Backyard Living: The Joy of Seed Catalogs

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Last year’s cornflowers in the background.

This piece is the newest installment in the “Backyard Living” column, an ongoing partnership between the Boiled Down Juice, ABOUT the River Valley magazine, A View from the Backroads and the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. 

Walking in the February snow I noticed a few volunteer cornflowers sprouting near last year’s flower bed. They’re notoriously hearty and once established reseed readily. Braving the wind and the cold of the late winter, they’ll likely be knee high by spring.

I stopped to brush back the snow from the zigzag leaves and dote on the tiny plants, imagining them tall and wiry with wispy, purple blooms. Equally enthralled by my discovery, my four year old son George plopped down beside me and announced that spring was finally here.

Compared to most gardeners, I’m still a novice, having only begun about a year before my twin sons were born. When they were tiny I’d lay them down on a blanket while I weeded and planted seedlings. When they got older I encouraged them to toddle around in the upturned beds, hoping they would develop an appreciation for the mysteries of dirt and its life giving properties.

I once attempted channelling their rough and tumble energy into weeding but quickly discovered this task requires adult discernment and a nuanced understanding of leaf shapes. Over the years we’ve learned about gardening together, and at four years old they know the basics of planting seeds and waiting for harvest.

Along the way I’ve taken every opportunity to talk to them about the endless metaphors of a garden—patience, observation, seasons. I’m not sure if my words mean much, but saying them out loud is rather cathartic for me, which I suppose is true for a great many of the things that come out of a parents’ mouth. Yet I know someday they’ll recall these gardening moments and I hope there is something in their memories that reminds them of the importance of at least striving for patience.

After spending months dreaming about spring, it’s time for us to start putting in our seed orders. And I know this year my sons are old enough to help make decisions about what we’re going to grow. Never mind the fact that I’ll have a newborn come spring and probably won’t have time for even the most basic gardening tasks. Nothing can keep me from growing at least a few seedlings.

Who can deny the magic of a mail order seed catalog? Filled with colorful photos of unique tomatoes and generations-old flowers, I love to flip through the glossy pages while dreaming up elaborate garden plans: arbors of grapes and loofah gourds, raised beds of garlics and broccolis, tiered rock walls of meandering strawberry vines, foxglove and hollyhocks taller than me. I count it among my most lofty of goals to someday produce a vegetable and native flower garden that renders my yard un-mowable. But until then, I make my seed wish lists long and then slowly go back through and cross off items until my list feels affordable, practical, and austere.

We try and buy open pollinated heirloom seeds, the kind passed down through generations and now owned by a few smaller seed companies keeping these varieties alive. The seed catalogs are full of great selections like “Blue Podded Blauwschokkers Garden Pea,”and “Djeena Lee’s Golden tomato.” Even the names of the beans evoke mystery. There’s “Dragon Tongue Bush Beans,” “Good Mother Stollard” and “Greasy Greens,” for example. Most likely we’ll pick out at least one plant variety based solely on the basis of how much laughter or intrigue we glean from the name.

Heirloom sunflower from Baker Creek seeds.

Heirloom sunflower from Baker Creek seeds.

Whenever possible we love to get local seeds or cuttings from our friends and neighbors, especially the ones that come with a story and a connection to past generations. Over the years we’ve gotten seeds through the Arkansas heirloom seed swaps hosted across the state by CAAH (Central Arkansas Agricultural Heritage) and have been able to trade a few seeds through the CANNAS organization (Central Arkansas New Agrarian Society). I’ve had folks drop off seeds on my front porch and send them via mail, and I’ve been saving seeds from many of the flowers and greens from my own garden. I’m particularly enamored with a strain of marigolds my mother gave me years ago that I now give away to friends and family and grow as seedlings and sell as fundraisers for our McElroy House annual seed sale. A good seed has a long story. And as I’ve learned with my recent work interviewing gardeners for our McElroy House Garden Book Project, with a little looking these stories are easy to find.

As we pilfer through the seed catalogs I have to remind my sons the importance of paying attention to the growth requirements for each plans. “Sure, that flower looks awesome on the page,” I’ll say taking a look at the shade-loving, wetland variety they’re admiring. “But it’ll never make it through our hot summers.” And then I direct them to more drought tolerant varieties. I’m sure they don’t quite understand it yet, but what we’re talking about in that moment is knowing this place we call home—understanding not only our Arkansas climate but also the soils of our neighborhood and the shady and sunny spots of our small yard. Being a good gardener is mostly about subtle observation. It starts with knowing the seasons and the land, but slowly becomes about developing a relationship with the plants themselves, adding a few new varieties each year as your knowledge grows. Slowing down to pay attention will work miracles in a garden.

For us gardening is also about increasing our knowledge of native plants and local varieties, working with the land to grow what works well and provides food for caterpillars and butterflies that supply our larger food chain. Whether or not we choose to see it, we’re all linked together in a huge web of cause and effect. If we slow down and take time to pay attention, nothing magnifies this truth more than time spent in a garden. This is true if you’re four or almost forty.

I’ve included a list of some of our favorite heirloom seed catalogs below and related resources. I’d love to hear your ideas for resources! You can visit me online at www.boileddownjuice.com. And if you’re interested in reading more about gardening with native plants in your own yard (even if you live in the city in a neighborhood filled with manicured lawns) I highly recommend the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. He’s got great advice on how to incorporate native plants no matter where you live.

Resources:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: 

CAAH (Conserving Arkansas Agricultural Heritage)

D Landreth Seed Company: 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action

Seed Savers Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

————————————————————————————————————————————————This essay originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. For subscription information visit them online here.