having a virtual catalog has increased sales, but some customers have told they they love it.  No data yet to confirm this but don’t you suspect they’re primarily those 20- and 30-something first-time gardening foodies? Changes in gardening demographics are indeed fun to watch.  Here’s the virtual catalog.

In Colleen’s round-up of 2009 catalogs over on, she mentions that Johnny’s has more organic seeds than ever and a good selection of heirlooms.  Possibly because that’s where the market is heading?

So, given all the obvious benefits of virtual catalogs, could you, would you give up the printed version you’re used to thumbing through and marking up all winter?


  1. Nope, I really couldn’t give up the paper version. I settle into my favorite chair, with a cup of joe at hand and the Big Orange Cat on my lap and go to work with pink highlighter and post-its. Cruising around online isn’t as satisfying or easy.

  2. Yep. Save some trees and allow the seed companies to save some money. You can bookmark pages and/or copy descriptions into your own personalized wish list.

    Of course, I’m gardening all winter, so there’s little armchair time. Today I sowed the seeds for my second planting of carrots and greens–the first one is coming along nicely.

  3. Yech, I HATE virtual “magazines” and catalogues. It’s the worst of both worlds. If that’s the only format available for a site’s content, I have no reason to ever go back, let alone purchase from them.

    Paper catalogues are great for browsing page-by-page, but horrible at finding items by category. Page-based browsing online is awful. Let me use the Web site for the things it’s good at. Let me download a PDF of the catalog if I want the paper form, but don’t force me to “page” through it online.

    The only people this really makes sense to are the catalog producers, who don’t want to redesign the content for another medium. Johnny’s Seeds already has a great Web site for finding things. Let the Web be the Web. Don’t try to force it to fit into the strictures of the printed page.

  4. I look through catalogs, but highlighting stuff has become a waste of time. I never sit down with the computer and a catalog; I use Web site search features to look things up. Then I usually check on them by opening another window and looking for plant reviews or hort sites to find details.

    The most useful sites have their information organized into subcategories you can navigate to from a home page, or an advanced search (like Bluestone’s) that allows you to look things up by color or bloom time. Catalogs are necessarily linear, usually alphabetically arranged, so it’s not as easy to jump around to different connections.

    Catalogs are nice, but they are also marketing tools. It’s easy to get burned by believing a description written to make a sale.

  5. Nice idea but I cannot imagine snuggling up with my laptop, several cups of morning coffee, my quilt, Scotts spreader, and my “I Love My Lawn” T-Shirt to puruse a seed catalog.

    I have always thought the page turning feature should be included in online catalogs.

    I still want the real catalog though. Lots of neat new stuff for lawns that can only be added to my wish list by holding the real deal….
    You know the lawn vs. artificial turf thing.

    The TROLL

  6. I want the real thing. The computer is nowhere near the wood stove (for good reason), but I like to sit there by the fire on a cold winter day, with a cup of tea or a glass of warm spiced wine and dream my summer garden. Can’t do that on the computer. Ditto what Xris said.

  7. I’m sure the 20-30 somethings are more comfortable with it online than us old school curl up with the paper catalog types. We need some time to adapt. Hey, if it reaches a bigger customer base, its a great idea! Seed selling seems to be the ultimate recession proof product! Good for them keeping up with the trend.

  8. Well, I do buy online but count me among those who like to have a paper catalogue in hand to go along with the fire, the pot of tea, the music, and the cat. Although the cat does like to “help” with typing on the keyboard to order things, she’s not good at all at selecting stuff from an online catalogue.

    (And I haven’t dared raise my head or my voice in the lawn/nolawn controversy)

  9. What Xris said.

    The online virtual catalog is the worst of both worlds. I can’t see web-savvy 20- or 30-somethings tolerating it.

    But for those who get disoriented by an information-rich site like Johnny’s, the virtual catalog is a familiar-looking alternative that might save a few trees.

  10. 40-something and HAVE to have the catalogues – plural. Garden catalogues are the ultimate bathroom reading, and I’m NOT taking my laptop in there (even if we do have wireless). And yes, I do sit at the computer and order online with the catalogues open in front of me – or at least a list for each company that I made from the catalogue.

  11. I appreciate both the written catalogs as well as the online catalogs.
    I do not receive very many catalogs in the mail because admittedly I don’t order much seed.
    I do however LOVE to go to my local horticultural library in San Francisco and browse the hundreds of seed catalogs that they have in their reference library.
    From that perusal I usually go online to set up the order(s) .
    Most of the seed that I plant comes from the various different horticultural societies that I belong to that offer seed exchanges at the end of the year. That’s where I find my most wonderful exotic and rare horticultural seed treasures !
    You can’t beat swapping seed with other horticultural lunatics !

  12. In the past year, I have asked all but two companies to stop sending me paper catalogs (to save printing/shipping costs, etc.) and to to make sure I stay signed up for their E-news instead.

    The two companies? Timber Press… simply because I didn’t think about asking them that until just now… and Plant Delights. PDN’s catalog is seriously the garden equivalent of porn–I have it tucked under my bed sometimes, bring it into the bathroom with me, wonder if my housemate is looking at me funny because there I am, looking through that same thin magazine again. (And I swear, I read it for the “articles.” But, okay, the photos make me drool, too! lol.)

  13. Incidentally, High Country Gardens was the only place that seemed irritated with my request… but that may have been because I was irritated with them saying right on their front cover that they were such an environmentally-friendly company, etc., when they printed and sent me a half dozen catalogs per year. Each of which had just one or two things different in them, mostly, making all but a “spring” and a “fall” catalog really unnecessary.

    So I might have felt compelled to point that out when I asked to be unsubscribed… that advocating xeriscaping and other enviornmentally friendly practices and yet wasting so many resources on unnecessary printing and mailing was not practicing what you preach. And I might have gotten a rather chilly response back… 🙂 (But I still love HCG, and will order from them when I can’t find something closer. Yes, even though it takes resources to mail me something from New Mexico… that all evens out in the end now that I don’t get their catalogs every other month, see?! 😉

  14. Past 40 something – I find the paper catalogs annoying.

    All they are good for is as an addition to the recycling pile. I rarely look at them. On line catalogs are faster and easier to search.

  15. I’m still a 40 something (barely) and trying to be greener every day. Yet, my paper seed catalogs will be one of the last things I give up. I think I’m going blind from staring at the computer so much and if wasn’t for a good book or a seed catalog, I’d never leave this keyboard. Which is why I’m not sure I’ll ever embrace that Kindle Reader thing that downloads books into a handheld computer…NOT ready for that!). Like a previous comment, I’ll start with cancelling all the many unsolicited catalogs that show up at my house constantly. Yes, I recycle them but better to stop the ones we don’t want from even coming. Collectively that will make a huge differece.

  16. Going virtual is super easy when you have a tabbed browser and it remembers all the pages you were on.

    It’s nice to stare at a piece of paper sometimes instead of a screen, but shopping online helps me keep things more organized. Plus, I do most of my shopping at work during down time. So I keep a little running wishlist open in my browser, gradually refining my selections before I finally buy. And if I don’t feel the catalog has given me enough info about a plant, I pull up a few references online to help me make a decision.

    But I actually bought new clothes yesterday, something I haven’t done in ages, so I’m on plant buying restriction for a while.

  17. Early-thirties here, and I think they’ll have to pry my paper catalogs from my cold dead hands. I like the idea of the virtual catalogs, but I can’t really get into the idea of leisurely leafing through one the way I can with a paper catalog. I think it’s great that companies are starting to offer some real options on that front, though.

  18. Late twenties here. I like the paper catalogs a lot (only the ones I ask for, though…the unsolicited ones annoy me) but I’m also happy to browse through a website. It’s quick and easy and less wasteful, and if I’m looking for something specific I can find it quickly (though that doesn’t stop me browsing). There’s also the capability to put more information on a webpage than you can fit in a print catalog listing, though I don’t know whether seed companies actually take advantage of that.

    I’m not sure how I’d feel about a virtual magazine. If it’s fully searchable and has a good index, maybe, but otherwise I could see it being, as Craig said, the worst of both worlds.

  19. I could live without paper catalogs. It’s easier and much quicker to pull up a website than it is for me to locate that catalog that came a month ago! It’s also easier and quicker to order online, which means my order will probably arrive quicker, too.

    I’m not a big fan of the flashy pageable catalogs and pdfs. I prefer an actual online store-type catalog.

    From a nursery owner’s perspective, once the website/catalog system is set up, it costs CONSIDERABLY less to “publish” than a typical catalog. The cost is so drastically different, I think conventional catalogs will eventually be a thing of the past. My nursery is a very small specialty nursery and we only began getting serious about mail order last year. I’ve never put out a paper catalog and don’t plan to, yet the mail order portion of my business is showing very good growth. I also love the flexibility of online catalogs. Nurseries can offer plants that are very limited and can offer a much larger selection with little additional cost. Virtual catalogs can also be kept up to date very easily.

  20. It’s interesting how ageism has crept into this conversation. If you can participate in this blog, then you should have no trouble going virtual while looking for seeds or plants.

    I love that I can find and support smaller seed companies and nurseries that are producing interesting varieties. This is not a youth-oriented condition: I’ll turn into an official geezer (65!) this Sunday.

  21. I spend hours each day at my computer, so when a thought about a plant pops into my mind while at the keyboard, I will search my favorite catalogs quickly online. But, I much prefer, when serious shopping or researching, to browse a paper catalog. I find it much easier to organize just what I will order. It is one of the reasons that I mourn the fact that Renee Shepherd cannot do a print catalog. I love her seed packets for the excellent info, and the art and I’m willing to pay for them. (I’m a sucker for cool seed packets–whether I need or use the seed or not!) And, she has one of the most informative, dynamic, attractive internet catalogs there is. But I still look forward to getting all the regulars via my mailbox.

    However…re catalogs in general: For some strange quirk in their system, LL Bean hasn’t been able to put me back on their mailing list and I have not received a paper catalog from them for a year or more…but it hasn’t stopped me from shopping with them just as much as I would have.

    But seed shopping is an entirely different thing…it’s such a process of first “fantasy land” picks, then the series of reality checks, then a final selection and I cannot figure out how I would do it with an online version of a catalog.

  22. I’m torn. I love finding a new catalog in my mailbox. But ditto, Andrea. I always order online. So I feel pretty guilty about all the paper catalogs I end up recycling after I look through them. But not so guilty that I’ve asked to stop receiving the catalogs…

  23. We began posting our annual catalogs for pond megastore online in 2007. Our water lilies were a big hit and we introduced new water garden plants to many people who were unfamiliar with the nearly 300 species of aquatic plants and water lilies available. We have benefitted as has the homeowner who didnt know we exsited and may not have otherwise found us in the backs of books or pond magazines. We can post new pond plants online as soon as they are ready for sale instead of waiting for next years catalog.

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