While snow fell quietly in the woods outside her window, Sara Vaughn of Freedom was hard at work, planning her spring garden.
Seated in her favorite chair in a small cottage set back off a country road, she spent hours sifting through mountains of information now available in the new 2009 garden seed catalogs — in both their print and online versions.
“I’m planning a big vegetable garden for personal eating throughout the year and an enlargement of a flower-growing operation for market that I experimented with, last year,” said Vaughn, 29, a part-time office worker for Easterly Wine, a wholesale distributor in Belfast.
Vaughn doesn’t need to look far afield for the short-season, northern-hardy varieties she seeks. Hundreds of vegetable, herb and flower varieties are available from reliable, established seed companies, right here at home.
Indeed, she orders from a number of Maine-based seed catalogs — from Fedco in Waterville to Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow; from Pine Tree Garden in New Gloucester to Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth.
There are also two catalogs that specialize in Maine seed potatoes: Wood Prairie Farm of Bridgewater and The Maine Potato Lady of Guilford.
And, looking toward our bioregional neighbor to the north, there’s Veseys Seeds, a Prince Edward Island company with a shipment office in Calais and a U.S. catalog, slated to be mailed out this month.
Maine seed catalogs rate high on innovation. This year, a number are offering expanded selections of organic and heirloom varieties. And two of the five companies that received the 2009 Mail-order Gardening Association’s Green Thumb Award have hailed from Maine — Johnny’s and Wood Prairie Farm.
Also, some Maine catalogs are heftier, likely a reflection of last year’s bonanza business year, during which garden seed companies here and across the country realized an increase of 20 percent to 30 percent — and more — in sales.
Fedco Seeds founder C.R. Lawn is bullish on the future of this year’s home garden seed sales.
“Orders are roaring in, and I project that we are, again, going to have double-digit growth,” he said. “People are more interested in growing gardens for food security than ever before.”
In her small way, Vaughn had contributed to last year’s surge. The pounds of garden produce she grew last summer and stored overwinter is a testimony to the fruitful results of her subsistence vegetable and herb gardens.
Bulwarked by last year’s bounty — the biggest garden she has grown to date — she is eager to send off new seed orders and start her indoor seedlings in trays filled with rich potting soil.
“I get a lot of joy out of gardening. Also, eating really healthy, delicious food is a high priority for me. I think it is important to eat food that’s grown nearby. And, I want to save money,” she said.
She finds both old-time heirlooms and this year’s seed introductions appealing.
“I’m thinking of ordering ‘Honey Bear’ acorn squash,” she said of a brand-new, All-America Selections winner developed by Johnny’s. But I’m gravitating toward heirloom varieties. There’s a Fedco lettuce — I go crazy with the lettuces — called ‘Forellenschluss.’ It’s from Germany — traced back to 1793 — a romaine that’s green with red specks and has the taste and texture of a butterhead.”
Leaning heavily on her calculator, she has been flipping through a half-dozen catalogs and comparing varieties and costs.
“I’ve been doing so much excruciatingly boring math. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to get, where its cheapest to get it and how much seed I need to plant,” she said.
The following is a sampler of the abundant 2009 vegetable and flower introductions being offered this year by Maine’s garden seed companies:
Allen, Sterling & Lothrop
“We carry the tried-and-true varieties,” general manager Shawn Brannigan said of the seed company, garden center and nursery that likes to keep things simple.
“I looked at a 1913 seed catalog and we still had 42 varieties that they carried, in our catalog,” he said, of their 35-page black-and-white catalog. We don’t carry exclusives and don’t raise our own seeds. There are no pictures on our Web site.”
• ‘Yard-Long’ pole bean, a high-yielding, burgundy-colored heirloom that grows 16 to 20 inches long and matures in 85 days. Also called ‘Red Noodle,’ the novelty bean is available in other Maine catalogs, “but it’s new to us,” Brannigan said.
• ‘Scarlet Red’ a giant zinnia with blooms 5 inches across. Can be direct-seeded; easy to grow and comes into flower quickly. Fun for a child’s garden; great for cutting.
A cooperative seed company that offers customers highly competitive prices. This year’s slightly expanded, black-and-white newsprint catalog is illustrated with old-time flower and vegetable engravings. Order deadline for mail and fax: March 20; online deadline, Aug. 31.
ä ‘Beedy’s Camden’ organic kale. “It’s similar to ‘Winterbor’ [a curly leafed kale],” said Nikos Kavanya, who does Fedco purchasing and seed trials. “Beedy Parker [a social justice advocate] has perennialized it in Camden.” It overwinters in Maine coastal Zone 5; matures in 60 days.
• ‘Saturday Night Special,’ pea bean. “It’s a short-season dry bean. We grow it in Maine,” Kavanya said. A Fedco introduction; 105 days.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
“We have 16 more pages, room for 200 new products,” said Lou Zambello, director of sales and marketing, of the new combined home garden and commercial seed catalog that also includes 300 organic products.
The employee-owned company founded in 1973 by company chairman Rob L. Johnston Jr. is now an industry leader.
• ‘Honey Bear,’ miniacorn winter squash, a Johnny’s exclusive; 2009 All-America Selections winner and Green Thumb award. “It’s a sweet, dinner-sized squash. You cook one and eat it all up, what we call a ‘personal’ size. It’s a bush plant and easy to grow,” Zambello said. Highly resistant to powdery mildew; matures in 85 days.
• ‘Buttercream’ sunflower. “It blooms early, has long side branches and it’s pollenless,” he said of its pale-cream petals and brown centers. Grows 48 to 58 inches tall; 3½- to 4-inch blooms; 50 to 60 days.
The Maine Potato Lady
Founded 20 years ago on the LaCourse Family Farm, the company offers certified organic seed potatoes — fingerling, early, midseason and late-season — and onion sets, shallots, garlic seed, cover crops, soil amendments and potato onions.
• ‘Colorado Rose’ an early potato bred for high yield and early bulking, with red tubers, white flesh. Great for salads or roasting. Resistant to hollow heart, bruising and second growth.
• ‘Adirondack Red,’ a midseason, organically grown seed potato with oblong, purplish-red skin and pink-red flesh. Early maturity; good storage. Contains naturally occurring anthrocyanin, an antioxidant.
Pine Tree Garden Seeds
New Gloucester, 926-3400
“We aim towards the small home gardener by offering smaller packages of seeds,” said Nancy Dimauro, company horticulturist. The newsprint catalog comes with color photos and more, “new” heirloom introductions.
• ‘Peanut’ — “We picked up peanuts this year. They take 120 days; you start them indoors like tomatoes or peppers. They get nitrogen from the air, like peas,” she said. How-to-grow information included in catalog.
• ‘Double Madam Butterfly,’ a large, 36-inch-tall, double snapdragon. “It’s got a mix of colors — pink, red, yellow and white,” she said.
Calais and York, Prince Edward Island, 800-363-7333
Founded in 1939, the U.S. catalog has 68 pages with all-color photos, said Pat Gallant, customer service operator and catalog coordinator.
• ‘Melissa,’ a savoy cabbage that matures in 85 days. “It’s got dense, deeply crinkled leaves — great for cabbage rolls. The dark green leaves are not as brittle as other cabbages,” she said.
• ‘Spring Treat’ eating corn. “It’s a major improvement — a better taste and quality over other early yellow corn,” she said. Matures 61 days.
Wood Prairie Farm
Jim and Megan Gerritsen founded the company 20 years ago on their 110-acre, certified organic farm in Aroostook County. Their colorful catalog includes certified organic seed potatoes and vegetable seed, gourmet potato samples for cooks, organic whole-grain bread mixes, cereals, kitchen vegetables, cheeses and more.
• ‘Prairie Blush’ seed potato. A Wood Prairie Farm exclusive and 2009 Green Thumb award winner, this golden-fleshed, blushed, moist, early-to-midseason potato is also touted to be a good keeper. “The mutation was found in a field of Yukon Gold potatoes and we planted it back,” Jim Gerritsen said.
• ‘Dorinny,’ early sweet corn (75 days). “From our trials, the best early season, cold-soil-tolerant, open-pollinated corn. We plant it here around May 10 or 15. It maintains its sweetness and quality — an old-fashioned corn flavor,” Gerritsen said.