BARBARA MELERA: Heirloom Seed Saver
interview by Kathy Jentz
photo by Drena J. Galarza
Barbara Melera is co-owner of D. Landreth Seed Company based in New Freedom, PA. She has a whirlwind schedule, but we caught up to her during the recent New Jersey Flower & Garden Show.
Tell us about your background and how you came to the decision to purchase D. Landreth Seeds?
I was a venture capitalist for 20 years and worked with leading edge technology companies. I decided I wanted to retire from it and someone who knew me (another venture capitalist) knew of my passion for gardening and history. She laughingly told me about this seed company and I fell in love with it.
D. Landreth Seed Company was family run from 1784 until it was sold in 1940s. It was run for the next 30-odd years by Ben Goldberg. He passed away at age 95 and his son was looking to sell.
The company has had over the last three centuries many loyal customers who bought from them for decades. They sold all throughout the country and were a modest wholesale operation. The customers were largely family-run hardware stores and nurseries.
The inventory it offered was vintage classic heirloom seeds – a huge selection of 500 different varieties – with that in place we decided the business should take advantage of its history and take a place in that heirloom market. But within the first year we also discovered there were two other promising, undeveloped markets for these seeds. The market in children’s gardening and that of container gardening. We found we could target plants just for them, since many of the classic varieties lent themselves well to both of those markets. It was a natural extension of the offerings we hand on hand. We didn’t need to develop new ones; we had the inventory on hand already to market to those needs.
What is typical work day like?
I get up around 4:30 in the morning, pick up one of our employees in Baltimore City at 6:30, and we are in the office between 7-7:30 depending on traffic and weather.
From November through January, there are four of us and we are packing seeds either with an automated machine or by hand for the more valuable seeds. In the January to May period, we are either at flower shows or filling orders.
Starting March to September, we are tending our trial gardens, which consist of more than 300 containers with more than 450 varieties largely veggies and some flowers. Throughout the summer we are visiting customer’s gardens and spend time with them as well getting photos and material ready for the annual catalog.
Beginning in July, we do germination testing of our current inventory, which takes about three months to complete. Also in the summer we are looking at new “old” varieties to add to our catalog. We are cleaning the warehouse and reconditioning the equipment — readying for fall.
August to September, seed orders for our inventory is completed and the catalog is done. We do two mailings: by November 15 to our wholesale customers and we aim for the retail catalog to be in our customer’s hands right on December 26.
What mistakes/triumphs have you encountered in your work with heirloom seeds?
Lots of mistakes! Seed integrity is definitely an issue. People we buy from can innocently get varieties confused. As an example, The Long White cucumber and White Wonder cucumber are often confused. We are trying to offer the consumer the correct seed variety. It is a big issue for anyone dealing in heirloom seeds and believing that your seed sources know what they are doing is not always guaranteed. Not that they are deliberately doing it, it is accidental – which you just don’t know.
Availability of seeds in the heirloom market is precarious. They are not grown on a mass scale so you become vulnerable to the growers and what is available. Knowing or hearing about outstanding varieties that are ceasing to exist is hard. The Dr. Martin lima bean has only one source on the East Coast. He is an 80-year-old man who has promised us his seed stock — about 40-50 pounds from his crop this year. The Dr. Martin lima is two inches long when dry. It is legendary in size and loaded with flavor. We don’t have a second source for them. It is an agonizing issue.
One triumph we had is a great story. My husband, Peter, and I had owned the company for less than six weeks when he was assigned the duty of cleaning up the inventory. He got to the pumpkin section and found Boston Marrow, a cherished pumpkin pie squash. He took the 15 pounds of seeds and threw it all out as it looked buggy. Another employee then set about ordering more and found no sources. She spent 18 months – one or two days every week with no luck in getting more seeds. We panicked thinking we had destroyed the last seed stock for that variety!
So I went to Aaron Whaley at Seed Savers Exchange and asked him to look for a family still growing them. We finally found three sources a year later. They started growing them for production. Then last summer, he called and said we were going to have Boston Marrow squash for you. It turns out the most reliable seed was from Aaron’s father who purchased it from Ben Goldberg at Landreth back in 1986. It has come full-circle and is now finally available again in our 2007 catalog.
What advice would you give to beginners/amateurs in designing their own home landscapes or vegetable gardens?
My advice is wherever possible to create edible landscapes especially in the DC-area where land is at a premium. I’m becoming passionate about it. You could have a gorgeous garden that is all edible ornamentals. That is how we should garden in our region.
One suggestion I’d make to gardeners in our region are to grow the Belgian White carrot. The green feathery top is magnificent. It flowers in late August through September. You can pick some of carrots as well as leaving some to go to seed.
Another suggestion, it is not an heirloom, but certainly one of the most stunning, is the Black Pearl hot pepper. Every garden should have them. Of the same caliber is the Fairytale eggplant which is absolutely beautiful and very easy to grow.
What vegetables/plants are your favorites to use in the greater DC area?
I recommend the smaller carrots, Thumbelina and Tonda Di Parigi, for small, urban gardens. I like the mini sweet peepers – Miniature Chocolate Bell, Miniature Red Bell, and Miniature Yellow Bell. I love the fava beans. We don’t use them enough here. The Brits use them all the time and grow them in small spaces. Try Aqaudulce favas to start. Grow the whole beans – not bush beans – if you are in an urban environment. It is just a more efficient use of space. My all-time favorite eggplant is the Louisiana Long Green and for cukes try to Lemon cucumber. Finally, every urban garden should try a summer squash called Lemon.
Conversely, what plants would you advise others to avoid?
Avoid the butterhead lettuce. Novice gardeners have such high hopes of raising a perfect Iceberg lettuce. It is very hard in our regional environment. People get very disappointed
It is not cool enough for long enough in our springtime without a frost to grow them well. Try leaf lettuce instead.
I also caution against artichokes for two reasons. The only way is to do it in a container and it has to be brought inside and protected in the winter months. It must be in big pots, at least a half whiskey barrel. In general though, it is hugely disappointing and not worth it in this climate.
What do customers request the most?
The always ask what vegetables and flowers will deer, raccoons, squirrels, etc. not eat. With the exception of daffodils almost anything will be eaten.
They also all want a reliable red sandwich-size heirloom tomato. Customers who haven’t grown heirlooms are scared to try them and think they will not have good productivity. I recommend Mortgage Lifter first to them. They can also try Purple Calabash or the old standby Brandywine.
The next most prevalent question I get is for squash unattractive to the dreaded squash borer. The answer is there are none, but the most resistant is the Lemon squash.
Anything else you want to add or think would be of interest to our readers?
There is a perception that heirlooms are hard to grow or less bug resistant or more finicky. Our experience is that is not the case. Especially when grown in containers, they are as vigorous, if not more so, than the common varieties. They’ve been around a long time and are every bit as susceptible to the vagaries of weather and disease as other plants, but are certainly not more so. Every garden should have a few heirlooms and embrace some of the new varieties as well that have outstanding potential.
Barbara Melera can be reached at 800.654.2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org. D. Landreth Seed Company is online at http://www.landrethseeds.com/
This interview profile was reprinted from Washington Gardener Magazine's March/April 2007 issue.
Please see part 1 of this blog posting for how you can help Landreth Seed Company survive and thrive