As I mentioned in my previous post about Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, you can learn a great deal about gardening just from reading seed catalogs. One of my all-time favorites is the black-and-white newsprint catalog produced by the folks at Fedco Seeds in Maine. I like Fedco because I love to try new varieties and Fedco’s jam-packed, fine-print 140-page catalog has one of the widest selections together with the lowest prices, of any companies I know. Plus, the company is constantly running trials and reporting on how varieties compare for flavor, yield and other qualities. Fedco’s variety descriptions include the cons along with the pros — you can’t say that about very many seed catalogs. I appreciate knowing that the company actually grows and studies the seeds.
Fedco is also a company that I feel very comfortable supporting. Established in 1979, Fedco is organized as a cooperative that stands “on the middle ground between capitalism and socialism ...We choose to charge only what our business requires to survive and thrive and what our workers need to feel fairly paid.” Consumer memberships are available.
Fedco is one of 82 co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate 23 patents on GMO seeds granted to Monsanto, on the grounds that “they lack beneficial social utility and original art that our patent law requires.” The lawsuit also asks the court to enjoin Monsanto from suing farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto’s GMO crops. Fedco’s catalog and website include more details about this ongoing lawsuit.
Fedco offers the largest selection I know of, of certified organic seed varieties as well as non-certified but “sustainably grown” seeds. Here are some of their listings that caught my eye this year:
True Red Cranberry is a delicious rare heirloom pole bean with a great story. These unique beans are solid cranberry red and very round; they look more like cranberries than beans. A bit “slow-growing and finicky,” investing in True Red Cranberries is worth it because they are “one of the best baking beans.”
Fedco trialed the Floriani Red Flint Corn that MOTHER EARTH NEWS has featured and confirmed our judgment about its flavor: “Floriani’s richly sweet delicious corny taste beat the competition silly in our pancake and cornbread muffin bake-off.“
Described as the “champagne of French heirloom melons,” Petit Gris de Rennes Muskmelon was first noted nearly 400 years ago and is now maintained by an artisan melon coop in France. According to the Fedco website, the melons are sweet, lush, juicy and aromatic. However, they are “neither early, high-yielding nor easy to tell when ripe.” But still, who can resist the challenge to grow the “champagne” of cantaloupes?
Watermelons in Maine? You bet. Fedco offers six hybrids and 11 OP varieties, including this temptress: “Sweet Dokata Rose was a star in my 2007 trials ... One of the sweetest open-pollinated watermelons we know. It has a thin skin, few seeds and stores longer than most others. A strong watermelon flavor complements its sugar rush.”
If you have trouble growing acorn squash because of powdery mildew, be sure to try the mildew resistant Sweet REBA developed at Cornell. Fedco rates it “the sweetest acorn,” with heavy yields.
I’m always drawn to varieties that are “good for storage” and this year I'll be trying a big banana squash called Sibley, first known in the 1830s in the region of the Missouri river and the Winnebago Indians. (I always like to try varieties that I know were developed in the Midwest, since I garden in Kansas.) Fedco says these seeds come from the great-great-great-grandson of Hiram Sibley, the seedsman who introduced this variety to commerce. Pretty cool, eh? Now back to my point about storage: “Sibley is the quintessential storage squash, not coming into it's own until January.” Flavor wise, Sibley was rated “the best of the bananas” by Amy Goldman in her remarkable book The Compleat Squash.
I know the 135-day Bushel Gourd probably won’t mature for me here in Zone 6, but given climate change, maybe I’ll get lucky. I’ve wanted to grow these big, wonderful container gourds ever since I used them years ago in a display at the Phildelphia Flower Show. Fedco advises to limit each vine to one fruit and prune vines after the first fruit has set.
Fedco offers seed of the rare Sea Kale we will be recommending in the Perennial Vegetables article in the forthcoming April/May 2012 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. The catalog reports that this perennial was “once grown on a large scale as a winter substitute for asparagus, cultivated for its blanched tender ivory-colored leaf stalks that can be boiled or steamed.”
Want some help sorting through the bewildering number of tomato choices? Fedco has this to say about their favorite early (Swedish-born) open-pollinated tomato: “Glacier ripens around the same time as the sub-arctics and is about the same size... but there the comparisons end. Glacier’s rich tomato flavor is superior to Siberia, Stupice, Early Temptation — to every other tomato in the same class that we have tried.”
Looking for an OP that compares to the wonderful flavor of the popular hybrid orange cherry tomato, Sungold? OP Cherry Honeydrop may be your answer. Developed by Massachusetts gardeners Rachel and Tevis Robertson-Goldberg, Fedco trials judged it way better for earliness, sweetness and complexity, than other light-colored cherries including Blondkopchen, Dr. Carolyn, Isis Candy, Lemondrop and Weissbehart. I love Sungolds, so I have to give Honeydrop a try.
If you love salads, you should be sure to grow Bull's Blood Beet for its delicious brilliant shiny magenta leaves. Not only is Bull’s Blood a visual knockout, it was the “runaway winner” of the 26 varieties in Fedco‘s beet greens trial.
Lucia is a crunchy hybrid grape tomato touted as “a red Sungold” and with crack resistance.
Need a green cherry with great flavor? Fedco reports that Green Doctors Frosted has outstanding flavor, better than Green Grape, and appears to have some resistance to early blight.
Fedco offers the rare Sacred Basil (Ocimum sanctum) recommended by MOTHER EARTH NEWS among plants known to repel mosquitos (article forthcoming in the June/July 2012 issue).
If you love to grow super-fragrant flowers, be sure to try Only the Lonely Nicotiana (also known as “woodland tobacco”) and the wonderful 300-year-old Cupani Sweet Pea.
Want to grow your own oatmeal? Fedco suggests Terra Hulless Oats, claiming they are “the best naked oat variety to grow to eat.” Want your own wheat for flour? Fedco offers Banatka Winter Wheat, which is “an elite heritage wheat bred by Eli Rogosa from two superior Eastern European landraces, including Bankuti, beloved in Eastern Europe for its rich flavor.”
The Fedco catalog also includes an exceptional selection of tools, cover crops, and organic pest control products.
Photos from Fedco Seeds
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.