part 3 of 4 on seed catalogs

The rough-hewn wood of a wide field gate shields a broad garden of gently sloping rows ready for planting. Beyond are border herb and flower beds, white fence posts against a dark, protective tree line, and a beautiful sunrise peeking over the scene. The rays light up a skiff of clouds, painting the edges in peach against a pale blue sky.

Seeds of Change catalog

It could be my dream garden. It’s also the cover image of the Seeds of Change catalog, my next stop on the armchair gardening tour that I’ve been doing this month.

These wily seed marketers, they know what I pine for. My little urban vegetable plots look nothing like this rural paradise, but in my mind I’m out there like my farmer father, in silver striped bib overalls, ploughing the back forty. (Yes, I used the old spelling of plowing deliberately, to stick with the nostalgia.)

I applaud the efforts of the catalog marketing team, because this is what I want in frigid January, when I am stuck looking at the frost-covered cloche and brassicas from my living room window.

As with some of my other favorite catalogs, I have a bit of personal history with Seeds of Change. I visited their trial farm when it was north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, while researching my book Edible Heirlooms. They had a great collection of heirloom tomatoes and peppers, surviving by ditch irrigation in the arid valley. The company has since moved to California, but I don’t hold that against them, any more than the fact that they got bought up years ago by a large corporation. They’re still doing good work, selling certified organic seeds and supporting the community of people who love to grow their own food.

It was their homegrown history that first attracted me. An entrepreneur named Kenny Ausubel, inspired by the history of seed-perpetuation and alarmed by the loss of biological diversity, founded the company in 1988. His story, along with others who helped build Seeds of Change into a resounding success — like the seedsman nicknamed “Mushroom” who is now in Oregon and the Bay Area chef Alice Waters — is recounted in his excellent book Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure (Harper San Francisco, 1994).

SoC peppers
A field of peppers, each variety carefully marked, at the former Seeds of Change trial farm in arid northern New Mexico

But, back to the catalog. In their welcome note, the writers assure us that “every time you tear open a pack of Seeds of Change seeds you are allowing wonder to take root,” and that is certainly true. A bit of wonder happens just when you hold one of their seed packets. They’re made of a slippery plastic material and have a zippered, reclosable top. And they are water-resistant. They say this innovative packaging is recyclable, takes less energy to produce, and will keep seed fresher because it’s hermetically sealed. I like the fact that I can zip it shut, rather than resort to the masking tape I use on most of my other opened seed packets.

But of course, it’s what comes in the packet that should interest us the most.

In standard catalog style, the SoC folks line up their offerings alphabetically, and I’m instantly bogged down in beans, another great crop for this southwestern company. Surprisingly, only two pages are on offer, but within are old and new delights.

Blue Lake is there, a standard for green snap beans. But there’s a pole version, Black-seeded Blue Lake, that I think I’ll circle instead. Harvesting pole beans is much easier, as you can easily see the ripe ones, instead of digging through the dense mound of bushy plants. I’ve never seen the bush bean Purple Dove before, but the long glossy pods are such a rich purple, they look worth a try, too.

I make a quick stop at the corn, wistfully eyeing the Mandan Red and Dakota Black that remind me of my childhood up on the northern Plains. Maybe someday I’ll have the space and season length to truly set some corn, but that’s not my cool-season focus now. Ditto with melons, their juicy sweetness always so tempting.

Peas! Now that’s my speed. And they’re offering Alaska this year. An old variety named for a steamship, not the state, it’s bred for the short seasons (thank you!) and pops out some shelling peas earlier than most. It’s a bit of a rarity, and I often opt for these old ones that only are offered sporadically.

As I mentioned, I’d trust SoC on the peppers, so maybe I’ll get a fresh batch of Jimmy Nardello seeds. This is a star, an Italian sweet pepper that is great when lightly grilled and draped over a burger.

On to the tomatoes. They offer up a number of short-season varieties familiar to Northwest gardeners: Stupice (which my friend of Czech descent said should be pronounced stew-PEE-chay), Costoluto Genevese, Oregon Spring (of which, unlike so many, I am not a fan), Cherokee Purple, Black Plum, and one I haven’t tried but should: Northern Delight.

SoC Tomatoes
Tomatoes for evaluation at the Seeds of Change trial farm.

In the listings for cherry tomatoes, which are the most reliable in our sometimes cool summers, they show Chadwick’s, one of my go-to choices because of its large size and wonderful big-tomato flavor. Thank you again, Alan Chadwick.

One — or rather two — final entries grab me: Red Pear and Yellow Pear. No, I haven’t flipped to the tree fruit section. These are some of the earliest tomato varieties recorded in the U.S. Many people are familiar with Yellow Pear, which visually lives up to its name and is a reliable, but sometimes not heavy, producer in a cool-season climate. And SoC is offering Fargo Yellow Pear, another nod to my homeland. OK, check. But the other one is a pear of a different color.

When I was researching Edible Heirlooms, I greatly enjoyed the classic book by Fearing Burr Jr. (and his classic name as well) called The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. First published in 1863, this was the first compendium of the broad range of vegetables being grown in the U.S. However, even though Thomas Jefferson had been championing the tomato a half-century before, this was the earliest book in which I could find tomato listings. Even here, they’re lumped under Miscellanous Vegetables at the very back of the 600-page tome.

Among his 21 varieties is the Fig-Tomato, which is described as “a small, red, pyriform or pear-shaped sort, measuring from an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half in length and nearly an inch in is broadest diameter. [Fearing was precise!] Flesh pale-red, or pink, very solid and compact, and generally completely filling the centre of the fruit.” He goes on to include a recipe for “tomato figs,” after which this little incher was named. Basically, you skin the tomatoes with scalding water, then preserve them in a sugary syrup.

But it’s literally the last entry in the book that got me excited about seeing Red Pear in the catalog.

Fearing’s entry for Yellow Pear-shaped Tomato notes that it is “a sub-variety of the Red Pear-shaped.” When I discovered that entry, I was delighted to think that our familiar Yellow Pear had such a long history. None of the other tomatoes in that classic book, I thought, are still being grown. And yet, I’ve always been curious about growing the Fig-Tomato, which could probably also be called Red Pear. Now here it is.

Guess it’s my year to make tomato figs.