Growing locally

A bad economy has, at least in the garden, led to a resurgence in people learning to grow things. “We’re seeing a lot more people coming in who are interested in growing their own edibles to save money,” said Julianne Klasen-Daoud, manager at The Phantom Gardener in Rhinebeck and consultant for The Tree Center. “It’s really exciting.”

She’s seeing an uptick in people turning over the grass in their lawns to devote space to vegetable gardens. She also reports a big change in attitude toward what they’re putting on those young plants. “When we first opened 20 years ago, it was something really new to be completely organic in the products we used for fertilizer and pest control,” Klasen-Daoud said. “Five or ten years ago, we started having people coming in asking specifically for just that. It’s not a trend, it’s a way of life.”

An interest in local vegetables and flowers led to the creation of the Hudson Valley Seed Library at the Gardiner Library in 2004, which became a full-fledged business four years later. Owner Ken Greene said he and his partner, Doug Muller, both had other jobs, but they wanted to be farming.

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“At some point, when you find something you love,” Greene said, “you have to make the leap to turn it into something that supports you.

So far, it seems that the enterprise is succeeding. Greene said the online catalog business for the Hudson Valley Seed Library has doubled every year.

The seed library also offers a national wholesale line, with heirloom seeds in packaging with original art. Those seeds, specifically tailored to the region where they’re sold, can be found in garden shops, museum and gifts shops. And the seed library last year boasted about a thousand members who add their own seeds to the library’s catalog. Last year Greene said the library has been growing its flower archives, offering 200 varieties last year and expecting to offer more than 350 this year.

“We’ve expanded our network of regional farmers, and we’re carefully adding independent sources,” said Greene. “But we’re very particular not only about their growing conditions but also their business affiliations. The most exciting thing is when local families donate heirloom seeds from their own gardens.”

Greene said the actual company farm in Accord is “tiny,” just two acres. Everything is done by hand, the old-fashioned way, from seed processing to cleaning. “We have to keep it manageable,” he explained.

Greene is passionate about preserving not only seeds but also traditions, seeking the propagation of truly regionally-specific varieties of vegetables and flowers.

“There are New York heirlooms, like the King of the North pepper,” he explained. “It is a red bell pepper that was introduced in the 1930s and it did really well in the Northeast climate. But it’s now mostly grown by giant companies in California. The King of the North you buy from them will be very different from the true New York plant that we’ve been working to restore. And the only way to ensure that future varieties will be hardy in our climate is to grow them every year, seeing which deal the best with our particular pests, our temperatures, our diseases, our heat and our rainfall.”

Owner Victoria Coyne of Victoria Gardens in High Falls calls the Hudson Valley Seed Library line “fantastic.” “Not only do I adore the great heirloom seeds and the beautiful packaging,” she explained “but I love that they are local: a local company, local seeds.”

Coyne detects a demand for alternatives to ordinary landscape plants, alternatives that are up to the challenges of our region. “Helleborus, for instance,” she said. “They’re also known as Lenten roses. They’re a perennial evergreen and they flower in March, even in the snow. But most importantly, deer don’t like them. So I carry all different varieties and suggest them as an alternative to hostas.”

Deer, as any gardener can tell you, find hostas just delicious. “Deer are a fact of life here,” said Coyne. “So rather than rhododendron and mountain laurel, I’ll suggest andromeda, which isn’t local — in fact, it’s a Japanese plant — but it does well here and deer don’t care for it.”

Coyne doesn’t just look for local varieties of plants. She looks for locally grown plants. “A plant that does well here but starts out in South Carolina is like a person who moves here from South Carolina,” she explained. “They have to acclimate. They tend to be more sensitive to the cold. So I try to find plants that do well here and are grown here, too.”

People sensitive to the growing season seem to be the right ones to ask whether they’re noticing the development of a new weather pattern. Greene, Klasen-Daoud and Coyne agreed that it was too soon to say if there’s a pattern to what they’re seeing. Coyne noted that in 2011 her landscaping business was able to start work on the first of April. Last year, it started working a month earlier.

“But I’m not ready to say there’s a change in weather patterns,” she added. “The weather pattern has changed for centuries.”

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