Home & Garden

Names, not much else, new under sun

Before the peach is in bloom sow in hot-bed or in window-ledge boxes, in a warm room: aster, balsam, cosmos, canna, celosia, daisy, ice plant, marvel of Peru, petunia, castor bean, pansy, zinnia, verbena, sage.

Once in a while I like to get in touch with the historical roots of gardening, to make sure that we haven't strayed too far from the garden path, that some dazzling hybrid hasn't abducted our gardening soul, that we're still literally down to earth.

D. Landreth Seed Co.' s 225th anniversary has turned out to be the ideal occasion for some wintertime contemplation of this sort.

Amid the crop of seed catalogs that beckon with new thin-skinned beets and pink-fleshed tomatoes, Landreth's catalog is a throwback that includes stories and advice from old catalogs —"A Page to the Ladies. Plant Flower Seeds." —as well as an African-American Heritage Collection of seeds that's rich in heirlooms. (You can order the catalog at www.landrethseeds.com or by calling 800-654-2407.)

When the apple is in bloom sow in open garden: nasturtium, cosmos, canna ... anything in the entire list.

While I've been receiving the company's catalog for several years, its rather old-fashioned look never inspired me to place an order. It wasn't until I started reading the new 2009-2011 catalog that I realized that Landreth is the oldest seed house in America.

English immigrant David Landreth started the company in Philadelphia in 1784 and started teaching the country's pioneers how to grow food and other plants. Among the company's introductions: the zinnia, from Mexico; the white potato; Sea Island cotton seed that was exported to Egypt and became Egyptian cotton; and the tomato.

The company sold seed to every American president from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It also published a rural register and almanac with all kinds of news in addition to gardening information that at one point went to every household in the country. Landreth and his son also founded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1828 from which came the Philadelphia Garden Show.

Throughout the summer sow at intervals: phlox, drummondii, portulaca, candytuft, mignonette.

The company's new contribution in its anniversary year is the African-American Heritage Collection. It's new from the standpoint of bringing together "seeds that were carried by enslaved peoples from Africa and the Caribbean. The fruits and vegetables harvested from these seeds became the dietary staples of the African-American family." It's old in that most of the seeds are heirlooms.

The collection includes some plants that you may already grow — birdhouse gourds, habanero peppers, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Genovese basil, sage, spearmint, thyme and... dandelions! "Beloved for their greens and their wine-flavoring blossoms," the catalog says of dandelions. You may think twice about poisoning those treasures again.

Here are some seeds from the collection that you may want to try: Georgia Southern collards, Louisiana Long Green eggplant, cowhorn okra, hot fish peppers, climbing red Malabar spinach, Purple Calabash tomatoes, seven top turnips (for the luxurious greens, not the inedible root), and the Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon.

In autumn sow to obtain plants to bloom in early spring: hollyhocks, snapdragon, columbine, wallflower, carnations, pinks, sweet William, pansy, everlasting peas, Canterbury bell, foxglove.

The catalog also rounds up plants of particular interest to "the patio gardener" (I need to try the Yugoslavian Red Butterhead, not just because it rhymes and is near to my own heritage but also because "the leaves are tinged with deep red that fades to pink and then changes to lime green") and to the children's garden (which includes the aforementioned "marvel of Peru," better known as four o'clocks, because they open at 4 p.m. each day).

As it should, Landreth has a whole page devoted to zinnias, making a good case for growing its long-ago-introduced flower.

If flowers are harvested regularly, plants will continue to bloom for months starting in late June. Zinnias come in every color of the rainbow except blue and black. They are vigorous, forgiving plants that reward their gardeners with magnificent display of color and texture. They are among the finest for cut flowers, and they make excellent dried flowers, retaining their colors well into the winter months. They require good to full sun, but will bloom in partial shade, and can grow in many soil conditions. They tolerate the midday summer heat well. Few flowers ask so little, yet give so much pleasure. Every garden should have some zinnias.

The catalog has several kinds of zinnias: beehive shaped, button type, cactus flowers, flat petal flowers, fully double flowers, semi-double flowers and single flowers. It seems all the types are represented in the seed offerings, including one variety called Old Mexico —a yellow and brick-red single — that would seem to be the appropriate tribute to the Mexican flower.

From that 1898 page devoted to advising ladies to plant flower seeds comes this advice for landscaping with flowers:

Now, as to the new beds, the best effect is obtained by planting each distinct sort in masses or blocks to make prominent the character of the plants. The masses may be square, 3 by 4 feet, or better of odd forms. Avoid individual plants in spots or plants in thin, long drawn-out rows. Study the grouping system and effective results obtained in public parks and on large park grounds where skillful gardeners are employed.

This plays into my favorite advice to notice home landscapes that you really love and try to mimic them at home.

I'll end on these words about the tomato, from the 1870 Rural Register:

Each year's observation of this indispensable but erratic vegetable tends to unsettle our previously formed notions and opinions. One season we are confirmed as to the superiority of a certain variety, or that a special sort is more precocious than another, yielding ripe fruit far in advance; then again the favorite one subsides into the shade, overshadowed by a variety previously held in less esteem: from all which we are forced to the conclusion that variable seasons, as well as soils, exposures, manures and unknown causes combine to effect results; or, perhaps, as the Irish ambassador has it, "are co-adjutors against one another."

So the names have changed, from Tilden and Cook's Favorite to Celebrity and Mountain Fresh. But the gardening hasn't changed all that much after all. I'm suddenly feeling pretty good about the soil under our feet.