Monday, April 20, 2015

Let's Talk Seeds

Spring unfolds in all its glory, with each new day in East Tennessee bringing another wonder. If it isn't the parade of flowers in the woods and along the roadside, it is the way the spinach seems to grow, getting visibly larger by the hour. After a snowy winter, we are being rewarded with nearly perfect growing conditions this spring.

If you are not planting a food garden now, you should be. There is still time for heat tolerant lettuces, beets, carrots, and all members of the onion family. Beans of all types should be planted now. You can try planting tomatoes, peppers or eggplant this early, but if you can bear to wait three more weeks you will likely have fewer problems with these crops. Wait another week or two to plant sweet corn, also. Brave souls may go ahead and plant corn now.

Thinking of corn and beans leads me to think about seeds, as well. Seeds seldom get the media attention they deserve, unless perhaps if they are GMO seeds. Nevertheless, gardeners should always remember that our backyard vegetable gardens would not be possible without a vast network of growers, brokers and retailers who produce and sell seeds. For you and me, the end result of all their efforts is the ability to step inside any big box store, garden center or specialty shop, and chances are we will find a varied selection of seeds. Amazingly, they are cheap, too. Seldom is a seed packet more than three dollars.

I write about seed catalogs a lot during the winter months. It is fun to pore over them and pick out likely candidates for the spring and summer garden envisioned for six months in the future. This year, however, I took a different approach. I decided to find all our seeds locally. As it turns out, this has proven much simpler than I would have thought.

If we broaden the term "local" to include businesses in Virginia and North Carolina, we have two suppliers of heirloom and organic seeds just over the mountains. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia and Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC, were at one time both mail order-only operations. These days, you can find their seed racks at Three Rivers Market.

The big surprise was that two genuinely local, Knoxville-based, family-owned seed companies between them have all the seeds we needed for our vegetable garden. Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply on Rutledge Pike caters to professional growers as well as the general public. In addition to an extensive selection of seeds under their own brand label, all in reasonably price one ounce envelopes, Knoxville Seed displays racks for several specialty suppliers. Bean, pea and corn seeds, along with some other crops popular with market growers, are available in half pound or full pound quantities. (Be prepared for sticker shock if you are purchasing corn. This crop is the exception to the "seeds are cheap" rule.)

I have been impressed with the extensive selection of heirloom vegetables offered by Knoxville Seed. Cherokee Purple tomatoes, dipper gourds, Cherry Belle radishes, and more. I have not counted, but the selection includes well over 100 varieties.

Our other great seed resource is Mayo Seed Co., which has for several decades operated Mayo Garden Centers around the area. The core business, however, has been seeds. The company was founded in 1878 and is still run by members of the Mayo family. In addition to a huge selection of vegetable seeds, Mayo offers flower seeds, many of them "old-fashioned" cultivars that were popular generations ago. Mayo can always be counted on to carry seeds of vegetables that only a few people still grow, including parsnips, New Zealand spinach, and salsify.

Because they have long been focused upon plant varieties that perform well in the Tennessee Valley region, Mayo can be counted upon to carry seeds that gardeners have relied upon for over 100 years. Examples are Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, Mayo's own generic varieties of romaine lettuce and leeks, and White Icicle radishes that make roots the size of carrots.

Next time you think about seeds, think about all the work it took to get them on the shelves, and reward our local seedsmen and their network of suppliers. Those heirloom varieties may have been the work of only one small farm, the owners of which took a great risk to devote part of their land and labor to the seed crop. Think about that, also, as you enjoy those Cherokee Purples in August.

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