Curling up with this year’s crop of seed catalogs has got me thinking of planting despite the below-zero and single-digit temperatures that have started the new year. I was hoping a little horticultural dreaming would warm me up.

FEDCO SEEDS

Instead, the Fedco Seeds catalog depressed me when I learned that CR Lawn, who founded the cooperative 40 years ago, has retired – meaning that his many puns (“Amaizing corn,” “Gamboling gourds”) and passionate polemics (against such things as genetically modified seeds), which have made reading the catalog so enjoyable over the years, will be missing. For this year, anyhow, the catalog retains his personality, with plenty of snippets of seed history and opinion. His deep concern for culture and the environment bubbles up throughout the plant descriptions, line drawings and historical facts.

 

Another change this year is that the Fedco Seeds and Moose Tubers-Organic Growers Supply catalogs have been combined. Each has a cover, so you can flip the catalog to start with whichever one interests you most. Fedco Trees remains a separate book.

Fedco is also supporting the Nibezun Project, which seeks to acquire and protect sacred tribal land on the Penobscot River. The cooperative’s support comes in two ways: First, through royalties for a dozen seeds that are linked to the Wabanaki or other indigenous tribes. Second, it allows customers to send any refunds to the project.

Among the catalog’s 29 new offerings on the seed side and 24 on the Moose Tubers side, a couple struck me as particularly interesting.

The Dolloff Pole Bean is among the seeds that will benefit Nibezun project, as it’s thought to be Wabanaki in origin. Before full maturity, it can be eaten as “tasty green or shelly beans,” the catalog says, although it advises waiting until they are they are “rich, substantial, meaty” chestnut-brown dried beans. CR Lawn took notice of the Dolloff because it reliably ripens fully, even in challenging conditions. The catalog calls Dolloff “the closest thing to a cinch,” which sounds good to me.

The Cassia zucchini is named for a Roman who, after initiating land reform, was executed for pandering to the masses, according to the catalog – I love that detail. It wasn’t history that earned the Cassia a berch in the catalog, however; rather it is its bounty of slim, gently ribbed, exceptionally long fruits and its tolerance for chilly Maine temperatures. It sounds so simple that maybe Fedco is pandering to the masses?

 

JOHNNY’S SELECTED SEEDS

When I interviewed Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds about his company’s two All-America-Selections (AAS) for last week’s column, I was surprised that he said the winners weren’t his favorite introductions for this year. His favorites, he said, are actually two summer squash, Tempest and Zephyr.

Tempest is a yellow crookneck squash that is vibrant yellow and has distinctive ridges. But where it really shines, he says, is in the kitchen: It retains its nutty flavor and firm texture even when cooked, whether it is grilled, roasted, braised or pickled.

Likewise, the catalog describes Zephyr as nutty with a firm texture. But what makes Zephyr really exceptional is its looks. Its yellow skin has faint white stripes, and it’s light green at the blossom end.

“We entered both for AAS and were really surprised when they both didn’t win,” Johnston said. “It could be that the judges didn’t cook-test them, which is where they stand out.”

Johnny’s catalog features many other introductions, as well, but if you’re looking to try something new next spring, the AAS winners and wannabe winners are good places to start.

WOOD PRAIRIE FAMILY FARM

The Organic Potato Plant Detective, a new product from Wood Prairie Family Farm in Aroostook County, won a national Green Thumb Award from the Direct Marketing Association. Company founder Jim Gerritsen, who recently turned the operation over to his son Caleb, said the new product stemmed from a discussion the two had about how they use two varieties, King Harry and Island Sunshine, as bellwethers to figure out problems in a potato field.

King Harry, which has hairy leaves, is resistant to insect damage and Island Sunshine is disease resistant. So if most potatoes in a field are doing poorly, but King Harry is strong, the problem is insects. If Island Sunshine is doing well, the problem is disease.

“The product comes with a flow chart so you can follow things along, and it makes recommendations,” Gerritsen said.

Another potato he likes is Yukon Gem, which tastes like Yukon Gold, but is more disease resistant, according to the catalog.

PINETREE GARDEN SEEDS

For the first time, Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester is offering herb plants to give you a head start on the growing season. “Certain herbs are unavailable from seed, or slow to start, grow and harvest within one season,” the catalog says to explain the addition.

I’m interested in the mushroom plant, Rungia klossii, an herb with a texture like spinach but a taste like mushrooms, according to the catalog. It’s the first I’ve heard about this plant, and I’m intrigued.

MY OBSERVATIONS in this column come from a first look-see through the catalogs. I received out-of-state catalogs, too, but they lack the aura of Maine catalogs. Most seed sellers in Maine develop and/or trial their own plants and seeds, which really increases their reputation.

When my wife and I start actually preparing our orders, I’m sure I’ll find other flowers or vegetables that I just have to try. Mostly, I just want to get back outside without freezing my mustache, but we all know that is months away. (Or maybe not – as I write, the radio weather report has just mentioned “January thaw.”)

WHAT KIND OF GARDEN CATALOG READER ARE YOU?

If you are an original back-to-the-lander, an aging hippie, a reformed hippie or any of their literal or philosophical descendants, Fedco Catalog is for you. Fedco, a cooperative in Clinton, keeps its prices low, which suits a crowd for whom money matters less than dreams. Fedco has a serious mission – to protect the environment and the availability of single-source seeds – but realizes that being serious does not mean you can’t have a sense of humor. Black and white line drawings – such as two intertwined and romantically inclined parsnips – throughout.

If you’re the sort of gardener who wants the very best, pick up a copy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. The company, which is employee-owned and based in Winslow, hybridizes award-winning plants and sells the best plants created by others. It’s also a go-to source for heirloom varieties. The catalog features wonderful color photos of the plants and top-quality tools for sale.

Pinetree Garden Seeds, in New Gloucester, is for the suburban gardener. It sells seeds in smaller packets, just enough for a small plot in the back yard, so you aren’t forced to spend money on seed you don’t need.

Bridgewater-based Wood Prairie Family Farm specializes in spuds – although it has expanded into vegetable seeds. Everything it sells is organic. One of the company’s founders, Jim Gerritsen, is well-known for a lawsuit he helped lead against Monsanto and its genetically modified products.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]