A century of making your gardens grow

Since 1909, Meyer Seed Co. has nurtured verdant visions

Maryland Journal

March 13, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

On the last few days before winter gives way to spring, the gardeners come here, employees say, just to walk the aisles of seeds and watering cans and breathe in the smells of soil and fertilizer.

This time of year, Meyer Seed Co. in Fells Point - a Baltimore mainstay for almost a century - is a promise of warm weather and home-grown garden treats. The small showroom on South Caroline Street is filled with colorful seed packets of vegetables as familiar as tomatoes and flowers as exotic as portulaca.

"Everybody wants a pick-me-up after all of the short days," says John Kozenski, a Meyer salesman for 18 years.

It's the busiest time of year for the seed company. Customers are coming in at a steady pace to pick up fertilizers and early plantings, vegetables like peppers and celery. Kozenski and sales associate Loretta Hubbard are dispensing advice about what crops work best.

Serious gardeners are already preparing their first plantings by sprinkling seeds in starter trays and peat pots that germinate under indoor lights until Maryland's last frost, usually in late April. Then the plants will be transferred to outdoor gardens and more seeds will be tilled into the ground.

Crops, with any luck, will soon follow.

Longtime customer Domenico Germano stopped in last week to grab a few bags of peas and corn for his garden. The dried corn kernels look like unpopped popcorn.

Meyer's showroom is a no-frills kind of place with three aisles of garden products.

Bird feeders hang from the ceiling, and the requisite lawn ornaments - mostly plastic ducks and frogs - line the top shelves. Free Farmer's Almanacs are strewn about the countertop. A wooden wind chime rattles whenever a customer comes in the door.

Behind the counter, a hallway leads to a cavernous storage area where bulk seeds are mixed and sorted and garden tools and products are packaged for shipment.

"This is the heart of the business," says owner Webster Hurst Jr. as he gives a tour.

The company, which employs about two dozen people, does most of its business from back here. It supplies retail shops and fills mail-order requests in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Customer Jim Schillinger, the fourth-generation owner of Papa John's farm and greenhouses in Severn, says Meyer has been one of his company's biggest suppliers at least since he was a little boy. He's 46.

"They're just good, honest people to deal with," Schillinger says.

Meyer Seed Co. is a bit of a misnomer - it has long been owned by the Hurst family. John F. Meyer opened the business in 1909 on Light Street, and Webster Hurst Sr. purchased it in the 1930s.

The company moved to Charles and Lombard streets and then, in 1969, to the 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Fells Point where it's still located.

Webster Hurst Jr., 81, has been with Meyer since 1946. He co-owns it with his son, Harry Hurst, 54.

The Hursts are involved in even the minor tasks of running a business, like opening the mail and answering the phone. "We've got marquis and shamrock," Harry Hurst tells a customer over the phone, referring to grass seed, "but no limousine."

With the exception of stocking a few newish items like organic fertilizers, Harry Hurst says the company really isn't all that different than it was when he started working there as a high school student.

"The product mix has changed," Harry Hurst says, "but the basics haven't really changed at all."

But things are changing all around them.

The once-desolate part of the city between the Inner Harbor and Broadway in Fells Point is now abuzz with construction.

Chic urban businesses - like Spa Sante and Pazo, a tapas restaurant and bar - are sprouting right around the corner from Meyer. All of the development, the Hursts say, has made customer parking challenging.

But the family says it has no plans to move. "We're comfortable where we are," Harry Hurst says.

Their customers have changed, too. Commercial farmers were much more common a few decades ago but employees now see young city dwellers coming in for seeds for rooftop gardens.

One rooftop gardener had cabbages growing out of a 5-gallon bucket, Kozenski says.

Urban dwellers also pick up seeds from Meyer for "city farms," a program run by the Department of Recreation and Parks. Residents can rent a 10-foot-by-15-foot plot at major city parks, such as Patterson or Druid Hill, and plant a garden.

Meyer also is involved with the Living Classrooms program, which also is based in Fells Point. Children have painted several colorful murals on the otherwise drab Meyer warehouse, and Meyer provides them with seeds for their garden projects.

Out front in the showroom, Kozenski weighs sugar snap peas and waves to customers.

"Sometimes I know them by name," he says of the customers. "But usually I know them by what they order."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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