By Linda Halley | As a student at UW-Madison I gravitated toward people in the School of Ag rather than in my chosen field, Education. My “aggie” friends were always pondering how to spend time out of town and off campus. One even managed to rent a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired solar home west of Middleton complete with a corn field. So, enthused by such an opportunity, the summer of ’77 was spent growing an acre of “organic” sweet corn and watching it nearly FLY off the back of the truck at the farmers’ market. I came to realize it was all about having grown a variety – new at the time – called Candy Corn, a super sweet. Customers clamored for the cloying flavor.
The following summer I teamed up with my landscape architect housemate and we grew flowers for the market. Again, it was her astute selection of easy to grow, unique varieties that fueled our success.
Fifteen years later, as teacher turned novice farmer, I was on my own to hunt down the varieties which would be key to building loyal customers. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to look. Colorful catalogs flooded my mailbox, each one making wild claims of five-pound tomatoes, bushel-yielding beans and longest blooming flowers. How to decide? What to believe? With a beginner’s mind, I selected varieties with the best visual image, a technique still employed by me when selecting wine, I hate to admit. That first year was, of course, a lesson in many things, not the least of which was that varieties, even grown side by side, are NOT equal. Flavor? Good looks? Not all catalogs’ claims or photos proved true.
Twenty-five years later I have come to rely on just a handful of seed catalogs that steer me right. They introduce me to new, innovative varieties with honest descriptions. They provide essential production information and never send poorly-germinating duds. Whether you enjoy growing 20 different peppers or just a single tomato plant to baby on your back deck, check out my top 3 seed companies, sources even a professional can trust.
No. 1, Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
The Johnny’s catalog is a wealth of information, practically a farmer’s handbook. They carry as wide a selection as any company from herbs to veggies (common and rare) and an ever-expanding flower section. Read the descriptions, compare your options and don’t skip the extensive “how to” sidebars. Easy to use on-line shopping and, best of all, video lessons to guide you to success.
No. 2, High Mowing Seeds.
This relatively young company is committed to serving organic growers of all sizes. In just a few short years they have become a go-to source for me. They carry ONLY certified organic seed and many varieties are open pollinated, so you can save them from year to year.
No. 3, Seed Savers Exchange.
Seed Savers is a unique, non-profit with a mission to protect and preserve seed diversity, so is dear to my heart. They specialize in heirlooms and cater to the backyard gardener. Although I sometimes have to
deal with 20 annoyingly small packets instead of a larger envelope, I find myself going to them each year for a few especially unique varieties available nowhere else.
All of these seed sources have an online presence, which would be the place to start, but don’t neglect to request a catalog so you can enjoy some late winter pleasure browsing and dreams of spring.