Planning a Backyard Garden with a Nod to Maine
While not a single green thing was growing outside, barns in Clinton, Maine, were buzzing with activity. Winter is peak season for seed producer Fedco Seeds, which started shipping seeds across the country and Canada in January.
The Fedco seed catalog hits mailboxes in late November and has become “legendary winter reading,” says Nikos Kadanya, the co-op’s seed purchaser. Although many orders are placed online, consumers still enjoy flipping through the paper catalog. It’s full of tips, illustrations, and information about the company’s offering of seeds, bulbs, trees, and potatoes and onions. “It reminds people that spring really is on the way,” Nikos says.
Once all the tree orders have shipped out of the warehouse for the season, Fedco holds an annual tree sale, like a surplus sale, at their warehouse in Clinton. “I think of it as a mini spring Common Ground Fair,” says Betsy Garrold, who manages the facilities and customer service at Fedco. Prices drop at some point on the second day of the sale, usually to a buy-one-get-one offer. Vendors from around the area come to sell perennials and seedlings along with Fedco’s fruit and ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines. Shoppers can also pick up farm and garden seeds, seed potatoes, organic fertilizers, pest control, and other supplies for the orchard, farm, and garden. “A home gardener could come that weekend and get everything they need,” Betsy says. The 2020 sale is scheduled for May 8 and 9.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which operates out of locations in Winslow, Albion, and Fairfield, also ships seeds through the snow, across the US, and to over 50 countries around the world. Even at that scale, Johnny’s is an excellent resource for small-scale home gardeners, thanks in part to their extensive research and quality-assurance policies.
At their 40-acre testing and breeding farm in Winslow, staff members take copious notes on hundreds of seed varieties and test every tool the company sells. This level of attention to detail has been a priority since Rob Johnston, Jr., founded the company in 1973.
“We don’t sell varieties or tools that we haven’t experienced firsthand here at the farm,” Rob says on Johnny’s website. This knowledge gives gardeners—new and seasoned—a sense of confidence when they start turning over soil in the spring.
With Maine’s long freeze and frost season and particularly demanding growing climate, Fedco observes hundreds of varieties before choosing what to include in their cold-hardy catalog selection. The company also pays royalties in recognition of native breeders through their Indigenous Royalty Program. Royalties for seed varieties that either hold a local Wabanaki story or have a tribal designation in the name go to the Nibezun Project.
Located along the Penobscot River on sacred land, Nibezun is an 85-acre property dedicated to preserving the culture, language, and traditions of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Designations in Fedco’s catalog identify which varieties support the program.
Many Mainers have contributed to the preservation of native species, Nikos says. The Long Pie Pumpkin was saved from extinction by LeRoy Souther of Livermore Falls, who had been saving his own seeds for decades before passing the special pumpkin along. Similarly, Boothby’s Blonde Cucumber was maintained by the Boothby family in Livermore for five generations.
Among today’s backyard gardeners, Nikos says tomatoes, herbs, and beans are favorites. They can all be grown in containers (for beans, pick the pole variety, not bush) and are relatively low maintenance. Nikos has also seen an increase in people choosing plants for beneficial insects. “There’s been a lot of excitement around bees and helping the pollinators,” she says. Planting flowers is the easiest way to support the local bees, as long of those flowers haven’t been treated with neonicotinoid, the insecticide most commonly associated with destroying bee populations. (None of the products sold by Fedco or Johnny’s are treated with neonicotinoid, and several “big-box” garden retailers pledged to phase out such treated products by 2019.)
To support gardeners who want to fill their beds with healthy blooms, Johnny’s offers easy-care flower and herb variety sets for every garden intention, including cutting flowers, pollinators, color palettes, and culinary interests.
Both Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds offer extensive resources on their websites and both have excellent customer service departments to troubleshoot questions. With these fantastic local resources, gardeners can celebrate spring—and Maine—by planting a bounty of color and flavor to enjoy during the warm months.
Ah, summer. It’s practically here.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving.