power-shopping the seed catalogs, with joseph tychonievich
HOW GO THOSE SEED ORDERS, gardeners? I called in expert help to kick off 2016’s edition of my annual Seed Series—specifically author and plant breeder Joseph Tychonievich, a real seedaholic who agreed to share his best sources.
Joseph and I are two peas in a pod, you see, but also apples and oranges. Joseph, who gardens in Michigan, and I are both seed-catalog madpeople—but we’re mostly mad about different catalogs, and different items.
Back on the first of December, I wrote to Joseph, author of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” to ask him if in, say, a month he’d be ready to talk about the latest catalogs.
“I just finished putting in my first seed orders of the season,” he replied. Then on December 22 I saw on Facebook that he had sent in his final order.
Yikes; I have yet to begin. (Sound familiar?)
No moss grows under Joseph, named by “Organic Gardening” magazine as one of “six young horticulturists who are helping to shape how America gardens”—and who is also currently at work on a book about rock gardening.
In between writing and breeding plants, he blogs for the popular Garden Professors dot com collaborative website.
So get out your pen and paper, if you want to add some little-known sources and unusual goodies to your own seedy 2016 wishlist. Read along while listening to the January 4, 2016 edition of the show using the player below, or at this link.
my seed-catalog q&a with joseph tychonievich
Q. So let’s just dive in, Joseph: Do you have an overall seed-shopping tactic? How long have you been ordering seeds, since you were like 4 years old? [Laughter.]
A. I probably have been ordering seeds since my early teens, like 13 or 14, and I have a whole strategy now.
Q. Oh, good.
A. What I always do now: As soon as I finish placing my seed orders for one year, I start a document on the computer. Then every time I see something cool, whether it’s a variety, or I hear about a new source, I keep a running list of everything to check up on for next year.
When I dive in for the next season, I can go through this list and remember the tomato that somebody mentioned or a new plant I herd about or a new source I have. I have a whole list to go through and start my seed-ordering process.
Q. Oh, you are so organized. I am so not. So you don’t have to just scratch your head and say, “Oh, I swear last February somebody told me about something that I can’t remember now?”
A. [Laughter.] Yes, which I had done for years. And now it’s like: I put it away in that list, and in June I’m too busy running around, and once the ground freezes, or I have a good frost, I can start ordering like crazy.
Q. So that’s one thing you do, to have this cumulative list of thoughts, wishes, tips to be searching for. Do you also have certain catalogs you always start with, or basic, go-to places? Where do you begin?
A. I have my standards, the places I know I can get the things I want every year. For me that’s Johnny’s Selected Seeds, I think Number 1. And Pinetree Garden Seeds I really love, too, for sort of my standard vegetables.
I like Pinetree because they’re very affordable. They give you smaller packets, which is great because I usually don’t need 200 seeds of something. So it’s a smaller packet, which is cheaper.
And I love Johnny’s, because they don’t have the biggest list, but it’s like it’s curated—you know they’ve done the testing. They have such a research department, and I feel like the varieties they’ve listed are consistently really good choices.
Q. Probably one of the first catalogs I ever shopped from was Johnny’s; I’m in the Northeast, and it’s a go-to-resource here.
I love to buy organic seed, and they have a good selection of it, but High Mowing Organic Seeds, as its name implies, has all organic seed—so I like to go through and see what they have, because I like to put my dollars into supporting organic seed farmers and organic agriculture in general. That’s one of my little things, when I start shopping—I’m looking for where it says “OG,” or maybe a catalog has an organic section. That’s one of the filters I apply. And you can’t always find everything you want in an organic version yet, but I try if I can.
Of course if people live elsewhere in the country—you’re Midwestern, so we’re both Northern gardeners. But people might be looking in other types of catalogs. When I first started gardening I was always taken with the selection at Bountiful Gardens, of which John Jeavons I believe was a founder, out in California. And there are catalogs around the country that I love—like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, etc.—that have a regional orientation.
I’m interested in those, too, even though I don’t garden in those spots.
A. I think it’s really valuable to get that. Like you, I am in the North, so the Northern sources I really appreciate. But wherever gardeners are, if you can find someone who’s growing locally—in your general climate region—they’re going to have selections that will really perform for you.
Like we both need the tomatoes that can take the cool summer, but if you’re in the South you need one that will keep fruiting if it’s hot. The “best” tomato variety will be very different, depending where in the world you are.
Q. So you already said the “T” word, tomato. See, he doesn’t take long folks to mention that he’s tomato-crazy. [Laughter.] So what’s up with Joseph’s lifelong hunt for the perfect tomato? Any news on that front—I know you really search, and have some great sources.
A. I am really obsessed with tomatoes, and right now I am really into the Dwarf Tomato Project. Have you heard about this? It’s this really fascinating project started by this group of amateurs online, to breed new tomatoes that have a very dwarf, compact growth habit. I really love them. I grew a bunch last year, and they have all the colors and flavors you associate with heirloom tomatoes, but in these really nice, compact, small plants that don’t flop everywhere, and that don’t need to be staked very much
Q. Is there a catalog that represents the Dwarf Tomato Project, or a website?
A. They have a website of information about the project, but the place where I have found them for sale is a place called the Heritage Seed Market. It’s three different small growers who combined forces and built one website where you can shop all their selections.
They have their own breeding, heirlooms, stuff from the Dwarf Tomato Project—it’s all tomatoes right now, I think. I think they’re hoping to add other people to it, so it’s a really great thing.
The dwarf tomatoes are wonderful. The one that I love the best is ‘Sweet Scarlet Dwarf,’ which I grew last year and it finally knocked off ‘Black Krim’—which had reigned as my favorite tomato of all time. I think the flavor’s better, and it was a better plant. I’m really in love with it.
Q. I’ve never even heard of ‘Sweet Scarlet Dwarf,’ from the Dwarf Tomato Project, and you found it at Heritage Seed Market. So that’s one of your specialty tomato stashes?[Photo, above, from Heritage Seed Market.]
A. I don’t know how many, but it’s all tomatoes—probably hundreds of tomatoes on there. [Laughter.]
Q. Do you have other tomato specialty catalogs—and this contrasts against going to one big catalog full of everything, where we began, to the super-niche catalog approach.
A. The other one I’m really liking this year is called Double Helix Farms, which as you may guess from the name—double helix—means he’s doing his own breeding, which I’m really into.
It’s very tomato-heavy, and also really heavy in peppers, which I am really getting into, too. A lot of really interesting sweet peppers, less on the hot peppers.
Double Helix it’s small and I have heard that the owner is ill, and I don’t know how things are going to go with that. But it has a really interesting selection of crazy tomatoes, and then as I said such fascinating peppers, too.
Q. I want to just quickly run down some other vegetables. Do you grow a lot in your home garden?
A. I do here and there—I get really obsessed and grow 20 of something.
Q. I know that routine. So I’ve been starting to browse some of the websites and catalogs. I’m interested to see, for instance, in greens—since I’m a vegetarian and eat a lot of greens—that though I thought there was nothing new to be seen in kale, which has been the “it” vegetable for awhile, there is news. [Above, ‘Bear Necessities’ kale from Adaptive Seeds’ website.]
I’m seeing frillier-than-frilly, incredibly dissected, fabulous-looking kale. Beautiful to grow even for it appearance, but delicious, too. I’m seeing more of that, and “populations” of kale, where not all the plants in the packet will look exactly the same, but are closely related. For instance this ‘Gulag Stars’ kale, which Hudson Valley Seed Library now has [photo below, from Seed Library website]. Cool. Incredibly beautiful.
A. I’ve grown it for a few years now, and I think I got it from Adaptive Seeds. What I love about Adaptive is they have those mixes that are diverse genetically, so they have diverse forms of leaves, which is really fun to grow. I also like that it gives you some genetic variability in how they’re going to adapt to your conditions.
So I’ve grown ‘Gulag Stars,’ and I just save my own seeds, and they’re so diverse, I’ve found that about 10 percent overwinter for me, which most kales don’t do here. But it was so diverse, I could find a few that were really adapted to my conditions, and save seeds from those and get a customized selection. Some of them were really beautiful, too.
Q. That’s one to look for.
Peas and beans—I love them, or I guess I love things that vine, to grow up big bamboo teepees or tripods of running things. The Jack-in-the-Beanstalk experience.
I don’t think you can beat the selection of peas and beans at Peace Seedlings, which is the catalog of the daughter of Alan Kapuler, the great open-source breeder, and her partner. They have the most interesting selection of peas, including what they call “puffer pod” peas. I don’t know if you’ve ever grown them, but it’s sort of between an edible-pod pea and a snowpea. The pod is even bigger than a snowpea but you let the peas develop in it and eat the whole thing.
Probably my favorite of all time—and it’s one of these puffer-pod things—is ‘Schweizer Riesen’ from Turtle Tree Seed, the largest biodynamic seed company in the U.S. They turned me on to these kinds of peas first. If you love a ‘Sugar Snap’ edible pod but want a thinner pod—it’s delicious, fresh or cooked.
Do you grow any peas or beans?
A. I don’t, but this is the year I decided I am going to grow peas. If I haven’t grown something before, I like to try a bunch of them, rather than one variety. This year I want to do like 20 different kinds so I can really see which ones I really love. I’ll check those out.
Q. The thing at Peace Seedlings, is that with Alan Kapuler’s work [examples above], he has pink-flowered, white-flowered, purple-flowered—and purple podded, with ‘Sugar Magnolia’ that he introduced. It will throw off some off types, but is pretty stable as a dark purple edible-podded pea. Interesting things and different—including breeding for hyper-tendril-ism, if you can call it that. More tendrils to hold on better as the vines climb. Different—and for a person who likes diversity and seeing the genetics express themselves—you might like them! [Laughter.]
A. That sounds really fun.
Q. What about beans?
A. I do grow some green beans, but I didn’t get very deep into them. I did grow some garbanzo beans last year, which was really fun.
Q. Yes! They’re coming on—I see them in the catalogs, like everybody’s sort of tinkering to see if they can introduce some garbanzos and get people trying them. It hasn’t been a home-vegetable-garden crop in a big way in the past, do you think? [There are even black garbanzos at Uprising Seeds and Adaptive Seeds.]
A. No, I hadn’t even seen them for sale till fairly recently. They grew really well for me and were really easy to grow. I’m the opposite of you—I hate vine-y things because I hate staking. [Laughter.] So I like that I can just plant the seeds and they make really nice, attractive little bushes. They don’t need any staking or anything to grow up.
Q. I love pole beans and I love Romano-style, flat-podded beans with that meaty texture. There’s a great one called ‘Marvel of Venice’ that’s a Romano-type pod but yellow. Uprising Seeds in Oregon has a great selection of it. They’re been working with it to kind of get rid of off-colored green pods and make it the best it can be. So if you dare to try a climbing bean…I recommend it. [Laughter.]
Let’s talk flowers: You’re flower-mad, too, and I don’t do them as much, but you grow perennial flowers from seed, and annuals, and even alpine things. Did some of your dollars this year already go to flowers—any binges? [Laughter.]
A. I do a lot of flowers from seed, and I love growing perennials from seed, which I don’t think a lot of people do. But it’s really very easy [Joseph’s basic method]. One place I’m really loving this year is Alplains, which is out in Colorado. He has this huge selection of seeds, and I’d said 90-plus percent of them are U.S. natives, but it’s not just the same old Rudbeckia and Echinacea and a few grasses. He has so many of the really interesting native things like Penstemon, and hardy cactus from Zone 4—just a huge selection.
It’s a very old-school website. [Laughter.] You actually have to mail him in your order form. Such a huge selection of unusual native perennials, and very affordable.
Q. When you describe Alplains, it reminds me of one of the early, early catalogs I used to order from back in the day, which was J.L. Hudson Seedsman. Is it like that?
A. [Laughter.] Yes, but it’s not quite as quirky as J.L. Hudson is, but kind of similar. He’s kind of like an old-school botanist by training, so it’s very much that he knows all the ecotypes for each plant, so for every species there are like five subspecies he has collected seeds from.
It’s a very interesting catalog, and when he updated the website, he said he is getting older and thinking of shutting down in a few years. So I am like buying madly so I have a chance in the next few years.
Q. [Laughter.] So what about annual flowers? Any indulgences there?
A. I always do. Last year, I decided I wanted to revisit old-fashioned annuals I hadn’t grown in awhile, like marigolds and zinnias and nasturtiums. I ordered a bunch of all those old-fashioned seed-grown cutting annuals. I love them all, and I really loved the zinnias.
And I thought, “Why haven’t I been growing zinnias?” They’re so easy to grow, great cut flowers, huge color range. So this year I just counted up 14 different kinds of zinnias that I ordered, and I will have a huge collection of those.
Q. Did they come from all over the place? [Left, new scabiosa-flowered zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach,’ photo from Johnny’s Selected Seed.]
A. I was looking all over the place, but ended up ordering them from Stokes—which is a very commercial website, not one of those little, quirky places that makes you feel good about ordering from them. But they had basically everything I wanted—everything everybody else had. If you’re looking for annuals, they have maybe the biggest listing not of heirlooms, maybe, but of the newer varieties. Really, really thorough—which I like because I didn’t have to pay shipping costs to five different places because they have such an exhaustive list.
Q. You said marigolds, and the place I mentioned before—Peace Seedlings—has a good list of them, including some really giant ones, statuesque as well as large-flowered. And I think they have good zinnias, too—oddball things. Not that you need any more zinnias, Joseph.
What else did you dip deeply into?
A. I am into petunias, weirdly, but the species or wild petunias, before they got bred. I’m sure you know Select Seeds, which I really love. She now has a bunch of the species petunias [including Petunia exserta, above], which are big, rangy plants and really attractive to hummingbirds, so I’ve ordered some of those. They are not so stiff and formal as the tight little mounds you see at garden centers, but are kind of loose, informal versions of petunias.
Q. Select Seeds is great. When she [Marilyn Barlow] first began, the business was in her living room and the nursery was in her front yard, and I went and did a story a million years ago. Plus, if you don’t want to start the thing from seed, she often offers it as a plant as well, so you can go either way—if you need a little help getting things started.
When we talked before, you mentioned a couple of other places—Plant World Seeds, and Prairie Moon—did you dip into those this year?
A. Yes. Plant World is a U.K. seed house but they ship to the U.S. Just remember the exchange rate, because things get more expensive when you convert them into dollars. They have a ton of cool stuff, and the best thing they have are these fragrant strains of columbine, which are their own breeding. They have like a honeysuckle scent, which is amazing.
Then Prairie Moon is a wonderful place again for mostly native plants, and they have seeds and also plants that are already started. A lot of more Eastern U.S. natives, so if you’re looking for things for a native garden, they’re wonderful for that.
the pick of joseph’s seed sources
AT THE END of our radio interview, I asked Joseph to share via email a few more details of his sources list, and some specific varieties he ordered, which are below in the bulleted list, with his commentary.
My own Resource List (click for it) includes a whole category for seed catalogs.
Last time Joseph visited me on the radio show, Joseph talked about backyard seed breeding—an interview you will want to read if you missed it.
- Select Seeds (I love Petunia exserta, a wonderful species petunia beloved by hummingbirds.)
- Stokes Seeds (I’m excited to try Zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’, and a dozen other zinnias from them.)
Joseph’s natives and other perennials
- Plant World Seeds (Aquilegia ‘Perfumed Garden’ is an amazing fragrant columbine.)
- Gardens North
- Prairie Moon
- Alplains (I’m trying the wild form of Eustoma grandiflora, native to Colorado. Hopefully it will be easier to grow than the highly bred selections I’ve tried and largely failed with before.)
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Pinetree Garden Seeds
- Adaptive Seeds (I want to try their kale ‘Bear Necessities.’)
- Double Helix Farms (I love their pepper ‘Trinidad Perfume’ which is a heatless habanero–amazing flavor, but doesn’t burn your mouth off.)
- Heritage Seed Market (THE place for dwarf tomatoes. My favorite so far is ‘Sweet Scarlet Dwarf.’)
More, more, more:
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 4, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Seed-shopping doodle up top by Andre Jordan of A Beautiful Revolution, for A Way to Garden.)