One resolution I made — and really want to keep — takes less effort than than you think. And it starts with the blissful task of ogling gorgeous seed catalogs.
This past New Year, and the past few New Years, I resolved to be more of a producer and less of a consumer. This sentiment was high on food-related New Year’s resolution listicles, including the 14 Food Resolutions from Food Tank that went viral and our own 8 Revolutionary Resolutions list inspired by Wendell Berry. “Participate in food production to the extent that you can,” is Berry’s first call to action. The rancher, author and proud homemaker Shannon Hayes blew me away with a similar sentiment at last year’s PASA conference when she said, “What matters is that we produce more than we consume.”
That is, if you love bread, don’t just buy it, bake it. If you drink kombucha, get yourself a SCOBY. And if you’ve got some dirt to work with, plant it. “When everyone is a producer, our communities begin to be self-sufficient,” Hayes says. “Despair starts to melt away, and it starts to feel like hope.”
And so my attention turns to the stack of seed catalogs piling up in my not-big-enough mailbox. (That’s actual U.S. Postal Service mailbox, not Thunderbird inbox.) And I’m not alone. At a powwow of the world’s greatest chefs a few months ago, Dan Barber argued that good cooking must start with the seed. Grist released an awesome series on the evolving controversy about GMO seeds, and there’s even been speculation that Monsanto is backing off the technology. Katy Perry’s latest album cover contained seed-embedded paper that inspired millions of fans to start gardens while irking Australian phytosanitation officials.
My father-in-law tells me that inventorying one’s seed collection is “the most common occupation in Maine during winter.” In solidarity with all gardeners (Mainers, New Yorkers or otherwise), here’s some of what I’m considering and where you might look for your own:
Baker Creek Seeds
Assembled by Emilee and Jere Gettle and a large staff of devoted seed savers (many bearded and in overalls) at the Missouri-based Baker Creek Seeds, this thick glossy is as much coffee table book as seed catalog. The New York Times called them the “Indiana Jones of seeds,” because of an insatiable appetite for searching out agrobiodiversity treasures in the Fertile Crescent, from melons to peppers. They employ a full-time, globe-trotting “botanical explorer.”
This Maine-based seed house is the standby for many home gardeners and farmers. Johnny’s Seeds offers organically grown versions for many of their seeds, as well as brilliant farm tools designed by their neighbor Elliot Coleman. A few years ago, I invested $5 in a packet of golden yarrow, a flower I love for its brilliant color, intoxicating fragrance and its ability to grow without a fence against deer and rabbits. I planned to plant a few long rows in May and have beaucoup bouquets to sell from my front porch come July. A drought conspired against the crop that year; I will try again.
This Oregon-based firm is my backup source after Johnny’s; it offers some excellent diversity for edamame, brassicas, berries and all sorts of plants that thrive in the Pacific Northwest.
Sand Hill Preservation
We first learned about this Iowa-based operation while looking for a source for Hayman white sweet potatoes, a beautiful nutty variety we loved because it wasn’t too sweet. We later learned that, in addition to a long list of sweet potato slips, Sandhill Preservation is an incredible source for rare varieties of okra, melons, peppers and heritage chickens and ducks. They have a website, but all orders are done by mail (snail mail, that is).
If you like to buy your seeds from food activists, this is the source for you. A vocal and tireless champion of good food (and against GMOs), Wood Prairie’s e-mail updates are seasoned with food politics. The farm is one of the few sources of organic seed potatoes in the nation and has a range of colors, shapes and sizes for any home garden however small. Their “Red, White and Blue” combo is a favorite. They also ship eating potato gift packs and samplers so you can test the varieties before you grow them.
Hudson Valley Seed Library
Outside of swapping seeds with your neighbor, this is the most local seed source we know. Founded in an actual library in Gardiner, NY, each year Hudson Valley Seed Library identifies the best-performing plants in their own Hudson Valley field and harvests and saves those seeds to grow the following year, a process that acclimates strains to local conditions. Plus, their seed packs are painted with whimsical, local artwork, perfect for gifts to get your friends and loved ones growing.