Producing Good Garden Seeds

A look at the historical seed companies that planted America’s herb, flower, and vegetable gardens.

| Winter 2018

  • Cilantro seeds ready to be sowed into the garden soil.
    Photo by Getty Images/temmuzcan
  • Purple opium poppies blooming in the garden.
    Photo by Getty Images/pcturner71
  • Herb seeds started indoors, ready to be transplanted outdoors.
    Photo by Getty Images/KMNPhoto
  • Garden seeds in packets on a shelf, ready for purchase.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • Corn ready to be harvested from the garden.
    Photo by Getty Images/Nungning20

Imagine what your garden might look like if you couldn’t go to the store for packets of seeds, or flip through a catalog filled with seeds from across the globe. Imagine the only things you could plant were whatever you managed to save last year, or what your neighbor had shared with you. Now, imagine if that garden, planted with whatever seeds you could get, was your main source of food for the year.

It might have contained two kinds of beans, one string bean and one for shelling dried beans – or maybe only one kind for both. You may have been able to raise two peppers, one hot and one sweet – as long as the seeds your cousin Back East sent sprouted for you. You could plant plenty of red-kernel Indian corn that came from the Native village a day’s hike away. That would cover roasting ears, cornmeal, and chicken scratch, and maybe some fodder for the milk cow. Forget about tomatoes, though, because they might be poisonous, so it would be better not to risk it. That left cabbage, turnips, onions, and possibly potatoes – one variety, or maybe two, of each.

That was the state of most colonial and frontier gardens. The list of plants grown would also change from place to place. One region might replace turnips with rutabagas, while another would raise red onions instead of yellow. Some communities feared tomatoes, while others relied on them. In all cases, though, variety was a luxury that was unheard of.

The situation quickly worsened with the Revolution. What seed there was for sale was imported largely from England. With the colonies in rebellion, that source dried up with the first shots fired.

America needed to find a way to supply its own garden seeds, along with nearly every other commodity. The seed solution soon came in the form of privately owned seed houses, and the communally owned operations of one famous religious order.

Early Seedsmen & Companies

David Landreth is considered by many to be the first private American seedsman. Landreth left England for the New World in 1780, with plans of selling seeds in Mon-treal. By 1783, harsh Canadian winters had driven him south to Philadelphia, where his seed house, the D. Landreth Seed Co., supplied gardeners in the city and surrounding farmlands.

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