Producing Good Garden Seeds

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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 Montreal. 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.

Before long, Landreth made quite a name for himself. He was reputed to have supplied George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph with seeds. In his lifetime, he introduced Mexican zinnias, Osage orange hedges vital for cattle-proof living fences, and the first truly white Irish potato to American gardens, along with the first Japanese plants and shrubs, courtesy of Commodore Perry.

The D. Landreth Seed Co. was soon joined by other, city-based seed houses, such as the Wethersfield Seed Gardens, now Comstock Ferre in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Each company served a relatively small region, thanks to limited transportation, and had little or no pressure from competitors. This isolation also meant the early seed houses could not service homesteaders on the “howling wilderness” of the frontier.

That need would be filled by a different source. Just two years before the American Revolution touched off, a small communal Christian sect left England for America’s promise of religious freedom. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as Shakers, pursued a simple life, attention to detail, and perfection in all they did. “Shaker Made” came to mean the highest quality possible, a standard that still holds true today. Shaker Seed Companies would forever change how garden seed is sold.

By the 1790s, several Shaker communities had begun selling seed to neighboring communities as a way to support themselves financially. While many private seed houses were really seed dealers, buying and selling seed grown by others, the Shaker Seed Companies – most Shaker communities had one – grew their own seed. Melon and tomato seed were notable exceptions, at least at first. The purchase of lesser-quality tomato seed led to an official church ruling that all seed possible be grown by the Shakers. Melons, specifically, remained the exception to the rule.

Shakers took their seed where other seed houses couldn’t: to small rural communities and the frontier, where fresh seed was most desperately needed. Shaker peddlers traveled great distances to deliver seed display boxes to mercantile and general stores well outside the reach of urban companies, along with medicines, furniture, plants, and other Shaker products. They traveled their circuits twice a year, delivering their goods on consignment in the early spring, and returning to settle accounts and retrieve unsold merchandise each fall.

The innovation that drove this system would change the face of seed sales forever, and is an industry standard to this day – the paper seed packet. Before seed packets, seed was sold in bulk, packaged in cloth bags. Bags carried no information about the seeds they held, and were less than ideal for small amounts of fine seeds, like carrots, lettuce, or opium poppies – a vital medicinal crop at the time.

Paper envelopes were perfect for holding seed. Air could pass through paper, but seeds could not. Paper packets stayed drier longer than cloth, they could be displayed handsomely in a countertop box, they securely held smaller amounts of seed to minimize waste, and they were their own label, which avoided confusion at planting time.

Early Shaker packets were hand-cut from plain brown paper, folded, glued, and labeled by hand, often with just the variety, society or community of origin, and possibly the grower’s initials. Shaker seedsmen made different sizes, including sizes for beans, beets, onion, and lettuce, and two sizes for cucumber. Later refinements included block printing, and machine-cut and folded packets.

The “Shaker Made” reputation extended to their seeds, setting high industry standards for years to come. By the Civil War, however, the Shaker Seed Companies had begun to decline. This was due, in part, to the inevitable dwindling of the celibate Shaker Societies, but also to increased competition from private seed houses. In their time, the Shaker Seed Companies provided rural American gardens with a variety of high-quality seeds and plants when no one else could. The last Shaker Seed Company ceased sales in 1919, while others had closed by the 1890s.

As America’s roads and postal service improved and stretched west, commercial seed companies expanded with them. “Many pioneering seed houses, such as the Oscar H. Will & Co. of Bismarck, Dakota Territory, made regional agriculture possible, and a food garden in every backyard probable, in the expanding American frontier. And that the varieties they developed or germ plasm they put into commerce are still in use is testament to the importance of their work,” says Hank Will, great-grandson of Oscar Will and editor-in-chief of Mother Earth News magazine (our sister publication).

Seed companies could now reach more customers farther afield by leveraging the mail-order potential of the postal service. While mail-order could reach more customers, it also created new competition, as well as the problem of how to advertise effectively. Where seed companies could once rely on simple lists of available seed varieties, posted in newspapers, handbills, and broadside posters, they now needed a new way to capture potential customers’ eyes and business. That new way would become another staple of modern gardening: the seed catalog.

Catalogs & Seed Varieties

Catalog entries always featured the biggest, brightest, and best flowers and vegetables possible, usually stretching belief almost to the breaking point. The advent of first lithography, then chromolithography, and finally, color photography, only increased the eye appeal and temptation that catalogs could offer. It also fueled the advertising “arms race” between seed houses.

Flashy catalogs could only do so much to catch attention, however. Each seed house needed exciting new varieties to offer their customers as well. This created a new arms race to create them. One of the more famous plant breeders of the day, Luther Burbank, worked closely with W. Atlee Burpee to breed the Next Great Variety. The stakes were high, as anyone could simply buy a packet of the “latest and greatest” and use it to plant a new seed crop for sale. Breeders could only expect to get one year, or possibly two, of market advantage before the competition caught up to them. Burpee even went so far as to buy land in Southern California, where he could cram an extra “season” into the growing year, getting a leg up on his competition.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, gar-deners continued to save seed from their best crops, in addition to purchasing new seed. In the 1920s, that began to change, with the refining of a new type of plant breeding, called hybrid seed.

Hybrid Seed

Before hybridization, plant breeding required patience, careful observation, and more than a little luck. Breeders would scour fields of a variety, searching for individuals showing interesting new characteristics, such as slow-bolting lettuce, white marigolds, or non-bitter cucumbers. They would mark the plant, save seed from it, and hope the offspring would also have those desirable characteristics. Then the potential new variety would be trial-grown for several generations to make certain it was stable and didn’t have other fatal new traits. Burpee’s extra seasons were a decided edge in the seed development race.

Traditional breeding methods involved using similar parents to produce similar offspring. Hybrid breeders discovered they could cross dissimilar, highly inbred parents, each with one or two desirable traits, to produce a new and unique hybrid of the two. Hybrid offspring tended to be stronger than their parents, more resistant to diseases, more vigorous, and were reliable in their traits.

There was a catch, though, that one of the seed houses quickly leveraged to their advantage: seed from hybrid crops no longer bred true. The next generation would be wildly variable, and usually mediocre at best. If they were planting hybrids, customers could no longer save seed from their best plants. Seedsmen suddenly had the perfect protection for their hot new crops, and they had guaranteed repeat business, season after season.

No one seemed to mind. Hybrids were hot. They would “feed the world.” They quickly took over the catalog pages, edging out older, open-pollinated varieties. By the 1940s, few open-pollinated seeds could be found anywhere.

Many gardeners considered that the price of progress, and one they were more than willing to pay. A few, however, noticed the old varieties fading away and grew concerned, recognizing the loss of a genetic treasure trove. They knew that hybrids were bred from open-pollinated varieties, and if no one maintained the old varieties, they had to wonder where new hybrids would come from. Thus began what could be called an “heirloom renaissance” in the seed industry.

Heirloom Seeds

It was a slow rebirth. The term “heirloom seed” was first used in print in 1948, by an enterprising young seedsman named Billy Hepler, who was 16 years old. He had borrowed the term from his father, a plant breeder and botanist with the University of New Hampshire.

Although Hepler was an heirloom success by 1950, the efforts to save older varieties remained a largely grass-roots effort of trading and sharing for many years. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), the flagship of the heirloom seed movement, was formed in 1975, around a tomato and a morning glory, both family heirlooms from Bavaria. Through the years, SSE has maintained a collection of heirloom seeds, which has grown into thousands of varieties, and a worldwide membership. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that they would offer a catalog of heirloom flowers, vegetables, and herbs to the general public.

Heirloom seeds have created such a vast market that many new seed companies have risen to fill the demand. Some are small, regional houses with a narrow focus, like Landis Valley Museum’s Heirloom Seed Project, which sells Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom varieties exclusively. Others are anything but small. Their passion for preserving open-pollinated varieties is just as strong. Baker Creek’s Emilee Gettle says, “One of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s missions is to be a bridge that connects our diverse agricultural inheritance to our modern lifestyle by incorporating flavors our ancestors relished in today’s cuisine.”

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the popularity of heirlooms, catalogs once filled exclusively with hybrids now excitedly offer both hybrid and heirloom seeds, in equal measure.

Get Ready for the Season

The seed catalogs will be here soon, followed by seed racks at the hardware, home-improvement, and grocery stores. They’ll be offering a mind-blowing spread of vegetables, herbs, and flowers from across the world. Whether you think tomatoes are round and red, or that they can be any shape and color, there’s a seed company for you. You can try growing Asian yard-long beans or shell beans first discovered in the stomach of a wild goose, light green serpentine cucumbers from Armenia, or yellow lemon-shaped ones from the American South, all thanks to seed companies. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer hybrids, heirlooms, or a combination of both, you can find the seeds you want to grow.

As you thumb through your overflowing stash of seed packets (yes, every gardener has one!), imagine what it would look like if there were no seed companies offering packets of your favorite herbs, veggies, and flowers to fill your garden. Our gardens – and our lives – would be far poorer without them.