CRAZY, BUT TRUE: I ALWAYS THOUGHT the quirky “voice” of the Fedco Seeds catalog, named C.R. Lawn—get it? Lawn?—was a fictitious character, the made-up but pervasive green spirit of the longtime seed cooperative’s brand. But he’s not make-believe. He’s the Maine-based Fedco’s founder, and an organic gardener, market grower and seedsman with more than 30 years’ experience, and he took the time to answer some of my questions on what to grow and how to grow it better. The result is a vegetable-gardening Q&A (from peas to potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, mineral dusts and more), with the very real C.R. Lawn—and the chance to win three $20 Fedco gift certificates I bought to share with you, and say thanks to him. Let’s jump right in:
Q. Are there heroes in agriculture and horticulture—or in the seed business—whose wisdom you go back to again and again? Did you have a mentor that helped you get started in organic growing?
A. My parents farmed on a homestead scale when I was a little kid in Cornwall, Vermont. They were my first inspiration. I cut my gardening teeth with “Step-by-Step to Organic Gardening” by Sam Ogden and “Rodale’s Handbook of Organic Gardening.” I don’t even know if Ogden’s book is still in print. When I first started Fedco in 1978, Rob Johnston of Johnny’s was very generous in sharing information about the business and he has been helpful throughout. My heroes include farmer-breeders like Frank Morton, Brett Grohsgal, Alan Kapuler, Bryan O’Hara in Connecticut.
Q. Let’s talk vegetable gardening: You told me that you always do a lettuce trial each year, which means you’ve grown a lot of lettuces. Are there some varieties that you never skip? (A long-ago garden friend always grew ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ his whole life, for instance, no matter what.) What’s your sowing philosophy here—indoors then transplant, direct-seed, both, how much how often? Any other tips on growing better salads?
A. I love the lettuces developed by breeder Frank Morton. I would not be without ‘Merlot’ (above, photo from Wild Garden Seed), ‘Marshall,’ ‘Jericho,’ ‘Nancy’ and ‘Sierra,’ but mostly I rotate my old standbys as different controls each year to compare with new ones I am seeing for the first time in my trials.
If I were selling produce, I would start some lettuce indoors to get a jump, but because I am not and I have a preference for working outdoors rather than inside a greenhouse, I direct seed. The strong point of direct seeding is that I don’t need to spend so much time tending seedlings, the weakness is that it is necessary to thin the plantings frequently and devotedly to get to the optimal final spacing that transplanting takes care of all at once. The proper thinning is essential and cannot be neglected.
Also, ideally I would succession plant every two to three weeks. The reality is that I am lucky if I get in three or four plantings per summer. But I am almost never out of lettuce, and I plan to have the most in spring and fall when it performs best.
The other really cool thing about lettuce is that if you let some go to seed you will have volunteers all over the place the following spring, and those volunteers will be earlier and more vigorous than anything you sow. Completely obviates the need for late winter/early spring greenhouse production unless you are growing for market!
Q. One of your other confessions was a love for peas, especially shelling varieties. I will confess I have probably only grown ‘Green Arrow’ and ‘Tall Telephone.’ What am I missing that would give me a longer season and the best possible harvest? Do you have success with a fall crop up your way?
A. I don’t even grow ‘Green Arrow,’ except for trials, though it is our best-selling variety. ‘Lincoln‘ is the sweetest pea, and I would not be without it. It needs to be sown early because it doesn’t like dry heat, but if we have a moist and cool June and July it can be really productive. Nothing beats it for grazing right in the garden—except maybe my other two favorites: ‘Mayfair’ and ‘Miragreen.’
These tend to be taller than ‘Lincoln,’ but nothing is more productive than ‘Mayfair,’ and in all kinds of weather. Long pods with a high count of peas/pod and delicious. ‘Miragreen’ has the darkest green pods and a rich flavor matched only by the color of its pods. Also a high pea/pod count and very productive. Though it is not a shell pea, I also would not miss growing tall ‘Sugarsnap’ for best garden grazing. Can have a raw snack right out in the garden and never even have to break for lunch. Also, we have a sugarsnap variety in our pipeline called ‘Mega’ for which we are multiplying seed. It has almost as good flavor as the tall one but is shorter with stronger plants and could be a terrific choice for commercial growers. Plump, sweet pods that look good, taste good, and plenty of them. We hope to re-introduce it to commerce soon.
I successfully grew fall peas in Maine. I haven’t tried yet at my new farm in Massachusetts, but it should be even easier than in Maine. There’s a narrow planting window. Not too early when it is still hot and dry, not too late because fall frosts wither blossoms and pods and kill production even though the plants live on. In Maine mid-July was the planting time. In MA it would probably be late July.
Q. Though the last couple of summers have been tricky in the Northeast for heirloom tomatoes, I know you’re a devoted grower. Which ones do you always plant—and what new old faces have your attention this year? Stake, cage, trellis or sprawl?
A. ‘Brandywine’ is my all-time favorite tomato. It has THE tomato flavor. Nothing can compare. I also love ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’ ‘Lillian’s Yellow’ heirloom, ‘Goldie’ and ‘Cherokee Purple.’ Though it is a hybrid and this is cheating I always have at least four or five ‘Sungold’ cherry tomato plants. And a new favorite is ‘Honeydrop,’ found as a sport and selected by one of our customers in MA.
I can never keep up with the list of tomatoes I want to trial. A few that have looked good in recent trials and will get another look in 2012 are ‘Momotaro,’ a popular tomato in Japan, ‘Malachite Box,’ a green tomato, ‘Nebraska Wedding,’ a tasty orange. Plus I will be looking at several so-called black tomatoes including ‘Black Master’ that was a hit with some people in last year’s Fedco trials, a stunning-looking one called ‘Indigo Rose’ being featured in several catalogs this year that I hope tastes as gorgeous as it looks in those glossy pictures.
I am lazy about tomatoes. I don’t stake them and I should. Those cages found in hardware stores are a joke for vigorous healthy heavy-bearing plants and I have to come up with a support system that won’t take forever to put up, maintain or require any mechanical genius (I’m closer to idiot than genius in that regard). I do like to mulch my tomatoes with hay once it gets warm. That reduces rot from ground-touching fruit from all those sprawling plants and also diminishes splashing which is a major vector for all those fungal diseases.
Q. Another Solanaceae question: potatoes. With Fedco’s Moose Tubers division shipping 200 to 250 tons of seed potatoes to customers a year, the coop is a huge supplier with a great selection. But you told me you’re a two-potato guy—or maybe four. What are your standbys and what’s your best advice for growing them well?
A. I am mostly a two-potato guy, never skipping early ‘Red Norland‘ for those yummy new potatoes and always following with ‘Carola.’ However, I always supplement with a rotating group of others that usually includes ‘Yukon Gold,’ ‘Green Mountain’ and ‘Kennebec’ and one or two more that I haven’t tried yet.
When I tried growing potatoes in my permanent raised beds in Maine it was a revelation. They were 2-3 times as productive as anything I’d done before. So now I prepare raised beds of compost and well-rotted manure and plant whole potatoes deeply into that mix. Then I cover with hay and the plants poke through in a couple of weeks. I like to get them in early. They seem to be more productive if I plant in early to mid-May instead of waiting till June. That is also a good hedge if late blight should appear late in the season.
Q. I have a famous garden friend who despite his expertise (and Italian heritage) lamented he could never ripen a proper crop of figs. Has any plant escaped your attempts at cultivation, or otherwise exasperated you?
A. I have never done well with peppers or eggplant. With peppers I think it is mostly that I have farmed in two windy locations and I have observed that peppers hate wind. They did much better when I built them little cages with row covers over.
I think plants know when you don’t like to eat them and they won’t grow for you. The eggplant falls in that category. Though a good chef can make an eggplant dish that I would eat, I lack that ability. The plants seem to know that and never grow for me. It doesn’t help that they prefer a great deal of heat (Maine sure was not warm enough for them most years), and they seem to be a favorite target for the Colorado Potato Beetle, which in my experience will decimate them must faster than it will potatoes.
Q. Too many gardeners still feel nervous without their chemical fertilizer bag in hand, to my mind. After more than 30 years as an organic grower, how would you tell them to nourish things instead? Do you use any products or preparations (whether commercial or homemade)?
A. I believe in feeding the soil and not the plants. I like to use a lot of minerals (Azomite is a favorite), I make compost by the slow cold method, I bring in manure and let it mellow (my current favorite is Yak manure from a neighboring farm) and I make extensive use of hay mulch which then breaks down and nourishes the soil. It does bring in a lot of weed seed, but I equate the presence of weeds with high fertility. Gotta get them out of there, but worth the trouble. Compost and manure work better in tandem than either alone.
I haven’t cover-cropped a lot because of the tillage requirements for many of them (prefer hand tools for turning ground than equipment whenever possible), but lately have been following my partner Eli’s heritage wheat crops with sowings of mustard for green manure. Mustards are disease-suppressant and easy to work back into the soil. If I worked on a larger scale and farmed to sell, I would probably use more equipment and a more diversified line-up of cover crops.
Q. In an email the other day, you said: “The climate change has become so marked that I am about to throw out my rules for planting times and gamble on earlier schedules and I feel I am entering uncharted territory.” What schedule do you “normally” adhere to–and how far are you considering adjusting with which crops in particular?
A. I need to be bolder, in part because of climate change, and in part because I have changed locations and soil type. I farmed in Maine for more than 30 years on a clay loam that was slow to dry and warm in the spring, but a miser at holding in adequate moisture during dry spells.
Now I am one or two zones further south in a sandy loam in Massachusetts. I can plant as soon as the snow recedes, and I must do so to maximize the available moisture. Peas and spinach and lettuce can’t wait. They will go in as soon as I can work the soil. I used to wait until the safe frost free date in Maine for the warm-loving crops. That was usually soon before Memorial Day, and sometimes not till after.
With global warming and my new climate in Colrain, MA, I am convinced after watching for three years that I should start getting the warm crops out in early May. We do have occasional early May frosts, but if I am prepared to cover young seedlings I think I can gain almost a month on beans, summer squash, cucumbers, winter squash and at least several weeks on tomatoes and melons. That means I’m going to shoot to have at least some tomatoes and melons out by May 15. That will give these crops more moisture to work with so they can maybe get well-established before hot and dry sets in and I won’t have to irrigate so much.
And on the other end, if we get those later summer deluges and hurricane rains, maybe I’ll be able to get my dry beans to mature ahead of them, and maybe much more tomato production before all the blights get serious. And having earlier melons, instead of waiting till well into September will be better, because melons develop best sugars and flavors in the heat.
A. Wendell Berry‘s “The Unsettling of America” is the most important agricultural book of the last fifty (or maybe even one hundred) years. It is deep and it is challenging and forms a philosophic base for much of how we are collectively responding to our food system. Anything by Michael Pollan is worthwhile, particularly “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Likewise the works of Gary Paul Nabhan, particularly “Where Our Food Comes From” (the one focusing on Vavilov). Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” is a terrific expose.
The best essays I have ever found on biotechnology are in “Cultivating an Ecological Conscience” by Frederick L. Kirschenmann [NOTE from Margaret: Many of his essays are here, thanks to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture].
For my seed work and for sourcing heirloom varieties I use the Seed Savers Yearbooks, three books by Amy Goldman on heirloom melons, squash and tomatoes (“Melons for the Passionate Grower,” “The Compleat Squash” and “The Heirloom Tomato,” above), a series from the 1930s called the “Vegetables of New York” that covers beans, corn and cucurbits (corn image below). “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch gets my vote as the best current how-to garden book for any level from beginner to advanced.
Q. The United Nations has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives—making this a good time to talk about Fedco, which has been operated as a coop since you co-founded it in 1978. How has being a coop been part of its success?
A. Our parent organization was the now-defunct Maine Federation of Cooperatives. In the beginning they provided us with a ready-made market, a functioning network of cooperatives already in place who were interested in our products and a great deal of expertise in helping us set up our operating systems.
Co-operation is a middle road between capitalism and socialism. As a co-op, our consumer and worker members, rather than our proprietor or stockholders, own us. That makes our goals different: instead of maximizing profits for the benefit of a few owners, we choose to maximize social capital for the benefit of our entire community. Instead of charging what the market will bear, we choose to charge only what our businesses require to survive and thrive and what our workers need to feel fairly paid. We have chosen a hybrid model as a consumer-worker cooperative to represent each of our key constituencies: those who perform the work to distribute our products and those who use them. The cooperative model allows our workers a democratic voice in making the key decisions in our workplace and our consumers numerous channels through which they can tell us how we are doing in meeting their needs.
Ours is a large and vibrant community. When we made a major investment to purchase a new warehouse for our Trees division last February, we decided to launch our first consumer membership campaign to help finance it. With 269 members already signed up, we have every likelihood of reaching 500 by spring. Even though we offered only modest economic benefits to join, the outpouring of messages of support that have accompanied the membership deposits has been heartwarming, making my 34 years at Fedco feel so worthwhile that I want to continue for at least another 16 at which time I will be 81.
How to Win the Gift Certificates
TO ENTER TO WIN one of three $20 Fedco gift certificates I’ve purchased to share with you, simply enter your comment below, answering the question:
What’s the food crop that has eluded your attempts at cultivation, that you wish you could grow? (C.R. confessed to peppers and eggplants; I’ll say broccoli is one of many of mine.)
As regulars here will know, I’m pretty easy–so if you’re feeling shy, just say “Count me in” or something like that, and you’ll be in the random drawing. I’ll choose winners after entries close at midnight on Wednesday, February 8. Good luck to all.
[NOTE: This is a companion piece—you might say the lighter side—of our interview that included a Q&A on the Monsanto legal action that Fedco is a co-plaintiff in. You can read about the politics of transgenic (GMO) seeds and the safety of the food supply and how we can all help, in C.R. Lawn’s words, over here.]