Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seed Catalogs

This time of year, in my part of the world, Mother Nature gives a few teases before springtime is fully here.  Between all the rainy days, there are times filled with bright sun when the buds and bulbs begin to bloom.  However, I have learned that these sunny days do not mean it is time to plant seeds in my raised beds quite yet.  I have fallen to this temptation before and it results in the extremely slow growth of my small plants or moldy seeds in the furrows of soil.  One thing that helps me to be patient a little longer is the seed catalogs that come to my mailbox around this time.  Their pages are filled with pictures of colorful, healthy vegetables and descriptions of each seed that make me want to purchase the entire catalog.  When I finally narrow down my list and make an order from one of the catalogs, the seeds and plants I purchase usually have a money back guarantee or a replacement policy if the plants fail to thrive.

Another way I get seeds in the mail is by exchanging them with my sister.  We live hundreds of miles apart so each of us carefully pluck and dry seeds from our own flower gardens, vegetable gardens of even our neighbor’s yards.  Recently we have been exchanging heirloom seeds for many vegetables we have grown.  When I carefully sow the seeds my sister sends me, I feel obligated to tell her how my plants are doing, if they have grown, how tall they are, and if they are flowering.

My gardens are a hobby and a minor supplement to our food budget. However, in the past, gardens filled with vegetables and fruit trees were much more vital to the settlers that so carefully planted, tended and harvested them in the New World; these early colonists planted gardens to survive. When they received plants and seeds from overseas they did not come with a money-back guarantee but with a letter about the plants and seeds and an admonition to report back on their growth and progress; much like the exchange that occurs between my sister and I.

Transporting plants between gardens was much more precarious in the 1600s.  Jeremias van Rensselaer was the director of the town of Rensselaerswijck in the colony of New Netherland.  He had come from Holland and still had family there.  Van Rensselaer had grown sassafras trees in New Netherland and wanted to send some plants back to his uncle Jan Baptist.  Uncle Jan received the plants that were sent and they arrived in wooden tubs after their voyage on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  For Uncle Jan, only one of the two trees arrived as the other one had gone overboard.  He requested that more be sent each year since he had success in growing them in the Netherlands and he had “made good friends with them” (Piwonka, 420). 

In letters written in the 1660 between Uncle Jan and Jeremias they discuss wars, business affairs, concerns of the colony of New Netherland and information about the condition of their gardens.  A particular delivery from Uncle Jan was sent in a wooden tub filled with plants and delivered by a servant.  In his letter to Jeremias, Uncle Jan described the contents of the wooden tub: “at the bottom there are several layers [destroyed text] plants, between the layers of soil there are all sorts of seeds of apples, pears, plums, sour cherries, apricots, nuts and chestnuts . . . on top, sticking out of the soil there is a stately carnation plant, a fine laurel bush and a rose bush.  I am also sending all sorts of seeds wrapped in paper” (Piwonka, 420-21).

The effort necessary to transport plants and seeds back and forth across the ocean is impressive.  One can only imagine that after making it that far, that a plant or a handful of seeds would be carefully tended since there was no guarantee that another would successfully make the voyage across the oceans.

Piwonka, Ruth “ . . . and I have made good friends with them: Plants and the New Netherland Experience” New York History (Fall 2008), 397-425.


  1. It would be interesting to see all the letters that accompanied these seed transactions. Hooray for spring, even if it is a false one...

  2. That interests me too since the letters were full of information because that was their only form of communication.