Google custom search for seeds

When we looked at buying seeds this year, we had a bunch of catalogs and seed companies to choose from.  It would be really great to be able to quickly determine who has what variety, the cost and whether it is still in stock.  Certain popular seeds tend to sell out quickly.

When I started looking into this, it seems like a task that would be difficult to accomplish without some direct assistance and interaction from the seed companies.  And I’m not sure they would be that interested.  I still think there might be a way to do this with some sort of screen scraping app, but it would take some doing.  And it might not make the seed companies happy, even though my goal is to support those who are selling organic and open-pollinated seeds. 

Still might be a fun project to try.  The problem is not everyone uses a distinctive enough url structure to make this easy.  It’s also not trivial to compare prices, since some companies sell by the number, some by the ounce and it also depends how large a quantity you are buying.  If you could find the price, I guess you could just display it.

In the meantime I created a Google custom search that searches all of my favorite companies.  I tried to filter down the urls to be as specific as possible (e.g. use the item detail page, not every url in the site). You can do this with some of the sites, but not all.  Makes me wish everyone was using MVC/friendly urls.  Mother Earth News already has a custom search like this, but it’s hidden in their site and they search several hundred companies.  So the signal to noise is pretty bad if you ask me.

You can check out mine and see if it’s helpful.  I will likely add some additional companies into the mix, but trying to keep it a bit more curated.

Review: Diane Ott Whealy – Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver

Article first published as Book Review: Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy on Blogcritics.

First, a bit of background on the lens through which I read Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. As a child, I spent a lot of time in the summer working in the garden and often could not wait to be done with it.

Fast forward a number of years, however, and I find myself interested again. The idea of growing your own food is a compelling one for many people, particularly in this age of economic uncertainty. I’m certainly very much in agreement with the goals of this organization and my review reflects that.

When my wife and I started researching various aspects of gardening and sustainability, some resources kept popping up in more than one book and one of them was Seed Savers Exchange. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a non-profit organization with the mission of saving and sharing the richness of genetic and cultural diversity found in open-pollinated seed.

Today many of the seeds you find in the seed rack are hybrid types. But you can’t save hybrid seed year after year; you must buy it again each time. This book is the memoir of Diane Ott Whealy, one half of the husband and wife team that brought SSE to life.

While it certainly helps if you are interested in the subject matter, there are aspects of this book that make it a compelling read for anyone interested in small business, entrepreneurship and the strength of the human spirit.

Diane and her husband Kent fought through many obstacles to bring Seed Savers to where it is today. Ms. Whealy is honest and forthcoming about the very real struggles that it took to develop the organization to where it is today.

When they were getting SSE off the ground, the idea of preserving genetic diversity and using sustainable gardening practices was going through a dark period. For hundreds of years, farmers had basically farmed organically, saving their best seed from year to year.

But starting in the early to mid 1900s, a new rush of “progress” pushed farmers to make production the primary goal, through the use of chemical fertilizers, unsustainable soil practices and the new hybrid seeds and later GMO seeds.

Open pollinated seeds must be regularly planted and saved or they can be lost forever. In addition, the diversity of seeds in catalogs for the home gardener was dwindling. Each year found more and more varieties unaccounted for and some seeds were only available from a single source. The Whealys recognized this as the problem it was and set about trying to do something about it, well before most people were thinking in these terms.

Scattered around the country, there were other individuals with the same dreams and goals. Seeds Savers provided a framework to bring these people together and work for the common good. They started in 1975 with only 29 gardeners exchanging and sharing seed. The tradition was started of a yearly meeting on the property, with like-minded folks coming from all over the country. By 1983, they had around 3500 different seed varieties in their collection, including 2000 different beans, 500 different peppers and 200 different squashes. For the most part, the business was run out of their home and there wasn’t always money for a salary. Income came from the seed catalog they distributed each year.

Another struggle was finding the room to work and grow the business. The Whealys moved around several times before Seed Savers finally found the right property in Decorah Iowa. Eventually Kent Whealy won the MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1990 and there were some other grants along the way. These grants, along with growth in the business and help from other benefactors finally got SSE on stable footing.

Later the organization was also able to purchase an additional 700+ acre property of pasture and woods, giving them a large protected area to carry out their mission. But it was a long road to get there, years of laboring and putting everything back into the organization. This shows the perseverance that is often necessary to make your dreams come true.

This intense, sustained focus on the organization was not without its downsides. It took a toll on the Whealy’s marriage, which ended in divorce in 2004. It is very difficult to pour your entire waking existence into a dream without some aspects of your life being neglected. This is food for thought for any entrepreneur. On the other hand it is often difficult to create something of good and lasting value without a lot of sacrifices along the way. Many people are grateful to the Diane and Kent Whealy for the lasting impact their life work has had and will continue to have on the sustainability and organic gardening movement.

Gardening Plans

We are very excited this year as we go from the shaded 100 square foot garden patch (behind our friends’ house in Chicago) to a full-on 2000 square foot “real” garden.  There is some shade around the garden, but I think we’ll get plenty of sun for a lot of the garden. I think this is approximately the same size as the garden we had at our first house when I was a kid.

We’ve already planted a patch of garlic (it gets planted in the fall just before frost really starts).  Will be cool to see how that works out.  There is also a few plants of asparagus already planted.  We have several compost bins/piles going, as well as some leaf mulch breaking down over the winter.

During this time of year, the days are short and it’s pretty dreary.  But the bright spot is receiving all the garden catalogs, allowing dreams about the summer.  This year we are trying some new catalogs. We’ve bought a lot from Johnny’s in the past and we still love them, but we want to support some other small heirloom/organic seed companies. These companies need all the help they can get to stay in business. It’s important to make sure those of us who care continue to have an alternative to the evils of Monsanto, GMO seeds and the like.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we ended up purchasing. We might have overdone it a bit, but this is an experimenting year.  We actually had a decent number of seeds already, so we didn’t need everything.  This is just a partial list of what we plan to plant.

Encore lettuce mix (a standby, we’ve grown this for several years already)
Legume inoculant – to encourage nitrogen formation on the roots of the various beans and peas we are growing
Yukon Gold seed potatoes
Celosia – Chief Mix

Comstock Garden Seeds – one of the oldest seed companies in the country, since 1811
Radish – French Breakfast
Broccoli – Calebrese
Savoy Cabbage – Perfection Drumhead
Pea – Little Marvel
Onion – Giant White Stuttgart and Yellow Dutch
Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved
Squash – Blue Hubbard
Squash – Delicata

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – we think this might be our new favorite catalog
Lettuce – Rocky Top Mix
Culantro (Vietnamese Coriander)
Beet – Chioggia
Beet – Cylindra or Formanova
Radish – Pink Beauty
Tomato – Stupice, San Marzano, True Black Brandywine, Pink Icicle
Cauliflower – Purple of Sicily
Cucumber – Mexican Sour Gherkin
Carrot – St. Valery
Pepper – Hungarian Hot Wax
Pea – Alaska
Sugar Pea – Mammoth Melting, Sugar Snap Pole
Onion – Red of Florence
Melon – Boule D’Or, Sugar Baby
Squash – Kuri
Sunflower – Mammoth
Marigold – Red Cherry

High Mowing Organic Seeds – local Vermont seed company
DMR (downy mildew resistant) Lettuce Mix
Chard – Rainbow, Fordhook Giant
Thai Basil
Bean – Dragon Tongue
Sweet Pepper – Sweet Chocolate
Kale – Russian White
Potato – Red Norland

Seed Savers
Cucumber – Bushy
Fingerling Potato – La Ratte

D. Landreth Seed Company
Genovese Basil
Spinach – Bloomsdale
Zucchini – Black
Bean – King of the Garden
Marigold – Sparky
Nasturtium – Dwarf Jewel
Hollyhock – Nigra
Tomato – Paul Robeson

We are curious how some of this stuff will do in the garden and whether we are biting off more than we can chew (pun intended).  But it should be fun to have plenty of room to experiment and see what works in our shorter growing season.

What are you growing this year?