Gardening lovers will dig Landreth Seed Co.

April 16, 2005|By ROB KASPER

I AM A SUCKER for seeds. Shake a packet of heirloom tomato seeds in my direction, and I swoon. Like a lot of people who dig in the dirt, I am especially susceptible on gorgeous spring days, the kind we've had lately. As soon as the soil is tillable, I am vulnerable to going on a seed bender.

Such was the setting this week when I found myself at D. Landreth Seed Co., the oldest seed house in the country, now in an industrial park near the tangle of North Point Road and Erdman and Quad avenues in East Baltimore. A brick building at 650 N. North Point Road, distinguished primarily by a sign reading "Truckers Don't Block the Driveway," turned out to hold a treasure trove of 750 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb and grass seeds, many of them vintage.

Soon I was walking down the aisles with Landreth's Gordon McNamara, eyeing seed packet labels emblazoned with images of luscious tomatoes, heads of crisp lettuce the size of tennis balls, crunchy beer-companionable radishes. I kept saying, "Gimme one of those," and "I'll take two of those." Before you could measure a pH level, I had more seeds than sense.

Gardening is a way to connect to the past; when you spend your days working the dirt, the expression dust to dust takes on deeper meaning. This seed house is not older than dirt, but it comes pretty close to it. It has been in business since 1784, starting first in Bristol, Pa., outside Philadelphia, branching into Atlanta, then landing in Baltimore in the late 1960s, first on Wilmarco Avenue and later at Ostend and Leadenhall streets. It was presided over by Ben Goldberg, who died in 1999 at age 95. Peter and Barbara Melera bought the business a year and half ago from Goldberg's son and moved it to a spacious, if industrial, locale on North Point Road.

The Landreth company has a distinguished history. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were early customers. The Landreth family founded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The seed house introduced the zinnia and the white potato to the United States.

I, of course, had never heard of it. I found out about it in typical Baltimore style: A neighbor clued me in. Ewlin Guild, the overseer of the community garden in Druid Hill Park where we both grovel in the dirt, dropped a D. Landreth catalog in my vestibule. A few days later, I was bouncing over to East Baltimore.

Naked seeds are boring; they come from farms and get gorgeous when they are packaged at seed houses like Landreth. Packaging can be inciting. This became apparent to me as I ogled the vegetable packets during my seed house tour. Soon I was snapping up packets of Moon and Stars Watermelon, Lemon Cucumbers, a stubby carrot called Tonda Di Parigi and enough types of lettuce to start a truck farm. I was so taken with the exotic looks of a Thai eggplant, with fruit resembling green peas, that I took two packets.

Some of the packets were decorated with vintage artwork, and some of the seeds sported old family ties. The Boothby's Blonde cucumber, for instance, has been cultivated by the Maine Boothby clan for generations. I felt I had to give it a try, for the sake of history, and on the outside chance that the cucumber beetles of Maryland would not devour it.

Barb Melera, a graduate of Dulaney High School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described her seed house as "a small business that caters to other small businesses." She said that a number of the area's independent hardware stores - Stromer's on Pratt Street, Green's on West Lafayette, Pikesville Hardware on Reisterstown Road, Schneider's on Wyndhurst Avenue and the Houston Garden Center on York Road in Cockeysville - carry their seeds. She and her staff do take orders on their Web site (, and from handwritten notes from longtime customers, which sometimes requires calling them back to decipher the handwriting. They don't sell in box stores, Melera said, explaining it is not their niche. They plan to sell seeds and some seedlings at the Towsontown Spring Festival on April 30 and May l, the Baltimore Flower Mart on May 18, and at a sidewalk sale May 21 and 22 in front of their North Point Road building. They do handle some walk-in trade at their office, but suggest that customers call in advance (410-325-2045).

I had to admit that when Landreth's Lisa Heinstadt tallied up my seed bill, I was taken aback. I had amassed 25 packets of seed plus two types of asparagus roots. The precise amount I spent is a secret; I don't plan to tell my wife. (There is also the question of whether I am going to totally rely on seeds to start the garden. Probably not. That means shelling out even more money, in a few weeks, for seedlings, small plants that somebody else has grown from seed.)

But I will say that my seed spending spree upholds the creed of the weekend digger: Moderation in all things, except gardening.

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