Good Taste, White Flower Farm Style, versus Good Taste, Kitchen Style


It’s been many years since I paid any attention to White Flower Farm.  I used to order a bareroot rose or shrub from them now and then.  Early in my career, they disabused me of the notion that it was good to order perennials by mail by taking lots of money from me and sending me, in exchange, infant plants incapable of surviving life in the outdoors.

I will admit that when I first started gardening, I found the White Flower Farm catalog enchanting–beautifully photographed and artful combinations of plants–even if the copy was very twee.  In his first book Second Nature, Michael Pollan has a hilarious essay, “Made Wild By Pompous Catalogs,” that skewers the pretensions of White Flower Farm and its fictional proprietor Amos Pettingill, who, Pollan says, “sets the tone for the house”:

Amiably eccentric, opinionated, prudent, aloof from commerce, afflicted with a bad case of anglophilia, ironically self-deprecating and yet at the same time (a trick only the well-bred seem able to pull off) coercive in matters of taste.

When I picked up the catalog this week, I saw that nothing’s changed, except of course what’s fashionable in gardening.  And now vegetables are muscling some space from the perennials.  So now “coercive in matters of taste” has been plastered over the subject of vegetable gardening, and it made me pity every beginner who looks to Amos to light the way.

FIrst, there is the price of WFF’s vegetable seedlings:. $6.95 or 7.25 apiece. The website informs me,”Our stocky seedlings are grown and shipped in 3in pots that are a full 4in deep, so the plants you receive have strong, well-developed root systems.”

In other words, the same kind of good-sized seedling that might cost even a $1.50 or $2 apiece at the farmer’s market.

Fine, it’s your money.  What are you getting if you place your trust in White Flower Farm?

Well, they will take advantage of your ignorance by selling seedlings of things better and more economically started by shaking a packet of seeds over the ground, such as lettuce and broccoli raab.

And they will ship you cucurbits, which are also much better grown from seed, if you have a long enough season.  These are the great fuss-budgets of the garden in terms of temperature and tend to join their maker if you stick their seedlings in the ground before the soil has grown warm and cozy.  What are the chances that White Flower Farm will mail your delicate zucchinis at precisely the right moment, so you can just pop them in and get a decent return on investment? Because if you can’t just pop them in, it is a disaster to have them start vining in their pots.

White Flower Farm will even save you the trouble of reading the variety descriptions by sending you a “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection,” 9 plants for a mere $61, designed for those “who want to get their toes wet without diving in.”  In other words, for customers too scared to do anything without Amos’s okay.

Indeed, the catalog copy insists that a superior taste has organized this collection: “We’ve gathered the best varieties for home gardeners.”

Huh.  Personally, I don’t find the the collection appetizing.  It includes a full two varieties of summer squash.  If I am only planting 9 plants, I can assure you, given how big the plants are and how ridiculously productive, I would only plant one summer squash, and it would be a pattypan, which they don’t mention.  The tomato selection in this garden includes only cherry tomatoes.  C’mon.  What about a big juicy ‘Pineapple’ or a ‘Paul Robeson’?  Don’t beginners deserve those, too?

It also includes three varieties of bell peppers, red, yellow, and orange.  In Zones 5 and below, our peppers only rarely ripen to red. So we’d be planting green, green, and green.  Seriously? Three varieties of bell pepper and no hot pepper or eggplant?

Indeed, the thing that bothers me most about the “Beginner’s Veggie Garden Collection” is the claim that it’s possible to gather the best varieties for all home gardeners, when gardening–and the performance of different varieties–is so absolutely local.

Last year, I moved my vegetable garden from boggy rich soil in the country to sandy poor soil in the city. And varieties I have been growing for years simply have a different flavor out of this very different soil.

So White Flower Farm’s insistence on its superior taste, which possibly has some meaning when we are talking about ornamentals, is meaningless in a vegetable garden.  The great arbiters of taste in the vegetable garden are the soil microbes particular to your little patch of ground.  They are what divide the ordinary from the superior.  Nobody else is worth listening to.

Here’s my beginner’s vegetable garden collection, but ignore me if you don’t live down the street:

1. Arugula

2. Basil

3, 4, 5. Tomatoes:  1 ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry,’ a crazy sprawler, 1 ‘Paul Robeson,’ and 1 ‘Pineapple.’

6. Eggplant ‘Rosa Bianca’

7. Cilantro

8.  ‘Bennings Green Tint’ pattypan squash

9. On the north end, pole beans, preferably a purple variety like ‘Blue Coco.’


  1. I can’t count the number of times a client, friend or neighbor has chased after me with that catalog saying, “but it says it will be great here” (and yes I live in the same state as WFF). It just happened last week when I had to tell a very disappointed friend that yes we can grow lavender here (plan to use it as an annual, and be pleasantly surprised if it comes back well) but it will never look the way it does in that catalog. I’ve always thought that whoever their marketing people are, they are probably geniuses.

  2. I am glad you made this critique. As a young gardener, I was quite taken with their pictures in print, but I always found the cost to growth ratio too high. If they don’t sell us with glossy pics and taste-making copy, they would never sell us. Of course, all catalogs have to sell us something we want to believe in, even if over our better judgement.

  3. I’m like Frank. I too fell in love with their catalog — glossy photos, that air of knowledgeable ‘it’s just us’ anglophile superiority ……. and I have to say the few things I ordered from them did very well. Along with Michele (and probably every other experienced veg gardener in the States) I snorted at both their list of ‘beginner’s garden’ vegs and the outrageous price. Even at expensive ‘organic’ prices, you could probably buy more food for $61 than grow from these plants.

    I was interested to read your list, Michele. Mine would be completely and utterly different — different climate, different soil and different personal tastes (for example, I loathe arugula and cilantro). Hmmm, I’m going to think about making my own list for local conditions (and local/family mouths).

  4. New fad? WFF now its expert. Easy in nursery sales. Ornamental horticulture is full of snake oil salesmen.

    Bit tougher for a dermatologist to offer open-heart surgery.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. Very well thought out take on the catalogue, indeed most catalogues. I’m not sure we can really blame them for using nice pictures and warm and fuzzy marketing language, since there’s a lot of competition in the plant and seed catalogue industry and they’re all trying to get a share of the pie, but it is misleading.

    I wonder how a catalogue would do with crappy pictures and emotionless descriptions?

  6. Ahhh, plant porn! And we’re so susceptible at this time of year. They should sell the catalog (perhaps in a brown paper wrapping to avert innocent eyes), not the plants!

  7. Denver’s more or less regular frost-free periods are from early May to (maybe) mid-September. I’ve never had more than 3 ripe Paul Robeson’s on a plant. As good as they are, that’s pretty resource-intensive. It doesn’t stop me from trying, though.

  8. Fred, mine weren’t terribly productive last year, either, the first year I tried them.

    But it was a lousy tomato year in the Northeast, so I didn’t blame the variety.

    What I did find ‘Paul Robeson’ was spectacularly, transcendently delicious.

    This year, I’ll take your advice and see how many I get.

  9. I loved their catalog years ago, before I knew better. I wish I’d read something as helpful as this 20 years ago.

    I choose pepper varieties that require fewer days to maturity than the number of frost free days in this area, and transplant them as eight week old seedlings.

  10. The catalogue is wonderful eye candy and I love looking at it and seeing different varieties, but I stick close to home for actual plants. Though this year I did order their Amaryllis bulbs at half-price after Xmas. They did not disappoint — I have 4 in full bloom right now, each has at least 2 flower stalks. And I have never had bigger blossoms. At half price they were a great deal.

  11. My problem with many of the perennial catalogs is that they don’t really tell you what the particular plant really needs. Now I know that I need to do my homework before ordering a plant, but many years ago I didn’t know that. White Flower Farm does better than many, but I killed 2 Clethras from them not knowing that they really need acid soil and other shrubs not knowing that they really couldn’t tolerate the winter-spring sogginess of my Ann Arbor soil.

  12. I grew Matt’s Wild cherry once as I like trying different varieties every year. I like Johnny’s for a good informative vegetable catalog but still didn’t order early enough to get all that I wanted….
    I do like the pictures and container garden ideas that WFF has but the prices are unrealistic.

  13. I love your idea of a beginner’s vegetable garden for your street. I’m changing my garden location, and though it’s only a mile away and a tenth the size (so I’ll be looking for additional places to garden), it’s much sunnier. The soil doesn’t look great, but I’m going to bring some of my garden soil and compost.

    So in my former shadier (but still 6 hours of sun in the warmest spots) and windier location, my beginner’s collection would have included a couple types of kale; a cherry tomato, a prolific medium-size heirloom tomato, and for fun a large black or orange tomato; basil; benning’s green tint (I even like it raw) or papaya squash; 3 pole beans (rattlesnake, trionfo violetto or another purple, and a romano); and of course an edible flower — nasturtiums, which do well in the shadier spots. But that’s eleven.

    At my new sunnier, more sheltered location, the list could include peppers and eggplant (short-season varieties because the summers are still cool).

  14. Another fun catalogue to read for the descriptions is the Duluth Trading Company. No plants, but it does have gardening wear. It’s what the cool consruction workers and the “educated” get your hands dirty people wear.

  15. Greta article…………if only the ranters would carry this same feeling over to shopping at the Box stores. A while back the rant mentioned the Burpee organic seed packs at Lowes that were a good price. Turns out these are the same seed packs on my seed racks and every garden center that carried Burpee’s organic seeds.

    A visit to WWF would reveal who they really have become. tour their displays and see the many potted plants with no names no prices etc. The last good ides they had was a selection of tall growing tulips they nicknamed “stretch”. Also watch the farmers markets……..down here in the Hudson Valley 4 inch herbs are $5 at farmers markets along with heirloom tomatoes in three inch pots that $3-$5 a pop. If you found them for $2 congratulate that grower for not thinking everyone attending farmers markets are wanneabe feel good city slickers

    The TROL

  16. Paul Robeson did okay for me last year in Colorado Springs (60 miles south of Denver but with more difficult growing conditions). I FELL IN LOVE and will be growing them again this year from my own saved seed, in a hoop house. The diviine Robeson is a “black” Siberian that is as (or more) delicious and more productive here than Cherokee Purple. It does not make any sense (or cents) to me to buy vegetable starts through the mail unless it’s something very rare. Grow your own–you’ll get the hang of it.

  17. The catalogs really are all alike – they’re in the business of selling us their products, and gardeners have to remember that pictures can and do lie. Take it all with a grain of salt. WFF is no more or less guilty than any of their competitors on that score. My main objection to WFF is that they’ve simply gotten exorbitant with their prices. There have been occasions where they were the only source I could find for a particular variety of something I badly wanted, so I’ve swallowed hard and paid up. I will say that only once has anything they’ve sent me died, and that was my fault entirely. I’ve always been satisfied with their quality.

  18. Tibs, I also love the Duluth Trading Co catalogs– especially because they have practical clothing for women.

    As for pricing of plants, I’m sure it mostly reflects costs, which must vary widely in the industry. WFF puts out a lot of expensively-produced catalogs, which must require higher prices for their plants. Think of restaurants; the food might be just as good in 2 different places, but sometimes you want to spring more for ambiance and service. Other times, all you care about is the food.

  19. WHOA. Stop right here. With me. I LOVE White Flower Farm and have designed and installed three gardens in Manhattan with (other than a few added vegetable plants) were 100% White Flower Farm plants.

    Sick and tired of dealing with trucks getting parking tickets, dear UPS delivered boxes upon boxes to clients that grew in backyards, on terraces, roof tops, and out on open piers on the Hudson River.

    And I have transplanted WFF perennials (a few 15 years old) to the 3 places I have lived since getting them.

    Nope – I loved WWF and wholeheartedly recommend them. A clematis just didn’t take and they sent a new one out with no hassle. Their customer service is worth the fact I can’t get clients a discount.

  20. **blush**. I thought everyone was being vulgar and calling this company WTF! …White Flower Farm WFF… I get it now! But then again…

  21. Sometimes it’s just mere convenience that these catalogs exist for, out there someone is selecting their order and waiting for their goods, at least they are trying to grow their own. There are others who will never attept this and will continue buying supermarket rubbish and filling landfills with their packaging-rant, rant….

  22. I learned a lot from the WFF catalog, when I was armchair gardening, but their prices are pretty prohibitive for a country garden. It may not matter so much when you’re filling a couple of containers and a three by five entry garden.

    For a real beginner’s garden, I think you can’t go wrong with the basics of easy-grow, quick-result stuff–radishes and lettuce, carrots and snap peas. But cool radishes, like the icicle kind, and freckles lettuce. Tomatoes, yes, but peppers are temperamental in my own climate; pole beans, like purple trionfo, or dragon’s tongue. Colors and flavors you can’t buy impress my family, and increase the pleasure of growing it myself.

  23. I receive a couple of WWF catalogs each year and basically use them as reference texts. I never buy anything from WWF — because of the price (and perhaps a bit because of the preciousness of the enterprise)– but use the photos occasionally to purchase bulbs from wholesalers or perennials from local retail nurseries. WWF never seems to be in front of the “horticultural curve” but instead markets plants that are long-established in the retail horticultural marketplace. Why doesn’t ir market Kordes disease resistant roses, or make plain that, in many zones, its lovely B&G tuberous begonias must be raised (if all) under the porch? It has become less interesting, and relevant, over the decades.

  24. Oh, dear Michelle, this post is a bit harsh. It is America after all and the WFF catalog is my granddaughter’s favorite book to read. She is three and is not jaded. I do so value your opinion but the catalog is a source of great information for thinking people who can cull out the marketing bs. Have you been to WFF? It is a treat to see the display gardens. As for gardening advice, it is very regional and you may love patty pan squash but there in my garden, they are mediocre and tasteless at best. Perhaps I will try them again since you love them so much. The best thing about WFF and their catalog is that it promotes gardening. For that reason alone, I love it.

  25. Michelle, where do I find the Blue Coco bean seeds? I read about them two years ago in the New York Times and can’t find them in the catalogs you listed.

  26. Many years ago, when I’d just acquired my own place & began to garden seriously (or go seriously nutty), I loved the WFF cataloge. At the time it was the only one with luscious, realistically colored photos AND photos of plants in situ. I can’t remember if I ever ordered from them (perhaps not;could be why they stopped sending it), but I learned alot. I learned (do still learn), an enormous amount from catalogs generally: Burpee, Park, WaySide Gardens, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, etc., etc., etc. I’d discoved Katharine S. White’s ‘Onward and Upward In The Garden’, with her intelligent & witty catalog critiques, about the same time. Maybe that encouraged me to read with an enthusiastic pinch of salt.

  27. Couple of observations on your beginning vegetable garden choices. Nothing less than a concrete reinforcing wire cage will contain Matt’s Wild Cherry. Paul Robeson is an ok tomato, but I have found far more reliable production and quality from Carbon, another purple/black beefsteak variety. Pineapple is a pretty good bicolor and more prolific than some. It’s really sweet to my taste, though, and I prefer bicolors with a little more acid like Virginia Sweets or Big Rainbow. Rosa Bianca is a fabulous eggplant — creamy, non-bitter flesh. I mean it is just a standout. BUT, it is a stingy producer, and the plant sulks at the least bit of a set-back in my garden. I grow the bloody thing every year because it’s just so beautiful and tasty, but I also grow other varieties to ensure I actually have plenty of eggplants.

    Oh, and WFF was just never my garden porn of choice.

  28. I owe WFF a debt of knowledge. I learned about many plants from them as beginning gardener, and so appreciated the Latin names. In the late 80s through early 90s I did order quite a bit from them and things always did well. As my garden became more established, I bought less overall and began to get plants from my local farmer’s market, garden centers, and Bluestone Perennials. WFF will always have a fond place in my heart, as they taught me ot be a discriminating gardener.

  29. White Flower Farms went into business in 1950-this means they have been doing enough right, and providing enough service, to have survived for 62 years. This is an astonishing record. When I was in my twenties, I loved their catalogues-I learned a lot about plants from them. I read them cover to cover, and over and over again. Those glossy pages, those great photographs, the Amos essays encouraged me. I bought just a few things-I will admit I fell for the English bred delphiniums, and the tuberous begonias. They grew like crazy for me. My success with them only further fueled my new passion for gardening. If they have made a mistake, making a foray into the world of vegetable gardening, intelligent gardeners all over the country will set them straight.
    Of course they have to charge more for plants than you would for your home grown tomato starts! They have a business with employees, a beautiful catalogue that is very expensive to produce, a building and display gardens to keep up. They are testing the waters- do you really fault them for this?
    As for the growers at my local farmer’s markets, I have long standing personal relationships. By no means are they comfortably providing for their families. They struggle. If you are insistent about talking price, consider others besides yourself.
    It occurs to me that but for White Flower Farms, you would not have had much to say today. A serious and detailed essay about vegetable gardening for new gardeners would be valuable. You have the opportunity to teach-why not take it?

  30. Well…they majorly messed up one of my orders ages ago and were beastly to me on the phone which made me scream at them. The only time in 15 years of gardening I have ever yelled at anyone. But I do agree that the catalogs are tremendous resource. It kind of reminds me of Smith and Hawkins. Folks who have a small terrace garden in NYC (where I hail from) who don’t know too much about gardening but think that spending money = results, liked to shop at both places in my opinion. However, I do not like Patty Pan sqaush 🙂 Am intrigued that you can get eggplant to grow in a norther garden…hmmm….

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