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From Company Field Tests to Your Backyard

Soon after the Fourth of July celebrations, George Ball, president of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company, sits down with his top breeders and the company's all-important "seed finals" will begin.

At that day-long meeting the lengthy list of candidates is whittled down to the 30 or so cultivars that will be included in the "new offerings" section of the following spring's catalog. The meeting also marks the official start of Burpee's "catalog season" - the several weeks in which text is written, illustrations selected, and the general design and layout takes place.

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What happens at Burpee is duplicated in one way or another at other mail-order seed and nursery-stock companies around the United States. At the Orono, Maine, headquarters of Rob Johnstone's Johnny's Selected Seeds, catalog production is a major summertime activity; the Connecticut-based White Flower Farm, supplier of perennials, has its first catalog production meeting in early March.

But trials and testing of new lines generally go on for three and sometimes more seasons before they finally make it into print.

Mr. Johnstone, whose 1996 catalog cover proclaims 150 new items, says new lines are a must. "There's something seductive about newness," he notes.

According to Mr. Ball, new products "promise excitement," and every new catalog has to excite the gardener. For the same reason, White Flower Farm strives every year for 15 percent new lines in its 800-item catalog, according to Steve Frowine, vice president of horticulture.

According to the Mail-Order Gardening Association (Wash.), gross income from orders of seeds, bulbs, and plants is usually in excess of $395 million, and the average order totals about $41.

Looking to the future, companies like Ferry-Morse see possibilities in electronic marketing. Already, with paper prices soaring and mailing costs on the rise, it's cheaper to produce a catalog on CD-ROM. It's even less expensive to mail.

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