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This Way Madness Lies

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In 20 years in the vegetable garden, I've learned that one of the biggest determinants of success is the variety.  Different varieties of the same vegetable range almost unbelievably in terms of hardiness and flavor.  And catalogs can only offer the crudest guide to what to plant. 

For example, I don't care how much the catalogs rave about the flavor of 'Brandywine' tomatoes.  Except in the hottest and driest year, 'Brandywines' taste like nothing much when they are grown in my boggy, cold garden.  Other tomatoes, on the other hand, are total stars for me.

As a result, I seem to buy more seed every year, because I have to have the varieties that have really proven themselves in my yard…and yet feel compelled to keep experimenting, too, trekking on towards some vegetable Shangri-La. 

So I don't know why I've never done it before, but this year, I finally sent in my $40 and became a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa-based not-for-profit dedicated to saving disappearing heirloom seed varieties.

There are many excellent reasons for the civic-minded to support this group, but there are also excellent reasons for variety connoisseurs to hop to it, namely the "Seed Savers 2010 Yearbook," in which Listed Members (I suspect this is like being a Made Man in the mob) offer 13,571 unique varieties to the general membership.

I could easily quit my job and give away my kids in order to order my vegetable seeds from the Yearbook, one kind at a time, each from a different grower.  But I'll have to exercise some self-discipline and concentrate on essentials.  For example, as tends to happen with me, I ate all my seed stock of a soup pea called 'Amplissimo Viktoria' that I really like for hummus.  I can only find it available commercially from Fedco Seeds.  In 2009, Fedco had a crop failure.  This year, Fedco only had limited stock.  By the time I ordered my seeds in early January, it was sold out of 'Amplissimo.' 

But my Seed Savers Yearbook lists one grower for 'Amplissimo Viktoria' and three for 'Amplissimo Viktoria Ukrainskaya.'  They include somebody in Vermont, whose growing conditions are likely to be similar to my own.

And, like the sprightly Fedco catalog, the Seed Savers Yearbook includes some really fun writing.  Check out this kale listing from Andrew Still of the Seed Ambassadors Project, an Oregon group dedicated to "collecting and disseminating biodiversity":

Extremist Agreements has a crossed-up, diverse genepool mix of napus kales: Red Ursa, White Russian, Dwarf Siberian and Delaway…as many plant breeders suggest, we have taken all the extremists and put them in a room together in order to see what kind of agreement they come up with, hopefully some new and exciting rearrangements of traits and nothing but tasty hardy kale.

Taking all the extremists and locking them in a room…kind of describes my garden.

Or how about a variety of horseradish called 'Old Hobo,' listed by another grower and described this way, "from my great grandpa, who got it from a real railroad hobo back in 1906 or earlier from the C&O railroad tracks in front of our farm."

I know that Garden Rant readers mostly spend their weeks reading Tolstoy, but me, I like to fall asleep wondering what that hobo was doing carrying horseradish root in his pocket.  Was he a ridiculous optimist just certain that somewhere in the next town was somebody who'd spring for a steak?  And he'd be ready.

Posted by on February 19, 2010 at 4:22 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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14 responses to “This Way Madness Lies”

  1. Seed Catalogs are essential to Soul Conservation. Au contraire, this way SANITY lies! I would like to be a luddite in my praise of PAPER (100% postconsumer of course) seed & bulb catalogs and their arrival during the depths of winter.
    There is nothing better for one’s soul conservation# than perusing a seed catalog in a long hot bath in winter. No offense, but typing or mousing or trackpadding about doesn’t have the same soothing, hopeful effect. Sketching landscape design on paper is also much different for the soul of the designer (and possibly the client) than on CAD, even fun CAD like SketchUp. When the brain researchers finish wiring Tibetan monks to look at their serene brain activity, they can set upon gardeners and readers of seed catalogs to map OUR rich, rowdy, hopeful, colourful brain waves. Enjoy!

  2. Jeff Ball says:

    Another program the directly addresses the need to connect the right variety to the right area of the country is the Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners Program run by Cornell’s County Extension department. It doesn’t cost anything. You go into their database with a variety you are interested in trying and you get dozens of reports on how it grows in many different parts of the country. Go to http://vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu/ and browse.

  3. John says:

    Down here in Raleigh NC there is an annual event each summer called “Tomatopallooza” where all the heirloom t’mater growers get together and taste test this years harvest. After attending for years you learn that each year is different, what grows well in one persons garden may not do so well in yours and that the same variety, from the same seed packet, grown by the same gardener in the same garden can taste different each year – weather plays a role.

  4. Susan says:

    I love the image of hope for the hobo- thinking someone was going to buy him a steak- beautiful writing!

  5. Eileen says:

    I agree with you about the Brandywine tomato. I was not impressed. Although, I will oventure out and try another type of heirloom tomato this year!

  6. sara says:

    Ahhhh!!! It’s the SeedSavers Yearbook! I am definitely glad I joined and have it in my possession, but I am not sure whether I feel more enabled by having it, or empowered. It definitely makes it possible to grow things for a reason, to support the cause of biodiversity, etc. Of course, I have tons of seeds from last year, and I visited the Baker Creek Seed Bank in Petaluma last time I went to Hunt & Behrens for chickenfeed, before the Yearbook came in the mail.

  7. Bryn says:

    Sadly, the writing in their standard catalog is not as entertaining. Nor, evidently, are a lot of varieties from the Yearbook represented in the catalog. No Extremist Agreements kale, no Hobo horseradish. No horseradish period in the catalog and only 3 varieties of kale with much more boring writing:

    “Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Low-growing plants are 12-15″ tall with a 20-35″ spread. Stands well and maintains its color. A light frost improves flavor and sweetness. High in vitamin A. 53-65 days from transplant.”

    While “stands well” has a certain ring of stag-like grandeur, it’s lacking in punch and verve. I shall now pout my lack of a Yearbook. And catalogs are the only thing preventing me from rushing out and planting scads of things sure to die in the last (certain) frost.

  8. commonweeder says:

    Sometimes I think the catalog descriptions are so seductive that we hardly notice the taste of the actually veggie when it appears on the table. Imagination triumphs.

  9. Michele Owens says:

    Bryn, you’ve put your finger on something. I never order from the Seed Savers Exchange commercial catalog, even though I am one of the world’s most profligate seed buyers. And it’s not just the boring writing. It’s the boring choice of varieties.

    Maybe the organization needs to lighten up and take a cue from its much livelier members.

  10. Laura Bell says:

    re: falling asleep dreaming about the hobo & his horseradish – my husband laughed at me a few nights back when he found me asleep in my chair surrounded by seed & garden supply catalogs, Peaceful Valley’s latest propped on my chin. Used to be it was Tolstoy … or at least a dime store novel. Now I fall asleep dreaming of seductive salad greens instead of revolution & romance.

  11. Old Kim says:

    Martha Stewart’s living garden edition was lame this year testing who care’s about those tomatoes.
    Garden Design I got today was colorfully to look at.

  12. Andrew Still says:

    Thanks for the props on the description for Extremist Agreements Kale.

    While not all of our descriptions are quite as interesting, you don’t have to be a member of the Seed Saver’s Exchange to get our seeds.

    Here at The Seed Ambassadors Project, we recently started a *real* seed company, called Adaptive Seeds. You can find many of our SSE varieties, and more, with photos at http://www.adaptiveseeds.com.

  13. Michele Owens says:

    Andrew, welcome! I will definitely check out adaptive seeds!

  14. Hoover says:

    My MIL planted some tomato seeds from 1988 and they all germinated! A different kind of heirloom. ;^)

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