November 28th, 2006
Gardening With Heirloom Seeds

Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits & Vegetables for a New Generation.
Lynn Coulter.
The University of North Carolina Press. 2006.
ISBN 978-0-8078-3011-6

book coverOne of the joys of leafing through seed catalogs is reading and comparing the various descriptions and imagining what it would be like to grow (and in the case of vegetables) taste the offerings. Two of my favorite catalogs are Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds and Renee Shepherd’s Renee’s Garden Seeds. Both the catalogs and the seed packets of these firms are filled with descriptions and histories of old-fashioned seeds (mostly open-pollinated so that you can save them from year to year) in addition to extensive growing instructions…practically a blog entry on a packet.

Lynn Coulter’s Gardening With Heirloom Seeds expands on these catalogs, turning them into an attractive reference book with glossy photos on every page, many by David Cavagnaro. Unfortunately, many of the other photos are of Renee Gardens seed packets which give the book a strangely mercantile look. The information from nineteenth century seed catalogs is fascinating. I must remember to explain to AJM that I’m keeping all these old seed catalogs around to aid future historians.

For those of you who do not want to spend hours pouring over and comparing catalogs, Gardening with Heirloom Seeds provides a very convenient summary. The fifty plants are arranged by season and then alphabetically by common name, flower and vegetables mixed together indiscriminately just as they might be in your cottage garden.

Each entry begins with a history of the plant, then follows with short descriptions of several varieties, and ends with growing tips. I found the growing tips especially useful although they are somewhat biased toward gardeners in the northern US. Particularly the initial grouping of plants into a spring, summer, or fall gardens is confusing to us southern gardeners. Nigella is grouped in the summer garden but in Austin it sprouts in the fall with the larkspur and blooms at the same time in late spring. Pansies, snapdragons, and violas are the backbone of Austin’s winter flower gardens. In reading the essay on the winter garden Lynn Coulter’s observes, “Most gardeners will admit that they are not altogether sorry to see the end of the growing season.” my mind immediately jumps to Elizabeth Lawrence’s words in A Southern Garden.

“The garden year has no beginning and no end. There is not a time when everything is in bloom at once, nor is there a time when the box is wrapped in burlap and the borders covered in pine boughs. There is not time for the gardener to take a rest before beginning again. To follow the tradition of bloom in three seasons only is to miss the full meaning of gardening in a part of the world where at all times of the year there are days when it is good to be out of doors, when there is work to be done in the garden, and when there is some plant in perfection of flower or fruit.”

However, even for plants I’ve grown for years, I learned interesting tidbits from Lynn Coulter–that cosmos bloom best after the summer equinox and that larkspur seeds (which I collect every year) quickly lose viability after a year. There is a nice bibliography as well as a list of sources for heirloom seeds.

If you haven’t grown many plants from seed or if you are new to cottage gardening and heirloom flowers and vegetables, this book is a great introduction. As for me, it is an interesting jumping off point for looking back over my own notes and other reference books. The outside margins of the book are designed with a space for notes. If I owned this book, I’d certainly be scrawling points of agreement and disagreement. I’d even get out the yellow highlighter I use on my seed catalogs. I love comparing notes with other gardeners. Don’t you?

Other Sources
I frequently buy seed from Botanical Interests because I’m always tempted by the display near the checkout counter at Central Market. They also have great seed packets.

by M Sinclair Stevens

One Response to post “Gardening With Heirloom Seeds”

  1. From firefly:

    You may also like Select Seeds, which is in Connecticut:

    I’ve ordered from them for 2 years now, starting with familiar seeds and branching out into heirloom forms I hadn’t tried. I had success with everything except lavender, which I did not know needed to be refrigerated to germinate, and love-in-a-mist, which was left over from 2005 and not kept in an airtight container.

    Also, I purchased 3 heirloom clematis vines (2 year old plants), and two of them bloomed a few months later.

    They were prompt in answering e-mailed question. and the reply was helpful (they even looked up a previous order to fully answer).

    Last year I segregated the annuals from the perennials because I had a lot of digging to do, but next year I’m planning to scatter seedlings around in the various borders as well as the four all-annual center beds.

    Right now, though, I’m looking forward to a break. I guess it would be nice to be able to choose whether to garden three seasons or four, but I would probably choose only three.