Natural Perspectives: Planting the seeds of 2011

January spells excitement for home gardeners because that's when the new seed catalogs arrive. Vic shows no interest in them, but I study each catalog with care, planning out my year's garden in advance.

Each seed company offers at least a few seed varieties that are unique to their catalog, so I usually order from a selection of companies. I am utterly seduced by the delicious descriptions and sumptuous photos of all that fresh produce. I am enthralled by odd colors in familiar vegetables or the promise of a new flavor. I am lured by promises of improved productivity.

Vic becomes interested only when the vegetables are harvested, cooked and on his plate. That isn't to say that he doesn't help in the garden. He's a real sport when it comes to the heavy work of turning over the soil. He totes bags of steer manure for me and ties up pea vines that have grown too tall for me to reach. He helps with the harvest, too. But his main interest is in actually eating the vegetables. He leaves the selection of varieties up to me.

As a member of the Garden Writers Assn., I get a lot of unsolicited seed catalogs. I consider this a real benefit of my membership.

One seed catalog in particular caught my eye this year. It was from Comstock, Ferre & Co. of Wethersfield, Connecticut. I first heard of that company when Vic and I moved to a seven-acre mini-farm in Higganum, Conn. There we raised lambs and grew our first vegetable garden together in the summer of 1976. Every week, I watched "Crockett's Victory Garden," then a new PBS show out of Boston. The host, the late Jim Crockett, showed new gardeners like us how to make compost and grow vegetables. We've been vegetable gardeners off and on ever since.

Comstock, Ferre & Co. was a local seed supplier that had been in business since 1811. I bought some of my seeds from its racks at the local garden center. I got my other seeds by mail order from giants like Burpee Gardening and Park Seed Company. After we moved out here, I continued to order seeds from Burpee and Park, as well as Territorial Seed Company, The Cook's Garden and a few other favorites. I hadn't given Comstock much thought in the three decades that we've lived in Huntington Beach.

Over the past two centuries, Comstock, Ferre & Co. has passed through numerous owners. I was delighted to learn that the company has recently been purchased by Jere and Emilee Gettle, owners of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (

Heirloom seeds are non-hybrids that breed true. That means that the offspring are like the parents. Heirloom seeds are often passed down in families for generations. But during the last half of the 20th century, the selection of heirloom seeds that were available to the home gardener declined rapidly in favor of modern hybrids. Seed companies like hybrids because they don't breed true. Offspring exhibit a hodgepodge of traits, so there is no point in saving seeds from hybrid plants. Gardeners have to buy new hybrid seeds from the companies each year. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of the few companies that eschews hybrid seeds and sells only open-pollinated heirloom varieties.

When the Gettles acquired Comstock Seeds, their new name for the old company, they also acquired a treasure trove of old seed packets and the artwork that illustrated them. Their 2011 catalog features many images from the 1930s that will enchant lovers of botanical art. You'll also find seeds for such unusual vegetable varieties as "Extra Large Carentan Leek," Strawberry Cabbage Lettuce" and "Blue-podded Pea."

The movement to save heirloom seeds from extinction was organized in 1975 by Kent and Diane (Ott) Whealy when they founded Seed Savers Exchange ( Diane's terminally ill Grandpa Ott had entrusted her with preserving the family's heirloom seeds that his parents had brought to America from Bavaria.

The Whealys became aware that America was losing its rich seed heritage and sought out other seed-saving families. They formed a nonprofit organization to save and share these botanical treasures. I am a member of this organization, and their catalog of 597 heirloom seed varieties is one of my favorites.

Seeds of Change ( is another worthy group with a great seed catalog. Although it offers patented and hybrid seeds as well as heirlooms, all of its seeds are organically grown. As one who tries to combat global warming, I was pleased to read that its catalog and operations are carbon neutral. The company offsets the carbon dioxide that is produced by its operations by reforestation projects sponsored by

I believe that because of global climate change, we need to protect and preserve as much genetic diversity in our food stocks as we can. That's one of the reasons I support groups such as Seed Savers Exchange. But hybrids do have their place in agriculture and home gardening. Every year, the plant breeders at large companies such as Burpee Gardening ( come out with new and improved varieties that may stand up better to changing conditions than the old heirlooms. Hybrids can offer other benefits as well. For example, I love the flavor of heirloom tomatoes, but hybrid tomatoes are far more productive and have superior disease resistance. I grow both hybrids and heirlooms.

The Huntington Beach Community Garden group was the recipient recently of an award of 300 seed packets from Burpee Gardening. That will help the group members to get growing vegetables for themselves and to share with local charities that feed the hungry. Burpee sent a nice variety of heirloom and hybrid seeds of herbs, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, squash, tomatoes and Jalapeno peppers. The radish variety that it sent was "White Icicle," a radish variety that one of my great-aunts grew in her garden. The white icicle radish was developed in Europe in the 1500s. A mild radish that is slow to grow woody, it is still popular and one that I grow in my garden.

All this talk of seeds and vegetable gardens has me itching to put in my garden. It's time to dig in the dirt. Time to participate once again in the annual cycle of tilling the soil and planting seeds. Time to follow in the steps of our ancestors in a ritual that goes back 10,000 years as we prepare the ground to accept new seeds. Vic will help me dig. And later, he'll join me as we feast on the fruits of our labor.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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