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Heirloom vegetable seed catalogs can help you through the doldrums of winter

Many heirloom vegetables could vanish forever if not kept in continuous cultivation. That’s because seeds live only so long in storage.

Every heirloom we grow today helps to maintain these gene pools for the future. And every heirloom we grow today tells a story.

For those unsure of what an heirloom vegetable is, these are old varieties still maintained by farmers and gardeners, particularly in isolated or ethnic communities. You can buy the seeds from catalogs and on the Internet.

If you’re not signed up to receive printed heirloom catalogs, now is the time to request them from the top seed houses before supplies run out.

I prefer printed color heirloom vegetable seed catalogs for hours of study in midwinter. Each year I grow new varieties to test them for flavor, vigor and yield.

Watching how new varieties perform adds a new dimension to my garden. As I read my catalogs, I use a yellow highlighter and sticky tags to flag varieties suited to my peculiar desert climate.

After decades of laboriously filling out a paper order sheet by hand, I prefer to go online and order my seed stock electronically with each seed house. Not only is this a huge time-saver, I’ll pay no postage to submit the orders, and it’s much easier to change if I make a mistake.

These catalogs are packed with how-to information and tips to help the grower succeed. Use your phone to call in your request if you don’t have Internet access. The companies listed here are, in my opinion, the best. Planning a garden in winter can brighten the doldrums of January.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed

This is a stunning catalog that borders on a gardening magazine. The inventory is extensive, and the photography is inspiring. There are lots of good tips, as well as informative articles. A truly amazing organization. Request your free Good Seeds catalog online at www.rareseeds.com or call 417-924-8917.

Seed Savers Exchange

For centuries local farmers have exchanged seed of their own private plant varieties, called a landrace, to expand their diversity. In 1975 a nonprofit was formed on a global level to make it easy for gardeners to share their favorites. For example, Michigan gardeners can obtain landraces from farmers in similar climates in Russia. Years later, Seed Savers Exchange became a traditional seed house, offering the most promising or unique discoveries over a 40-year history. What began in print is now a massive online exchange you can explore today, but to participate you must join at http://exchange.seedsavers.org. Wait until you have hours to spare before you click “Browse.” A visit to the site is a perfect rainy-day adventure. Request a free color catalog at www.seedsavers.org or call 563-382-5990.

Seeds of Change

This was the first swanky color catalog to offer heirloom vegetables, and it remains a wonderful resource. Packed with helpful agronomic fact boxes and useful planning guide charts, it’s far more than a retail catalog. Get a free catalog at www.seedsofchange.com or call 888-762-7333.

Native Seeds/search

This modest catalog of a nonprofit strives to preserve landrace food plants from indigenous gardeners of the desert Southwest and northern Mexico. It includes more than 500 varieties of plants, many of them available nowhere else. These are great drought-busting heirlooms. Get the catalog for $1.50 or download a free version at nativeseeds.org or by calling 520-622-0830.