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Glossy Garden Porn

Every winter, when the fields are frozen and we’re busy packing seeds, we catch wind of someone referring to their pile of glossy seed catalogs as “garden porn”. The term is more apt than cheeky. These slick catalogs are filled with photos of unblemished veggies and centerfold scenes of fecund harvests accompanied by hyperbolic descriptions of their assets.

The pornographic pages used to lure me into a fantasy where veggies aren’t blighted and butts don’t have pimples. But sex is rarely what is portrayed in pornography and my farm rarely produces plants that look like what I see in most catalogs or on seed envelopes. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing, on both counts.

Every farm or garden is a story with its own tragedy, slapstick, drama, sex, death, and delicious redemption. Where are the catalogs that communicate the stories of losing all your Brussels Sprouts over night to one woodchuck, giving a hummingbird a bath with the hose, finding self-sown volunteers from last year, wishing for rain, wishing for sun, having a stand-off with a young buck over an apple sapling, listening to pollinators, being stung, finding a lost ripe musk melon hidden beneath weeds, watching helplessly as your tomatoes rot from blight, forgetting what variety you planted and having to wait two months to find out, flitting from open flower to flower hand-pollinating with a freshly picked male stamen, sitting down to a meal your grew yourself, blemishes and all?

Over time I came to believe that these are the experiences that make my farm real. More than that, I realized that I wanted to keep things down to earth with our seed company.

As I learned more about the modern seed industry I began to see past the airbrushed transplants and photo-shopped stills in the seed catalogs. I found that the true face of the industry was not so pretty. Many catalogs cover-up where their seeds come from, how they are grown, and who owns the brand name. Most seed companies get their seeds from large scale monocrop seed farms using pesticides, herbicides, and soil-wasting farming practices. Looking deeper I found that a few multinational corporations, mostly biotech, own the bulk of seed sources. I realized that my seed dollar spent at a familiar seed catalog, even one offering heirlooms, could very well be supporting the likes of Monsanto.

When it came time to design our seed packaging and website and figure out how to get the word out about our seeds, I knew I needed to do it differently from conventional catalogs. I wanted honesty, transparency, and to communicate the stories of our seeds.

When we first came up with the idea of using original artwork from different artists for the covers of our seed packs, some people suggested that it would be better to stick to what everyone else does, photos. But we wanted our packs to communicate something more about the seeds they hold. The artwork reflects the diversity of the seeds we grow and suggests that each seed comes with a story.

Since I don’t expect the garden porn industry to change anytime soon, I believe we have to make our own change. For me this meant learning how to save seeds, finding a creative way to share seeds with other gardeners, and eventually becoming a seed farmer. My partner and I started a Seed Library— getting seeds into the dirty hands of caring gardeners without the help of glossy garden porn.

I’m not saying you have to throw out your stash of mags, maybe this year’s catalogs will give you some new ideas to try in the privacy of your own home garden. I do hope, though, that you won’t compare your performance in the field to what you see in the slick overproduced pages of your seed catalogs. Instead, I hope you discover that what you have, your garden, your farm, your story, has more beauty, flavor, spice, and perfection than can be captured by a glib description or a camera’s click.

We welcome the farmers and gardeners who sow our seeds to share their garden’s story with us, in any form, poetry, prose, microfiction, recipes, how-to, hard hitting journalism, rants, humor, photos, or art. Over time, these submissions will fill the Seed Library catalog and blog with realness, helping us stay grounded. Stay seedy!  -Ken

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