Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oldies But Goodies

So it’s time to buy your seeds! Nevermind that it’s 20 degrees outside and gray and miserable and the ground is solid as a rock. It’s time to dream of spring! If your house is like mine, seed catalogs have been pouring in since just after Thanksgiving. (actually this year that’s not happening because I’ve canceled almost all my catalogs except the one I actually order from). Have you spent any time reading the descriptions? “Incredible flavor, tender, brilliant color, delectable, a must-have for the home garden!” Each vegetable sounds better than the last. It’s hard to resist and very easy to get carried away. Growing your own vegetables should save you money unless you succumb to the marketing department’s copy writers and buy every seed available.

If you’re ready to start your garden (even if it’s just a pot or a window box this year), think about what you really, really, really want to grow. What costs you the most at the market? What can never taste as good as home grown? Prioritize your space by these questions. I stopped growing broccoli last year because it took up so much space and I found a local grower whose broccoli was just as good as mine and not crazy expensive. I gave that extra space to two new types of tomatoes. If you love tomatoes you must grow tomatoes. No store-bought or even roadside stand-bought tomato tastes as good as the one you can grow in your own yard. So think about the space you have and what you most love to eat fresh. Start there. This is a great opportunity to get your kids involved. Maybe if they read the descriptions they’ll just have to try a “vibrant richly flavored, bright purple delight” disguised as a radish.

So it’s time to buy your seeds. This is where I make my case for choosing heirloom seeds. I have my reasons for choosing heirloom, but I thought I’d find out what the oldest heirloom seedhouse in US says is the reason to buy heirlooms. Luckily, calling the oldest heirloom seedhouse in the US is a local call for me. Landreth Seed Company is located in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. David Landreth started selling seeds in Pennsylvania in 1784. So I think they could be considered the foremost experts in heirloom seeds and lucky for me they’re just up the road. I didn’t want to give myself away as one of the faithful, so I called the company on the phone. I wanted to hear the whole pitch just as it would be given to a nonbeliever. And I got it. As soon as the phone was answered, I launched right in to my skeptical, “What makes an heirloom seed so great?” routine. The woman who answered the phone didn’t skip a beat or take offense. I’m guessing she gets this question a lot. Here are the three reasons for buying heirloom seeds she succinctly and forcefully explained to the skeptic on the phone:

1) Heirlooms are at least 50 years old. These seeds have been around and they’ll be around. Unlike those hybrid seedless tomatoes that made their debut last year and will be gone when the next new thing seed comes along. (so if you just love accordion tomatoes like I do, you can count on being able to still find those seeds when your grandkids are starting their gardens)

2) Heirlooms have more intense flavors than hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds have sacrificed flavor for storage capacity and other surface qualities like color or the ability to last longer on the vine or produce a gazillion fruits. They have been bred and kept simply for their flavor. (simply put – heirlooms taste better. And I’m here to tell you this is absolutely true.)

3) Heirlooms have been successfully grown in all kinds of conditions in all kinds of locales for decades or centuries. This means they are survivors. They are hardier than hybrid plants. (and this you want, especially if you’re a first time gardener or a no-maintenance gardener like I am)

And here’s the fourth reason. She said she was going to give me three reasons, but then she threw in the fourth for free:
4) You can save the seeds of your heirlooms and plant them again and again or swap them with your friends. The seeds of a hybrid or commercially grown seed may not even germinate and if they do there’s no telling what you’ll get.

So thanks to Landreth for saying what I was going to say but saying it with much more history and authority. You can buy your own heirloom seeds from Landreth even if you aren’t local by shopping online at But if I were you, I’d request a catalog. This year’s catalog is one of the best ever. It’s filled with beautiful pages from some of their catalogs from the last two centuries. (note the picture above) Call them at 1-800-654-2407.

Remember that when you’re ordering seeds, you need to pay attention to how many seeds are in each packet. Whereas it’s helpful to have plenty of pea seeds, you probably only need a handful of tomato seeds. You can always split your seed order with a friend so you don’t waste seeds. If you buy heirlooms and you like what you grow, save the seeds from your plant for the next year.

I’m headed out to get my own seeds this week. It’ll be time to start some next week. Look for a post on seed-starting this Tuesday.


  1. i guess i should walk across the street and visit them! My sister and her husband are avid gardeners and have lots of space - great idea for a birthday present.
    Thanks, Cara.

  2. It's kind of fun though to plant hybrids and see what you get. One year we had about a hundred gourds and one pumkin all from the same vine. Weird.