Top Seeds Catalogs make the dreary days of January BTC bearable, and give gardeners their first hint of spring.

January 18, 1998|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Poet T.S. Eliot called April "the cruelest month," but I think he was wrong. It's got to be January.

It's cold, it's grim, the days are barely longer than a sneeze and the eggnog is gone. But there is one bright spot: The seed catalogs begin to arrive, offering lists of possibilities that hold out the promise of warmth, abundance and a living connection to the earth.

From the multi-hued riot of peppers on the front of the Seed Savers Exchange to the lush, hand-painted garden smorgasbord Shepherd's Garden Seeds, to the American Gothic woodcut on the cover of the Cook's Garden, the catalogs assure us that there is life after January.

While I never met a seed catalog I didn't like, the ones I generally order from belong to small companies whose personalized service feels like sharing between friends, and whose unusual, rare and heirloom varieties reward the labor you put into a garden with unique and flavorful produce.

Chris McDonnell of Seeds Blum (pronounced, appropriately, "bloom"), in Boise, Idaho, says one of the advantages of smaller companies like his is that we "offer varieties [the big companies] can't get, the things with little market niche that fall through the cracks."

Grandpa Ott's morning glory, a rich, purple climber, and Moon and Stars watermelon, with beautiful yellow markings on its rind, are examples of varieties that "fall through the cracks." (They are available through Seed Savers' Exchange.)

Seed savers

For many large companies, economics plays a big part in the question of whether to keep a given variety. But for the little guys, history, love of a variety and devotion to perpetuating it for the sake of biodiversity can be just as important as dollars. (Some estimate that between 75 percent and 90 percent of available gene stocks have disappeared since 1900.)

"There is a sense of mission," says McDonnell. Seeds Blum's mission began when company founder Jan Blum was given heirloom bean seeds by an 84-year old friend who had received the variety as a wedding present in the 1920s.

"This variety ripened very early and was good to eat shelled green," Blum says to explain the beginning of her "passion" for heirloom seed. "In four years' time, I was growing 800 kinds of beans and 400 kinds of tomatoes."

This attention to revival and perpetuation is shared by Ben Goldberg, owner of America's oldest seed house, Baltimore-based D. Landreth Seed Co. "People in the seed business are like partners with the Lord in distributing seeds," says Goldberg, 94.

D. Landreth Seed Co., founded in Philadelphia in 1784 by David Landreth, still sells seed for vegetables that were popular more than 200 years ago (hence, heirloom).

Landreth still lists heirloom staples like Batavian Broad Leaf endive, Blue Hubbard squash, which keeps forever and makes luscious breads and pies, Amber Globe turnip, and French Breakfast radish, a crisp, mild cylindrical radish that is a great hors d'oeuvre spread with a herbed Neufchatel cheese. All were on offer when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington ordered from Landreth in the late 1700s. (Their handwritten orders now reside in the Philadelphia Horticultural Society).

Goldberg, who bought the company from a Landreth descendant, had begun a grass-seed business with his brother in 1937, "but I always wanted to go into vegetables, too," he says. So, he acquired D. Landreth Seeds, which had an established name and a reputation for quality.

"Buying seeds must be a matter of confidence, because unlike clothes or tools, you can't see the product," Goldberg explains. Seed quality is evident only later -- in germination rate (the ratio of living plants produced to the amount of seed sown) and plant quality.

Renewable resource

Seed, designed to be the ultimate renewable resource, comes in two types -- open-pollinated and hybrid. Hybrids are often sterile and, when fertile, usually unreliable in reproducing the parent plant.

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, which means that the plants produce viable seed true to the parent, ensuring continuance of the species.

Usually, open-pollinated varieties are generous reseeders, coming up on their own if a fruit or seed pod has been left in the garden to complete its natural cycle. Last year, my best tomatoes were the Genovese Costoluto, a beautiful, fluted heirloom whose fruits are delicious either raw or cooked, that reseeded itself in the compost pile.

One of the charms of the smaller seed companies is their quirky individuality, reflected in their catalogs. Because expensive, glossy photos are often cost-prohibitive, catalogs take care with their prose. The descriptions of their offerings are informative glimpses into not only the variety, but the gardening lives and experiences of the people at the companies.

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