by Henry Homeyer
CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – When I was a young man my mailbox was often blessed with seed catalogs at this time of year. Now? Not so much. Back then I poured over them. I drooled over the listings. I wrote checks for small amounts and mailed them off to the companies offering the best sounding varieties.
Now? Most seeds are sold on-line. Yes, my favorite feed-and-grain store, some hardware stores and the local food coop still sell seeds over the counter. And I do get a few catalogs in the mail. But seeds are largely sold through the internet.
One company that still sends me a catalog in the mail is called “Seeds from Italy” (also at GrowItalian.com). Based in Lawrence, Kansas, I’ve been following this company since a friend of mine bought it in 2011. His son, Will Nagengast, just took over and I called him to chat a bit after I got his catalog.
According to Will, the American palate is just discovering bitter vegetables. Italians, however, have been eating and enjoying those distinct flavors for a long time. So they feature many vegetables that are not commonly sold by other seed companies; they market seeds from Italy.
One I have tried is “Cima di Rapa” or broccoli raab, which I often see in cooking magazines, but not at the grocery store. It is unpleasant unless cooked, but cooked it is much like broccoli. It does not form a big head like broccoli, however: it’s all sideshoots.
Do you like arugula? They sell five kinds, including a wild arugula (which can seed in if you let it). Then there are a dozen kinds of radicchio, including a pink-leafed one (Radicchio del Veneto) that Will says is very popular. Never grown radicchio? It can be eaten raw in a salad, or fried with bacon and shrimp, or put in a stir fry or soup. Grilling or cooking it makes the flavor sweeter. Most varieties are red-leafed and round, but some are elongated like romaine lettuce.
I’m ordering seeds for a winter squash Will recommended: “Butternut Rugosa.” He says it is much larger than the Waltham butternut I normally grow: up to 30 or 40 pounds! He said it keeps for up to four months in a cool, dry place. He oven-roasts them and then freezes most of these big squash. Will uses the sweet, creamy meat for making homemade ravioli.
Fruition Seeds in the Finger Lake Region of New York State was started in 2012 by Petra Page-Mann and Michael Goldfarb. They are fully organic farmers, and most of what they grow are heirloom seeds, but they have developed a few varieties themselves through their breeding program. They encourage their customers to save seeds and use their own. I called Petra recently to see if they have added to their seed line.
“August Ambrosia” is a short-season watermelon that Fruition developed over a six-year period in collaboration with Cornell University. They tested it each year with visitors to the farm to get just what people wanted: sweet, juicy melons that, even if planted in June, will produce ripe melons in August. The rinds are thin and the seeds are small. Petra told me on the phone that you can eat the seeds, or have fun spitting them!
“Food is so social. Growing and sharing food is how we remember to be human,” Petra told me. So she welcomes visitors to the farm, and shares her food and her fantastic enthusiasm with her visitors. And she learns what appeals to her customers, which is good business.
Fruition sells seed for two interesting cabbages: “Kalibos” is a deep purple cabbage, cone shaped, with big hips. According to the website, it is best as a fall cabbage; sow in early or mid-July for best results. You can seed them in six-packs in early July, and transplant them into the garden in early August at two-foot spacing. Harvest them in October and November to get heads of optimal size and sweetness.
“Mermaid’s Tale” is a cross between “Kalibos” and early green cone-headed cabbage. Each one is unique in color, shape and flavor: lime green to emerald with lavender to burgundy veining. Sharp or subtle flavor.
Another specialty of Fruition Seeds is their “Hope is a Verb” dahlia. Each seed is unique and each flower is different, made from innumerable crosses of dwarf and semi-dwarf collarette-style dahlias. Petra explained to me that dahlias have eight sets of chromosomes, and consequently have many ways of expressing their genes. The plants are two-feet tall or less, with blooms one to three inches across. She said they are fabulous for short-seasons and lower light conditions. I shall start some.
Lastly I shall order “Spotlight Snow Peas” from Fruition Seeds. Some will be green, some purple, some mixed colors. They are very early (or late if planted in early August for a fall crop), very sweet, and three feet tall or less. Petra says they taste great and only take 52 days to harvest.
Every company has something unique and wonderful. Buy your seeds now, as some seed companies will sell out their seeds before summer. And if you haven’t tried starting seeds indoors, I’ll tell you about that next week.