Thursday, January 25, 2007

Heirloom Thoughts and New Ideas

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The weatherman reported that this week is typically the coldest of the year here in Vermont and none of us are doubting that. Right now it's 5 below and dropping slowly. Last night in the northern part of Vermont the lowest temperature was minus 29. Tonight is supposed to be colder. A month ago 60 degrees was an oddly uncomfortable temperature and now we're heading in the other direction. Ski areas have finally been able to make and keep snow and the various industries which depend on cold weather are finally getting started.

Here at Vermont Flower Farm we are entertained by birds and snowfalls as we return from trips to the mailbox with garden catalogs of great variety for further entertainment. Today's mail brought Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Raintree Nursery, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs. Baker's is a Missouri company in its tenth year of catalog sales. It has some interesting squash and pumpkins including the giant pink banana squash we grew when I was a kid. I'll have to spend a little more time with the catalog because the seeds aren't in alphabetical order by common name or species so beyond the general heading, it's not that easy for me to reference things from past gardens. Raintree is from the state of Washington so one has to be careful not to get excited about something new without first checking zones. Fruit trees, bushes and vines are in abundance but they might not all make it in Vermont.

Brent and Becky's work with bulbs has a long history and their company shows their perseverence through some interesting times. I don't remember when I saw their catalog last and I'm surprised at the diversity of bulbs. Towards the end they have a list of books for sale and I noticed a couple that I have. Their Daffodils for North American Gardens was one I bought in the days when I decided that buying daffodils by the bushel was the way to go. I'd always buy a bushel of larged flowered, quick-to-naturalize bulbs and then a bushel of mixed bulbs. Spring would come and by late May I'd be doing a lot of "what is its????", hence the need for a reference book. Since that time the number of daffodils on the market is so great that I doubt any book has kept up with what's available.

The other book they sell is Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors by Edward Austin McRae. If you enjoy even the thought of lilies, buy this book. It's a great book just like the author who I got to meet this past June. I attended a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Lily Society in Brush Prairie, Washington and my memory of the events, the lilies, the people and of course Eddie himself are ever present. I had planned to ask for a trip to his species gardens up towards Mt Hood but an earlier storm had brought crushing hail so the trip didn't make sense. Gardeners and growers are nice people and they are willing to share their knowledge. Eddie is the nicest!

We're not into vegetables any more as life, time and flowers have a way of limiting what we can get done. In the past we grew many, many vegetables and in fact one of the first things Gail and I grew together was eggplant, in an old barnyard, under black plastic. The plants prospered and I swear each plant had a bushel of fruit. I was quickly elevated to the chief and only "picker" position of our two person company. You see the black plastic made a second home for the spotted adders that had been living in and around the adjacent barn foundation. The first day Gail saw the plastic moving and a big head pop out at her was the day of my promotion. It wasn't a meritous event but it did mark the last year I layed down plastic.

Heirloom seeds are now in vogue in the garden world and justifiably so. Many people are growing, saving and exchanging old seeds to maintain the great varieties from who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years ago. My mother was a seed saver along with everything else you could save. The Depression did that to a lot of people and many glass Hellmans Mayonaise jars became her seed vaults. I never knew anyone who could polish a glass jar so shiny clean just to put seeds in and stick on a tape label naming the contents. She saved about every seed going and I only realized this when she and my father passed away and I had to clean out the house. They would have made some seed collector happy but for me it quickly became a piece of history I had to close the book on. If you are interested in old varieties, start with Baker's catalog. I can tell that if you get stumped for something special they will try to help.

Along with all the old seeds come new and unusual seeds from all over the world. A long time ago I studied and worked with seed samples I begged from companies whose names I have long forgotten. Their research and development divisions were always so exciting you'd constantly see things which you just had to have. In Japan there was some great work with pansies and dianthus and in Europe echinacea were produced in colors and petal combinations that seemed to grow butterflies and hummingbirds right out of the package.

The lesson I learned early on and have shared with many gardeners is "new and shiny" doesn't translate to a good plant for your garden. Zone classifications that come with plants might not have been zone and time tested. The plants might do well for a year or two and then just when you're beginning to brag about what you have, it's gone. A good mix of dependable heirloom varieties and a handful of new and "what you can afford to try and perhaps lose" makes sense.

There will probably be another offering of catalogs tomorrow. And the way the thermometer is falling, there will be another morning in the minus numbers. Catalogs and winter evenings jump start the planning process. Deep cold reminds me of Paul Simon's How Can You Live In The Northeast? Gardens and Vermont keep some of us here.

With fine gardening thoughts, clear nights and warm woodstoves, from the mountain above Peacham Pond,

Winter wishes,

George Africa

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