Man's Seed Catalog Business Has Grown Like A Weed

GREEN PIECE

Mail Order Business Spreads Joy Of Flowers

February 02, 1992|By Mary Gold

In January, gardeners' thoughts are already on the season ahead. Theanticipation is fueled not only by the lengthening days, but by a mailbox full of seed catalogs that both tempt and provide solace.

While most are writing, rewriting and mailing out seed orders, Dayton resident Dr. James Saunders is busy on the receiving end of this phenomenon. He is the owner of Native Seed Inc., a small company specializing in the distribution of wildflower seeds. His business, unique in Howard, is primarily mail order, and his customers come from all overthe United States.

The focus on nature and environmental concerns has given wildflowers and wildflower meadows landscape credentials. Saunders, a laboratory scientist with a Ph.D. in botany, tuned into this interest in thelate 1970s when a co-worker moved to California and became involved in a wildflower enterprise there. She convinced him that a sideline business with wildflower seed would be interesting and profitable. In 1979, his company became a reality.

"I used to keep track of the requests we received for catalogs," says Saunders, "but stopped counting at 100,000 several years ago."

The small, straightforward catalog that he produces changes periodically. The number of wildflowers offered remains constant, at about 30 to 40 species, but the species change according to what's successful and what's available. He estimates that only 12 of the species listed in his first catalog are in thecurrent one.

It's fun to see who asks for catalogs, he says. He hears from children and grandmothers and notes that 85 percent of his catalogs go to women. His seeds are available as single species or inpre-formulated or custom wildflower mixes. They may be purchased by the packet or in bulk.

Housing developers have used wildflower plantings to enhance their properties. Politicians and chambers of commerces order thousands of packets for use as free handouts. A marketingcompany recently used seed packets as an attention-getter with theirchange of address notice. And a New York bride and groom gave their wedding guests seed packets imprinted with the couple's names, Saunders said.

Although Saunders grew and harvested some of the seed offered in his original catalog, he now contracts with others to supply it. He has contracts with gardeners and farmers from as far as the Delmarva Peninsula, North Carolina, Louisiana and California. The seed is tested for rate of germination, viability and weed contamination.

The catalog's description and instructions reflect Saunders' enthusiasm and knowledge of the plants and their growing conditions. Included are annual plants -- those species that bloom and go to seed in one season -- and perennials -- plants that live from year to year butmay not bloom the first season after sowing. Most of the species arebest suited to full sun and adapt well to most climates in the United States.

"It doesn't make sense to sell seed that succeeds only in a small geographical area," said Saunders.

Daisies, black-eyed Susans and bachelor's buttons are the most popular items he carries. But there are intriguing lesser-known flowers on the list, too. For instance, there is pimpernel, "an attractive annual that is low-growingwith bright-green leaves and puregreen flowers." Since the flowers close in cloudy weather, pimpernel is called "poor man's weather glass" in England.

Defining a wildflower as a plant that survives and grows without cultivation is a broad statement.

Many favorite wildflowers are erstwhile weeds. Many are immigrants from other continents-- some as garden escapees, others as accidents. Several lead doublelives as both ornamental and medicinal plants. Saunders' catalog reflects this rich diversity.

An undisturbed wildflower meadow will provide years of show -- seven or eight with an annual/perennial mix of plants suited to Howard County -- if there has been careful preparation of the growing area.

Competition from invasive, undesirable weeds is a big problem that can be lessened by killing as much old vegetation and pre-existing seed as possible before sowing. This can be done with a recommended herbicide, approved burning and/or tilling, disking and harrowing. Seed for perennial and early spring flowering plants is best sown in fall.

Sowing instructions say to mix the wildflower seed with sand for even distribution, and cover the sown seedlightly with soil to prevent loss of seed to wind and water erosion and birds. The sown area should be kept moist until the seedlings appear and take hold.

Saunders warns that profuse watering and fertilizing of established plants will produce healthier plants but few flowers. He also recommends an annual mowing of the meadow in late fall and early spring.

The results of such efforts can be spectacular. Annual flowers such as poppies and catchfly dominate the first year'sview while the perennial plants establish themselves for future seasons. The annuals will reseed themselves, says Saunders, but will become fewer with each year. The perennial flowers like the black-eyed Susans, bright-orange butterfly weed and sunny coreopsis will come to dominate.

When his business started, Saunders lectured, advertised and convinced garden centers and hardware stores to offer his seeds. He has stopped most of these activities, he says, concentrating on mail orders.

Despite the lack of formal advertising since 1982, his volume of catalog business has kept nearly constant. For him, Native Seeds Inc. remains an enjoyable combination of hobby and family oriented enterprise.

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