Happy Seed Year

“Happy New Year!” When I hear that, seeds come to mind. The new year’s first month is when I plan my garden, fueled by favorite seed catalogs.

In this month’s “Edible Garden” column for Edible Seattle magazine, I offer glimpses into my annual plunge into the seed catalogs. I’ve written about this before in a series on this blog as well–here’s the first one. I took my writing inspiration from Katherine White, whose “Onward and Upward in the Garden” is a funny, perceptive, classic read.

The arrival of colorful seed listings literally whets my appetite, and I dig into my canned veggies and winter garden when browsing the offerings. Sautéed kale pairs quite nicely with down-home Territorial Seeds, while pickled beets (my mother’s recipe) brightens even further the glossy Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Since Edible Seattle wouldn’t let me take over all their pages to wax poetic about seed companies, I’d like to offer links and comments on a number of favorite catalogs.

SSE's Prickly Caterpillar

Entry for Prickly Caterpillar in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Here are some of our stellar bioregional Pacific Northwest growers:

Adaptive Seeds — They seem to have a little of everything, including a number of tomato varieties unknown to me. Till now, that is.

Bountiful Gardens (a project of Ecology Action) — This is the seed catalog of the non-profit garden educators. Check out their collection of plants that will create habitat and food for beneficial insects, one of founder John Jeavons’ important messages.

Irish Eyes Garden Seeds — What started as potatoes (those Irish eyes!) and garlic has blossomed into a full seed company. But still, check out the spuds!

Kitizawa Seed Co. — They offer the broadest selection of Asian vegetable seeds, which means I can try two or three new mustard or choi varieties. Happy 100th anniversary to the Kitizawa family business!

Resilient Seeds (& Backyard Beans & Grains Project) — Resilient offers a curated list of legumes and grains that grow well in our climate. I’m excited to try their Overwintering Fava, which they say has more tender skin that eliminates the need to peel.

Territorial Seed Co. — The giant in our midst, this full-line vegetable seed company always has a couple of pages of new offerings, as well as nearly all your old favorites.

Uprising Seeds — One of my fave newer companies, Uprising offers a wide variety of seeds, including the Felder cabbage mentioned in my Edible Seattle article that’s going into my garden this year.

Victory Seeds — They focus on rare, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, a wonderful combination.

Wild Garden Seed — This treasure offers many “farm originals” that have been bred for our region. The catalog also includes an annual essay from Frank Morton, whose Wild Garden Kale mix has become a staple for me. It’s always interesting to see what he’ll come up with next.

 

And here are some valuable companies outside the Northwest:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — With the most amazing print catalog (a real work of art) and a penchant for quirkiness, this company also sells unusual heirloom seeds not found anywhere else.

Botanical Interests — The providers of my recently unearthed gigantic parsnip, this company has a full array of vegetable seeds, sold in beautiful packaging.

Fedco Seed Co. — This Maine-based company focuses on cold-hardy vegetables, which is a good angle for our maritime growing season.

High Mowing Organic Seeds — Serious about organics, this company provides high-quality seeds and sells to commercial growers as well. They grow much of their seed on a 40-acre farm, and have more than 40 new varieties for 2017.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds — Another Maine company, this one 100% employee-owned, was a pioneer nationally in garden seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange — This revered non-profit leads the heirloom seed movement and, through their extensive seed bank, offers thousands of little-known varieties. I urge gardeners everywhere to support this organization as well as to try some of their unique varieties.

I know this is not an exhaustive list (although a bit exhausting, when you pile up all the catalogs on your desk!). If you sell seeds to home gardeners and want to suggest I add you to the list, please contact me.

ps: If you’re crazy about seeds too, come to our Great Seattle Seed Swap at the King County Seed Lending Library. It’s the last Saturday in January in north Seatt.e

Perfect Fall Planting Weather

Your favorite nursery might have a large seed rack with notations like this one:

Seed rack

They also should have a number of starts of excellent brassicas, greens, leeks and other fall and winter vegetables.

Does that clue you in? Now is the perfect time to get many fall and winter vegetables in the ground.

I’ve just transplanted my Roodnerf Brussels sprouts starts, and I purchased a six-pack of Rubine sprouts for a little variety. I also have rapini — broccoli raab — going in, as well as kohlrabi and two types of kale. All those are starts that are 4-6 inches tall and have just a handful of leaves.

Right now you can start beets from seed, direct-sown in the soil. A few weeks ago I planted three types of beets, just a half-row of each. Then last weekend I filled out the row, while thinning the baby beets to wider spacing. I also added a handful of radishes, planted on a grid 4 inches apart.

Soon it will be time to plant overwintering carrots. My favorite variety is Merida, which you can see from the picture is available in stores. I want the carrots to get a few sets of leaves before winter, and then they’ll go into stasis surrounded by a nice mulch. In spring, they’ll shoot up and give me a very early, sweet and crisp harvest.

Brassicas, of course, are the star of our winter garden, and transplants of many types and varieties can be set out now. Sprouting broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and collards can go in.

Many greens can be planted now. How about a nice big batch of spinach? Make sure to amend the bed with lots of compost when seeding that in. Also sow Asian and European greens in succession for the next month to get a continual salad harvest up to Thanksgiving.

Vegetables Tell Stories

Have you ever had a big dinner with extended family, perhaps at Thanksgiving when all the nice dishes are brought out of the cupboard, and discussion has turned to the history of the antique serving bowl being passed around?

It’s the kind of hand-me-down that is accompanied by stories. In many families who have a tradition of growing their own food, they could have that discussion about what’s in the bowl as well. The edible antique in question will have come from heirloom seeds.SSE Catalog

The seed catalogs from companies who specialize in heirlooms are, to me, like a printed bit of Antiques Roadshow. When I flip open the lush cover of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ “Pure Seed Book,” I feel like I’m delving into the musty shelves in the back corner of an old general store. When I peruse the offerings from Seed Savers Exchange, I feel the extra tug of preservation, knowing that everything sold there is being conserved by the membership-based SSE.

 

Tragedy at Abundant Life

Nearly 10 years ago, when I first sprouted the idea of writing about heirloom vegetables, I didn’t know many of the stories. I just knew they were in trouble.

Throughout the 1990s I had been buying seeds from and making small annual donations to the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. Through their locally adapted seeds, which in the early days had been donated by home gardeners before being grown professionally on a larger scale, I had grown to love many of the reliable old vegetable varieties. But in August 2003, a catastrophic fire destroyed their offices and much of their seed collection.

In the aftermath, searching for another source for many of those beloved seeds, I realized how few people and organizations were actually working to preserve heirloom seeds, and felt the loss more deeply. I wanted to help bring heirlooms to a broader audience, and do what I could to enhance what little remains of our vegetable heritage.

That led to the publication of my 2009 book Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden, in which I tell the stories of heirlooms commonly grown in our region, and offer my tips on how to cultivate them.

In writing the book, I discovered that vegetables tell stories.

 

Growing TJ’s lettuce

For instance, Tennisball Black-seeded Lettuce, a small butterhead perfect for a single-serving salad, was beloved by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that it took less effort to grow in his Monticello garden than many other varieties. One year when I couldn’t find seed for that, I tried Tom Thumb, a crinkled-leaf variety that is very similar. It is an old English strain introduced to American gardeners in 1868.

Now when I stand on my garden path and look over the beds, history sprouts around me. I can thank an Italian immigrant’s mother for the amazing Jimmy Nardello Italian Sweet pepper, and the people of the Makah tribe for Anna Cheeka’s Ozette potato, and the Greeks who ended up in Portland, Oregon for the Greek Blue (today commonly called Spanish Roja) garlic.

Not only does this food tell stories, but it’s alive with history and the very elemental source of our country’s heritage. It literally fueled the people who built the United Sates.

 

Baker Creek celebrates

So open up the offering from Baker Creek, the Missouri company who recently expanded to the West Coast, with a “Seed Bank” now selling heirlooms out of a former bank building in downtown Petaluma, California, and an annual Heirloom Exposition in nearby Santa Rosa.

Gourds

Gourds in the Baker Creek Seed Company catalog

The catalog delivers lush close-up photos, sometimes bordering on the obsessive, of their many heirloom offerings. They are celebrating the form and beauty, nature’s artistry, that is too often lost when the supermarket produce stands are filled with bins of identical red tomatoes or stacks of one variety of the most marketable carrot.

What about Amarillo, thick tapers in pale peach, or Cosmic Purple which, when sliced open, reveals a glow reminiscent of a summer sunset? I don’t yet know what the flavor of those carrots will be, but I would lay odds that they will taste as unique as they look.

The Gettle family, who runs Baker Creek, seems to be on a mission to get me to try something new. I mean something old. Well, OK, old-new. It’s certainly a delightful discovery on every page.

 

Baker Creek Whimsy

The Baker Creek catalog offers some whimsy too, like this photo with the caption “Hubbard squash in a local Ozark jail.”

Seed Savers inspires

Seed Savers Exchange, whose catalog this year is coincidentally covered with a rainbow coalition of carrots, urges me to do something more than just grow my own. They want me to help them grow the movement. With the mandate of “Passing on our garden heritage,” this membership- and donation-fueled organization is having success in stemming the loss of old varieties that had happened for decades, and in some cases reclaiming what’s been lost.

Their Moon & Stars watermelon is the bulbous green poster child. Tales had been told of the large melon with dark green skin and large and small yellow blotches. Typically each fruit would have one large blotch (the moon) and a field of small blotches (the stars). The SSE founders wrote about such lost treasures in an article, and a Missouri farmer reading it realized he had that variety, passed down through the family. From that one source, seed was saved, given away, propagated, and eventually reintroduced to a number of catalogs.

It might not be one that everyone can grow in our maritime climate, but if you ever see Moon & Stars at a farmers market, give it a try. Its pale pink flesh is mildly sweet, extra juicy, and filled with lovely, spittable, black heirloom seeds.

New in their catalog for 2013 are Black Cherry tomato, which should do great in our climate, and Three Heart lettuce, another small butterhead that intrigues me.

This year I might try Sunset Runner, a runner bean with a salmon-pink flower, or I might stick with my favorite, Painted Lady, whose pink and white flowers were named after Queen Elizabeth I, whose subjects tagged her with that nickname when she appeared in public sporting a shocking new fashion for late-1500s England: makeup.

SSE's Prickly Caterpillar

Entry for Prickly Caterpillar in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Last year I tried Prickly Caterpillar from this catalog, and I need to give this another chance. It’s an unusual legume which produces pods that come out curled and spiky on a low-growing bed of greenery. We got yellow flowers out of a small plant last year, but no mature pods. They suggest you surprise your guests by putting the weird, edible pods in salads, which is the perfect reason to keep trying.

The SSE catalog tells of its preservation actions – hand-pollinating dozens of varieties of squash, for instance—and urges people to join, donate and take action by growing and sharing heirloom seeds. I concur. On a hopeful note for the future of seed, I will end my long, multi-post treatise on seed catalogs.

 

Sharing the bounty

Our annual seed exchange and seed ordering party is scheduled for this Thursday, and it’s looking like a good turnout.

Nearly a dozen of us will crowd around the dining room table, with our catalogs and seed boxes in front of us, and talk about vegetables we love, or ones we want to try. We’ll share what we have from previous years, and go through each catalog to find the varieties we want to grow this year. We’ll then place a collective order to each of our chosen catalogs, and when the seeds arrive, we’ll meet again to split them up.

Often, four or five people will share one packet, giving us just enough seed to use in our gardens this year. That’s OK, we might want to try a different variety next year, which the thrifty group-buying effort makes as easy as pie.

 

Peering Over the Fence

The rough-hewn wood of a wide field gate shields a broad garden of gently sloping rows ready for planting. Beyond are border herb and flower beds, white fence posts against a dark, protective tree line, and a beautiful sunrise peeking over the scene. The rays light up a skiff of clouds, painting the edges in peach against a pale blue sky.

SoC Catalog

Detail from the Seeds of Change catalog.

It could be my dream garden. It’s also the cover image of the Seeds of Change catalog, my next stop on the armchair gardening tour that I’ve been doing this month.

These wily seed marketers, they know what I pine for. My little urban vegetable plots look nothing like this rural paradise, but in my mind I’m out there like my farmer father, in silver striped bib overalls, ploughing the back forty. (Yes, I used the old spelling of plowing deliberately, to stick with the nostalgia.)

I applaud the efforts of the catalog marketing team, because this is what I want in frigid January, when I am stuck looking at the frost-covered cloche and brassicas from my living room window.

As with some of my other favorite catalogs, I have a bit of personal history with Seeds of Change. I visited their trial farm when it was north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, while researching my book Edible Heirlooms. They had a great collection of heirloom tomatoes and peppers, surviving by ditch irrigation in the arid valley. The company has since moved to California, but I don’t hold that against them, any more than the fact that they got bought up years ago by a large corporation. They’re still doing good work, selling certified organic seeds and supporting the community of people who love to grow their own food.

Seeds of Change peppers

A field of peppers, each variety carefully marked, at the former Seeds of Change trial farm in arid northern New Mexico

It was their homegrown history that first attracted me. An entrepreneur named Kenny Ausubel, inspired by the history of seed-perpetuation and alarmed by the loss of biological diversity, founded the company in 1988. His story, along with others who helped build Seeds of Change into a resounding success — like the seedsman nicknamed “Mushroom” who is now in Oregon and the Bay Area chef Alice Waters — is recounted in his excellent book Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure (Harper San Francisco, 1994).

But, back to the catalog. In their welcome note, the writers assure us that “every time you tear open a pack of Seeds of Change seeds you are allowing wonder to take root,” and that is certainly true. A bit of wonder happens just when you hold one of their seed packets. They’re made of a slippery plastic material and have a zippered, reclosable top. And they are water-resistant. They say this innovative packaging is recyclable, takes less energy to produce, and will keep seed fresher because it’s hermetically sealed. I like the fact that I can zip it shut, rather than resort to the masking tape I use on most of my other opened seed packets.

But of course, it’s what comes in the packet that should interest us the most.

In standard catalog style, the SoC folks line up their offerings alphabetically, and I’m instantly bogged down in beans, another great crop for this southwestern company. Surprisingly, only two pages are on offer, but within are old and new delights.

Blue Lake is there, a standard for green snap beans. But there’s a pole version, Black-seeded Blue Lake, that I think I’ll circle instead. Harvesting pole beans is much easier, as you can easily see the ripe ones, instead of digging through the dense mound of bushy plants. I’ve never seen the bush bean Purple Dove before, but the long glossy pods are such a rich purple, they look worth a try, too.

I make a quick stop at the corn, wistfully eyeing the Mandan Red and Dakota Black that remind me of my childhood up on the northern Plains. Maybe someday I’ll have the space and season length to truly set some corn, but that’s not my cool-season focus now. Ditto with melons, their juicy sweetness always so tempting.

Peas! Now that’s my speed. And they’re offering Alaska this year. An old variety named for a steamship, not the state, it’s bred for the short seasons (thank you!) and pops out some shelling peas earlier than most. It’s a bit of a rarity, and I often opt for these old ones that only are offered sporadically.

As I mentioned, I’d trust SoC on the peppers, so maybe I’ll get a fresh batch of Jimmy Nardello seeds. This is a star, an Italian sweet pepper that is great when lightly grilled and draped over a burger.

On to the tomatoes. They offer up a number of short-season varieties familiar to Northwest gardeners: Stupice (which my friend of Czech descent said should be pronounced stew-PEE-chay), Costoluto Genevese, Oregon Spring (of which, unlike so many, I am not a fan), Cherokee Purple, Black Plum, and one I haven’t tried but should: Northern Delight.

Seeds of Change tomatoes

Tomatoes for evaluation at the Seeds of Change trial farm.

In the listings for cherry tomatoes, which are the most reliable in our sometimes cool summers, they show Chadwick’s, one of my go-to choices because of its large size and wonderful big-tomato flavor. Thank you again, Alan Chadwick.

One — or rather two — final entries grab me: Red Pear and Yellow Pear. No, I haven’t flipped to the tree fruit section. These are some of the earliest tomato varieties recorded in the U.S. Many people are familiar with Yellow Pear, which visually lives up to its name and is a reliable, but sometimes not heavy, producer in a cool-season climate. And SoC is offering Fargo Yellow Pear, another nod to my homeland. OK, check. But the other one is a pear of a different color.

When I was researching Edible Heirlooms, I greatly enjoyed the classic book by Fearing Burr Jr. (and his classic name as well) called The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. First published in 1863, this was the first compendium of the broad range of vegetables being grown in the U.S. However, even though Thomas Jefferson had been championing the tomato a half-century before, this was the earliest book in which I could find tomato listings. Even here, they’re lumped under Miscellanous Vegetables at the very back of the 600-page tome.

Among Burr’s 21 varieties is the Fig-Tomato, which is described as “a small, red, pyriform or pear-shaped sort, measuring from an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half in length and nearly an inch in is broadest diameter. [Fearing was precise!] Flesh pale-red, or pink, very solid and compact, and generally completely filling the centre of the fruit.” He goes on to include a recipe for “tomato figs,” after which this little incher was named. Basically, you skin the tomatoes with scalding water, then preserve them in a sugary syrup.

But it’s literally the last entry in the book that got me excited about seeing Red Pear in the catalog.

Fearing’s entry for Yellow Pear-shaped Tomato notes that it is “a sub-variety of the Red Pear-shaped.” When I discovered that entry, I was delighted to think that our familiar Yellow Pear had such a long history. None of the other tomatoes in Burr’s book, I thought, are still being grown. And yet, I’ve always been curious about growing the Fig-Tomato, which could probably also be called Red Pear. Now here it is.

Guess it’s my year to make tomato figs.

 

Catalogical Growing

The year has begun with a series of slate-gray mornings and frosty nights. Even though the winter solstice is behind us, I still feel a bit boxed in by these short days, and a familiar sense of restlessness that comes from not spending enough time in my garden. As I gaze out at my streetlight-lit garden in the eventide, I decide that the only antidote is an armchair getaway. In a time like this, to garden catalogically has to suffice.

Cracking the spine on a newly arrived seed catalog provides nearly as much anticipation as a newly unwrapped Christmas book (and I commend to you Spokane writer Jess Walter’s sparkling novel Beautiful Ruins, by the way).

In my last post on this year’s crop of catalogs, I offered a glimpse into the bioregional offerings of Territorial Seeds. This time I’ll range a bit farther afield, to Missouri, California, and Japan.

Pages Sprout History

Kitazawa catalog entry

An entry from Kitazawa’s catalog.

Wait, Japan? Since that’s many acres beyond afield, let’s start with Kitazawa Seed Company, which offers 50 pages of vegetables that almost all fit perfectly into the plantings of a cool-season gardener.

With a catalog that is certainly the least colorful of its brethren, on cream paper with deep-forest green illustrations and type, Oakland, California-based Kitazawa specializes in Asian vegetable seeds. Its design is purposeful, an homage to the company’s founder, Gijiu Kitazawa, who began the firm in 1917 and, says a brief company history, sold his seeds “in the familiar manila packets with green ink that we use today.”

History provides a sad but also hopeful element to the 96-year-old Kitazawa company story, told briefly in the catalog. The founder created a thriving business selling seeds to Japanese-American farmers in California and Oregon, but when World War II shattered American psyches with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it fell apart. Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans living all along the West Coast were forcibly uprooted from their homes and relocated to internment camps to guard against the unproven idea that they would collaborate with our enemies in the war.

This historical aspect resonates with me, as I had the honor to work extensively with the Bainbridge Island author Mary Woodward and be her editor on a book about this situation, In Defense of Our Neighbors. I urge people to learn more about this shameful stripping of civil liberties from fellow citizens, to preserve the memory and keep it from ever happening again.

In many cases, people who were incarcerated in the camps lost everything—their homes, businesses, and personal possessions. But some went back and started over after the war, including the descendants of a local nurseryman, whose Harui family rejuvenated his Bainbridge Gardens, and Mr. Kitazawa.

Now to Recent Disasters

While the catalog proudly states that the company is nearly 100 years old, it certainly does not rest on its laurels, acknowledging it simply on a history page in the back of the book. Mostly, they want to entice you to buy their unique seeds.

But in a note up front, they take on a different bit of history, regarding two recent disasters of different magnitude: the 2012 voting-down of a California initiative on genetically engineered foods, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the area of Fukushima, Japan.

Last year, Proposition 37 asked California voters if they wanted to force food companies to label foods made with genetically engineered organisms. After an intense campaign, 5.6 million voters said yes, but unfortunately 6.1 million voters said no. Kitazawa brings this up to assure readers that it “does not sell genetically modified seeds, and never will.” It further takes a stand, saying “the concern about genetically engineered foods is bound to remain a political issue, because the consumer should have a right to know what we are eating.”

Discussion of the Tohoku earthquake, which so devastated a prime agricultural region on Japan’s Pacific coast and caused the dangerous destruction of a nuclear power plant, is broached because the company is often asked if they sell radioactive contaminated seeds. “Absolutely not,” it declares. “Fukushima agricultural products are quarantined,” and incoming Japanese cargo is closely inspected by U.S. authorities. Plus, many of their seeds, although traditional Japanese varieties, are grown here on the West Coast of the U.S.

Well, it is fascinating to delve into the stories and history both far and near, but my intention is to rave about the many treats that await gardeners who purchase seeds from this fine company. So matte kudasai, wait just a minute, and let me share a few of my Asian favorites, and commend to you the website where you can order your own catalog for further pursuit.

Dento yasai

Many of Kitazawa’s offerings are heirloom seeds, known as dento yasai, or traditional varieties of Japan. That fact caused me to seek and appreciate their guidance when I wrote my book Edible Heirlooms, and I continue to grow their varieties featured in that book:

  • Kalian, a tender Chinese kale, offers up mild flower buds and pale green leaves on succulent stalks.
  • Mizuna provides a feathery Medusa-head of spiky serrated leaves that pale almost to white at their base. The tangy green will spark up many a salad, but is only mildly hot, so it can be featured as a main ingredient in a simple salad if you prefer.
  • Pak Choi, also known as Chinese cabbage, comes in green- or white-stem types, and I’ve tried a half-dozen of them but prefer Tatsoi, which reliably produces a beautiful rosette of deep green, spoon-shaped leaves that are succulent and crunchy in a stir-fry.

    Miike Giant and Serifon

    Young leaves of Miike Giant broad-leaf mustard, left, and Serifon, a variety of Green-in-the-Snow mustard. These grow great in cool seasons, and are hardy through winter.

But how to choose my favorite mustard green?

The catalog offering runs to three pages, with a rainbow of green, golden, red, scarlet and purple choices. I will share the recommendation of my friend and gardening mentor Carl Elliott: Green-in-the-Snow. A variety called Serifon offers large, serrated leaves that will fire up your tongue with a mustardy tingle. A handful will nicely spice up a dish of sautéed greens.

My favorite, though, has to be Miike Giant, a mild but pungent broad-leaf mustard with reddish veins and a red blush around the gentle leaf margins. I have yet to try this in pickling, which is its most common use in Japan, but I love it in salads.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kitazawa’s “Chef Specialty Garden” collections. These are 12 combinations of their offerings that provide seven seed packets in a theme.

If you haven’t grown Asian vegetables before, try Asian Salad Garden or Japanese Heirloom Garden. Or try the Macrobiotic Garden, Thai Garden or Shabu Shabu Garden, where you will grow the foods used in a nabemono (hot pot) meal.

Well, I’ve done it again. With best intentions to power down through a half-inch of catalogs in the stack, I have instead just focused on one. But with its combination of history and specialization, I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth the pixels. Try it for yourself! Order a catalog, or download the PDF version, at www.kitazawaseed.com.

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