Ordering seeds is a wonderful garden tradition

Posted on: February 13, 2020 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

The ebbs and flows of gardening parallel the fashion world. One year plant breeders turn everything lime green, and the next it’s deep red. Seed sales slump some years, then return with a vengeance for various reasons, often in times of economic uncertainty.

'Sugar Magnolia Purple Snap Pea' is one of the pretty and tasty vegetables offered by John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. Ordering seeds is a wonderful garden tradition.

‘Sugar Magnolia Purple Snap Pea’ is one of the pretty and tasty vegetables offered by John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.

I sometimes feel like a sort of garden evangelist, extolling the virtues of the old ways. One thing I annually preach about is putting together a seed order filled with unique and worthwhile varieties. It’s repetitious, but necessary to enlighten new members of the gardening congregation and remind the veterans (along with myself) about the merits of such endeavors.

Garden obsessions come and go, like Nehru jackets, bell bottoms and Earth Shoes. Well, I guess Earth Shoes aren’t making much of a comeback.

Seed orders are what winter is all about for gardeners. The giddy anticipation of growing something new or an old favorite is thrilling while staring blankly out the window at gray skies and wet, brown leaves.

Growing something different

'Brown Russian' cucumber from J.L. Hudson Seedsman might be strange looking, but it's supposed to be tasty.

‘Brown Russian’ cucumber from J.L. Hudson Seedsman might be strange looking, but it’s supposed to be tasty. Photo courtesy of J.L. Hudson

I wrote in my Everybody Gardens blog earlier this month about a resurrection of sorts as I combed the pages of the obscure J.L. Hudson Seedsman catalog. I ordered ‘Brown Russian’ cucumbers, ‘Three Root Grex’ beets, tiny ‘Xigole’ hot peppers, bunching onions and the curious Campanula rapunculus. This hardy biennial forms small edible roots and tasty leaves. It’s the plant featured in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel. I’m reinvigorated while leafing through other catalogs too, searching for special things to grow this year.

Everybody Gardens readers came up with this extensive list of sources for seeds and plants, but I wanted to list a few of my favorites.

Favorite seed sources

For many gardeners, seed ordering begins with W. Atlee Burpee. For more than 140 years, the company has provided seeds and advice for gardeners. Their hybrid tomato ‘Brandy Boy’ changed the gardening world. It’s a cross between the heirloom ‘Brandywine’ and another variety. This meaty, pink tomato sets reliably, is earlier than Brandywine and offers the old-fashioned flavor desired by gardeners.

It’s also one of the only places left to purchase my out-of-print book, “Tomatoes Basil Garlic.”

Jere Gettle started Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in his bedroom as a teenager. Since then his company has become one of the most popular sources for seeds. If you want to grow something different, historic and wonderful, this is the place to go. They recently absorbed Heirloom Seeds, a local seed company. Baker Creek is offering bulk seeds through that web site. They offer free shipping on U.S online orders.

Laura Stilson, who is a photographer for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds shot this picture of a monarch butterfly on ‘Autumn Beauty’ sunflower. One reason to get the catalog is for the beautiful photography.

Laura Stilson, who is a photographer for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds learned how artichokes grow while photographing this variety called 'Purple of Romagna.' The photography in the catalog is great.

A pea sprouts in the early spring garden. It’s fun to find a unique variety to plant while looking through seed catalogs.

I visited Johnny’s Selected Seeds with my young family in the 1990s and bumped into owner Rob Johnston, who happily gave us a tour of the farm. I’ll never forget the kindness of that gesture. The catalog is packed with great information about growing plants, and the seeds are diverse and amazing. The first heirloom tomato I ever grew came from Johnny’s. ‘Prudens Purple’ is a large, meaty tomato which is an early beefsteak variety. Back in the day I saw my dog pull the first ripe tomato off the vine and chased her around the neighborhood for 20 minutes until I got half the tomato back. What do you think I did with the remaining fruit?

I’m growing lots of cool weather crops, including ‘Red Tatsoi’ from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. They are offering more than 60 new varieties this season, and there’s lots of fun and unique cultivars to discover in the catalog.

TomatoFest offers over 600 varieties of organic tomato seeds including the famed Pittsburgh heirloom ‘Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top.’ Owner Gary Ibsen named ‘Marianna’s Peace’ after his mother-in-law who escaped the Russians during WWII. It’s a touching story and one which should be told to garden visitors. Here’s the whole story.

Those are just a few of the places I’ve ordered from over the past decades, but there are countless other great sources out there. Be sure to peruse the companies listed in the Everybody Gardens post.

Growing from seed is inexpensive, easy and allows gardeners to grow something distinctively different from other growers.

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@535mediallc.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.

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