Every year I get stacks and stacks of seed catalogs in the mail. It can be overwhelming. Some of them go straight into the recycling bin. Others look interesting enough, so I’ll keep them around for a bit, leaf through them, and then end up tossing them. In the end, I have five mainstays, from whom I’ve been ordering year in and year out. Almost all of them are in the northeast, or at least along the east coast — not that shipping seeds is a huge environmental drain, unlike, say bananas from Indonesia. I like these companies for distinct reasons.
Fedco Seeds – I like them because they are a cooperative business, with a super strong environmental ethic. Their prices are amazing, and they offer a selection of dye plant seeds. I focus the bulk of my purchase from them, because they’re so affordable and I want to support what they do. (‘F’ on order list below.)
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – Another cooperative business with a strong environmental ethic. Whereas Fedco specializes in varitieties adapted to the short seasons of northern New England, Southern Exposure specializes in varieties suitable for the southeast.They have a great variety of plants associated with the American south — collards, okra, peanuts, and even cotton. Of course Brooklyn, where I garden, is in between the two regions, in the Mid-Atlantic, so getting part of my annual supply from both feels right to me. (‘SE’ on order list below.)
Hudson Valley Seed Company – While this is not a cooperative, they also have a rock solid environmental commitment and an associated non-profit seed library. They are well-known for their fabulous “art packs” designs, which they commission from different artists through a competitive process. Because they’re the closest to Brooklyn, I arguably should be buying most of my supply from them. But their prices tend to be on the high side. So I select a few varieties that nobody else carries, because I’ve fallen in love with the cover art.(‘HVS’ on order list below.)
Johnny’s Selected seeds – Started in 1973, this may be the oldest outfit of all my regulars. Johnny’s quality is always very high, their list of offering very thoughtful, and I’ve been buying from them for so long, I can’t imagine starting a new year without a few fresh packets of their seeds. Yes, I’m superstitious — i think most gardeners are. But what I really like about Johnny’s is how quickly they process their orders. If I run out of something, I can usually get a fresh supply in four days, at any time of year. For instance, last week I realized I didn’t have any mache seeds. I now have a fresh packet to put in the ground, maybe this afternoon. (‘JSS’ on order list below.)
Select Seeds – This is a primarily a flower seed vendor, specializing in the kind of old-fashioned flowers that I love. They have done a lot of work in reviving old varieties, and a lot of what they sell is essentially open-pollinated. Their catalog has brilliant ideas for combining plants that in my experience, are spot-on. (‘SS’ on order list below.)
Tomato Growers Supply Company – I find solanaceous plants — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes– endlessly fascinating. In another life, I would like to come back as a professional ethno-botanist, and devote my life to studying them. So I love, love, love the Tomato Growers catalog, which has a rich description for each variety that they sell. More than any other seed house, I find myself over-ordering from them. The only reason I could think of leaving the city is to have more land to grow the plants from the nightshade family that I so love. (‘TG’ on order list below.)
On that note, this year I’m adding Refining Fire Chiles to the list, because they sell a couple of varieties of chiles that I couldn’t find anywhere else. This company has a fascinating story, and I look forward to getting to know them better. You should read their company history on their website. (‘RF’ on order list below.)
Ok then, here’s my order list. Believe me, this took hours of time to develop, with a lot of excruciating decisions. Also, not included are the seeds that I collect and don’t purchase (not as many as I would like) and seeds for which I have a leftover supply from last year (I’m looking at you huge packet of arugula).:
Collards- Cascade Glaze (F)
Kale – Rainblow Lacinato (F)
Mexican Cucumber (F)
Red mustard – Ruby Streaks (SE)
Italian flat beans – Greencrop and Golden Gate (F)
I planted over 300 bulbs this weekend. I spent hours and hours cleaning and making way, then digging little holes, pressing the bulbs into the earth, then covering them up. Nobody would know they were there. It’s meditative, and therefore an act of hope, mystery, and faith. We will get through the winter. How, I don’t know. But share with me the vision of Iris reticulata, the tiny little guys that are the among first to pop up in the early, early spring, right after the snow drops; they are sweetly and subtly fragrant. A big bag of species tulips; cheap, because they aren’t sorted — we’ll see. Tulips and daffodils named after Washington state mountains, Mt. Tacoma and Mt. Hood, respectively.Thinking of my family, who are there. Bright white crocus, Jeanne d’Arc, the warrior witch. Leucojum, aka Summer Snowflakes — so fresh. And of course, bluebells, the color of the sky at daybreak.
In the summer of 1979, the year that Robert Opel was killed, I was living on Capp Street in San Francisco. He was killed just a couple months after the White Night Riots, which I participated in. It was a heated time for the queer community, just months after the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. I was a very young 22 at the time, and felt intimidated by the circles that Robert Opel travelled in. They were older (Robert was just a year younger than my mother) and more worldly wise. I do remember the furor his death caused, the insistent question ‘Who killed Robert Opel?’ was a rhetorical slogan for years. We all suspected that minions in the San Francisco Police Department set up the murder, as detailed in Uncle Bob, the documentary made by his nephew, Robert Oppel. I watched the documentary yesterday while the blizzard was raging. It is a long way from San Francisco and 1979, and the documentary brought me back to that era. The politics. The style. The queer art world. The AIDS crisis in the gay male community was still a couple years away, and the Folsom Street scene, which Robert Opel’s gallery was in the center of, was possibly at its wildest and, conversely, most innocent ever.
What does all this have to do with gardening? Possibly not much. Except perhaps there as a ferality that the time allowed and encouraged. The tension between the wild and the tame that is at the heart of the style of gardening I like. Robert Opel clearly moved comfortably between the tame world of television talk shows and the wild party scene of late 70s San Francisco. That’s perhaps too easy an analogy, but I’ll stick with it. I compare the gardeners that I know and love here in Brooklyn, and they are so far in spirt and approach from the chemicalized, manicured approach of, say, HGTV. I’m particularly struck by the punk graphics of the late 70s. The crude cutting and pasting. The cheap production values — discounted offset printing and early photocopying. The late 70s also saw the beginning of many of the community gardens in New York City, and the intervening years saw the taming of the movement — much like the gay community. Again, perhaps too easy an analogy, but I’ll stick with it. There’s something there.
Yesterday, it had been weeks since I really paid any attention to the front yard. The Christmas decorations had come and gone, and the garden had fallen into that state of entropy that is subliminal but real. It looked sad, shabby, neglected. So I spent a few hours picking up stray bits of litter. raking the junipers, sweeping the sidewalks and stone—just generally sprucing up. After a while, I noticed little white dots dancing in the air: the season’s first real snow. Gradually, gradually, their numbers accelerated. I stopped my work, and stared out, transfixed.
I visited Tranquility Farm yesterday, and picked up some plants for the Granite Street Garden while I was at it. The wonderful Ena McPherson is the guiding light of Tranquility Farm, and a couple of other gardens in the area. Outrageously, Tranquility Farm is slated for development. This is a beautiful garden that really does offer a tranquil connection to nature in an already over-built corner of Brooklyn.
Half a life-time ago, I studied “ornamental horticulture” at City College of San Francisco. In one of my first classes there, the teacher brought a bag into the greenhouse classroom and emptied its contents onto the floor. He asked the class what we called what he had just dumped. Everybody said dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt.
No, the teacher said. This is not dirt. This is soil. Dirt is what you wash off your hands. You grow things in soil. Soil is productive.
But, if dirty hands need to be cleaned, what do you do with soiled hands? When do soiled hands become dirty hands?
It’s been a while since I’ve written about the front yard. Since I pass through it several times a day, and it’s so tiny, it’s the garden that I know most intimately. Even though it’s very public, I tried to encourage a sense of privacy. The patio is surrounded by shrubbery, and feels very much like a garden room. The bulbs have been in the ground for at east three years, and they’ve naturalized nicely. You can see here Iris reticulata and crocus. There’s also some nice Greigii tulips, snowdrops, miniature daffodils, starflowers, and muscari.
While we were in Washingston state for the wedding of my niece Danielle, John and I talked the Cascade Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park. I’ve been sitting on these photos for a couple months with the intention of writing something about them that was as transcendant as the hike.
We’re back from a vacation through western Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada, and western North and South Dakota. It was a very edifying trip. I have a lot to process and learn more about– Lakota history and philosophy, the North Dakota oil boom, mountain pine beetle. I’ll be writing about all of this over the next few weeks. But first, to get the ball rolling, pretty pictures! This was a sweet memorial community garden in a tiny, tiny town called Manson at the very western edge of Manitoba. It’s near where Juniper grew up, in McAuley, MB. In fact, these are the people who bought his family’s farm. I love all the gnomes in the garden, and the island bed approach to layout. Very 1950s working class English.
Last night was the New York City Community Garden Coalition’s monthly meeting. Word of disclosure: I’m on the board of directors. In the summer, we hold them outside at community gardens in different parts of the city. Last month the meeting was at Papa and Mama John’s Historical Garden in East New York, Brooklyn. Next month it will be at Brook Park in the South Bronx. But last night it was at the Carrie McCracken Garden in West Harlem. As always, this was a bustling meeting, with lots of news, energy, and good ideas for garden activism.
And West Harlem has changed so much. It’s been a while since I had been there, and I was amazed by the bustling, high-end restaurants and the fancy apartment buildings. To be sure, all that clearly co-exists with persistent poverty and unemployment. The Carrie McCracken gardeners reported last night that they succeeded in transferring the garden to the Parks Department’s land portfolio only last fall, and that developers were lobbying hard to get their clutches on it. With the in-your-face gentrification, it’s clear why.
It’s a lovely garden, that is lovingly maintained. Congratulations, Carrie McCracken Community Gardeners.