Advice for Northern Gardeners from Baker Creek Horticulturist Shannon McCabe

Jan 16, 2020

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalog is the world’s largest, containing 1200-1800 varieties. For gardeners in snowy, cold northern Minnesota, January is a good time to dream about springtime and things that grow. That huge Baker Creek catalog is full of tasty, familiar, weird, and fascinating plants. To tell us more about what will grow well in this very northern locale (zones 3a and 3b) and help guide our selections, both in the catalog and beyond, we talked to Baker Creek horticulturist Shannon McCabe. We found her in Florida.

Maggie Montgomery (MM): I can't help but ask, what's the weather going to be like today in Florida?

Shannon McCabe (SM): What? I wouldn't make you too jealous. I will say it's going to be sunny and warm, but I was listening to your weather forecast and getting a little nostalgic because I'm a northerner. I'm from New England originally. So missing the white stuff.

MM: Tell us about Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

SM: I am very, very fortunate to work for Baker Creek. It is my dream job. I've said that for the five years that I've worked for the company, I love it here. Baker Creek is a family owned seed company and heirloom seed company. The company was founded by Jere Gettle when he was 17 years old. Jere was a home school kid. His parents were homesteaders. They were avid gardeners, as was he. He grew his first garden when he was three years old.

His parents kept a large collection of vintage seed catalogs because (some of us may remember; many of us younger folks might not know this), at one time, America had many, many, many. The whole map was dotted with small family-owned seed companies, and they sold regionally adapted seeds and had colorful catalogs. Marketing seed was a big business for America, but it was kind of like a cottage industry.

And so Jere’s parents kept a colorful collection of seed catalogs that Jere would pore through as a child. In fact, he's told me that he actually taught himself to read out of seed catalogs because he was just so fascinated he couldn't stay away from them. As he got a bit older he noticed that the diversity of seed companies in the country was rapidly shrinking. He's a younger man, so that was around the ‘80s. He noticed that there was a rapid decline, which indeed there was. So he found his calling to keep the heirloom family owned heirloom seed industry going in his small part of the Missouri Ozarks by starting a small seed company in his parents' attic.

The company just really organically grew from there. Y2K brought a lot of attention to the importance of saving your own seeds for security in your food supply. So there was a lot of attention at that time. And from there, his company has grown organically, mostly from his passion.

And for the folks that work at Baker Creek, our passion is for saving heirloom seeds, sharing their stories, and sharing recipes and colorful photos. I've always believed that Jere Gettle and the rest of us who work at Baker Creek, we all really revel in that time of year when the seed catalogs come in and you can pore through them and dream of your garden before it is time to actually get out and work in your garden. So we really drive and focus our catalog design based on, you know, that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when your catalog arrives.

MM: Speaking of passion, where does your passion to become a horticulturist come from?

SM: It comes from a lot of directions. My mother's family are a lot of farmers. We're swamp Yankees from New England, from southern New England. And there's a lot of swamp farmers in my family, I’m proud to say. I always loved those farming roots that my family had, and my distant relatives. Growing up, there was a local farmer in the town that I lived in.  I got to work on the farm. And I also grew up on a small horse farm. We would take guided trail rides to the beach, more like a tourist business. But we always kept a small garden. I just I always liked gardening and I always liked telling stories. So I was really drawn to heirloom seeds because….stories.

MM: What is an heirloom seed?

SM: An heirloom seed is an open pollinated seed. So that is basically a plant where you can save the seeds, plant them, and in the next year, you're going to get a plant that has almost all of the same characteristics and qualities - as long as there wasn't any crazy cross-pollination going on. But it is not a hybrid. It has not been recently hybridized. With a hybrid, when you save the seeds, you'll get a completely random offspring. These [heirlooms] are seeds that are stabilized so that you will get the same thing year after year if you take care in making sure that they don't get cross-pollinated by nature. They're like your grandmother's tomatoes. You know, a lot of people have family heirlooms and they'll save the seeds and pass them on generation after generation.

MM: You're kind of getting at what makes some of those heirlooms special. We pass them on. They're part of our family histories. What else is special about heirlooms?

SM: There are a lot of things. Actually, scientifically, they've been shown to, on the whole, generally be more nutritionally dense than hybrids, because characteristics like nutrition and flavor have been selected over things like shipping quality and packing uniformity that are maybe some of the hallmarks of the more modern hybrids for commercial production. So nutritional density is a huge resource. And the stories that come with these seeds are incredibly important. I mean, almost every heirloom seed has a unique story of who saved the seeds, what group, culture, region or family, save the seeds. The human connection story is really fascinating. And then, of course, flavor is the number one driving force behind why we save heirloom seeds and what makes a certain trait desirable to be saved year after year. So the flavor of heirlooms is typically far superior. And I have to say - maybe I'm biased, but I do - I love the flavor of a good heirloom tomato.

MM: You know, we are looking at this giant catalog and we have it on the desk here between us, Katie and I. How do you choose what seeds go in this catalog?

SM: Yeah, that's a great question. It's not always easy because we are super fanatical about heirlooms. We have something between twelve hundred and eighteen hundred varieties in that catalog. And believe it or not, it's actually a real struggle to whittle it down to that many because there are so many incredible candidates. I mean, for example, we might get a lady in Georgia who sends us her family's heirloom tomato seed. And, you know, it could be a two-pound tomato, a huge, beautiful classic, red tomato like the tomatoes of yesteryear that we only can dream about - or a sacred variety that's been stewarded by many generations of a certain culture for certain ceremonial purposes or for making a certain food dish. So it's really hard to choose, but we like to take into account stories, nutritional profile, flavor. And we always look at things like if something is super early to mature. So maybe a grower of very far up north could grow a melon. So it's really what would make someone be interested in the heirloom.

MM: How do we choose the kind of plants from a catalog like this that can grow in our area?

SM: That's what I like about the fact that we are a non-regional seed company, is that we have a little bit of something for everyone. And we have a network of about 200 growers who produce that seed for us. So we have growers who are producing seed way up north where you're at. And we have growers way down south right now who are producing some of our seed. So when you, as a far northern grower, are approaching this massive catalog and deciding what you actually have the capability of growing, you just want to assess your area's limitations and advantages.

Your specific climate is kind of classified as a humid continental climate. You've got those warm, hot summers that are pretty short. I know that some of you way up far north are only getting about 90 frost-free days. You really want to take into account how many days you have to work with. That's super important. Some crops are going to be really dependent on frost-free days. Other crops like your brassicas - things like kale, cabbages, cauliflowers - they're not going to be so finicky about your frost dates. They can be a bit flexible. They can handle some cold weather. Same with beets and carrots. But when you get into things like melons and tomatoes, you want to know about your frost-free days.

I always recommend that folks choose crops that have some localism to them, so I have a few suggestions of actual Minnesota heirlooms. Let's start with those. You also want to look for things that grow in an analogous growing zone, which would be somewhere maybe not necessarily directly local for you, but that has a similar growing zone. I'll talk a bit about that after. And then also there is a regionally adapted seed company in your area that I would let your listeners know about.

First off, those Minnesota heirlooms, We've got the Minnesota Midget Melon that was introduced in 1948 by the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. It matures in 60 to 70 days. This is really important for you all to take into account, how many days, how many frost-free days you have and compare it to how many days this melon or any crop that you're looking at is going to take to mature. So it's going to mature in just 60 to 70 days. And it's a super mini melon. They're really small, like about a baseball size and they're really prolific. So they're a nice little single serving melon. I know that Jerry Gettle, the founder of Baker Creek, he used to live up in the mountains in Montana. He has a special love for the Minnesota Midget Melon, because it was the only melon he could grow when he was there. That's available on the Rare Seeds website.

Then there's the Minnesota Winter Onion as well. That's a bunching onion that is available through Seed Savers Exchange. We do not offer that that bunching onion, but it's a really beautiful blue-green onion. I really like it because it can take cold. You're not going to have to worry about your frost-free days with growing a bunching onion. And the other reason that I like it is that I'm going to suggest to you a few Asian crops and the bunching onions are really a nice addition to your Asian meal.

MM: OK. Yeah. What kind of Asian crops can we grow?

SM: Right! So let's jump over to what I was talking about before when I said ‘analogous growing zone.’ That is a similar growing zone to where you are. But it might be all the way across the globe. If you're looking at somewhere else that has the that cold, humid, continental climate that you have, you're going to find plants that are selected for similar traits that you need to select for. So northern China, northeast China, is somewhere that is kind of considered an analogous growing zone to your area in Minnesota, believe it or not! Right? I know, isn’t that interesting, though?

I love Asian greens and I think they're not utilized enough because you're working with a funny combination of a short summer and all, but also a hot summer. Asian greens, certain Asian greens that like the heat, are going to be really, really good for you. So things like Komatsuna and Mizuna are great. They love the heat. They can handle the heat. They've got really nice spicy flavor. They're going to go beautifully with that Minnesota winter onion. Alternatively, you can let those crops go a little bit later into the season and they can take some cool weather as well. So they're really flexible, taking both heat and cool weather.

Also, I love kind of a new, cool, exciting crop that just came out from Baker Creek that I think would do really well in your area would be the pink celery that we offer because it's a super early maturing celery. The stalks are bubble gum pink. They're really beautiful and they're kind of a hot new heirloom from Beijing. Yeah, that is a fairly analogous growing zone to where you're at in Minnesota. This celery matures in only about 50 days and it can take heat and humidity. So you can grow right through your summer.

MM: There are some indigenous people in this region and they certainly know what they're doing with seeds and gardens. Can any of the plants in the Baker Creek catalog be traced back to our region's indigenous roots?

SM: Yes and no, I guess would be my answer there. So I had been doing a search specifically for Ojibwe heirlooms and I hadn't found anything specific. But we do sell Hidatsa red beans, and the Ojibwe were known to trade with the Hidatsa. And so the Hidatsa red bean is an early maturing dry bean. And it is really fun to experiment with the dry beans. So I do recommend the Hidatsa red beans. It takes about 85 days, so we're not going to try it maybe in the farthest northern regions unless we're able to get it right in the ground as soon as that frost date is passed.

Then there's another plant that Big Creek does not offer, but I wanted to mention. It is called Rocky Mountain Bee Plant. It kind of looks like a cleome; like a spider plant. And it's been referred to as the fourth sister in the three sisters trifecta of corn, beans, squash. It's used to attract pollinators. It's widely available online. Baker Creek does not specifically offer it. But I wanted to mention that as a plant that's been recognized by the indigenous population.

MM: We are talking with Shannon McCabe from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. Shannon, the Baker Creek catalog has some really wild and weird plants in it. I just want to mention a couple of them. Maybe you could comment and let me know if we have any chance of growing them here. Snake beans.

SM: So…those snake beans are a lot of fun. You do get a really hot summer, which does help. They love intense heat. But the snake bean is going to require about ninety-five days frost-free. So maybe for those who can push the limits a bit or if they'd like to just start them indoors first, you'll be able to get an early one. But if you can squeeze in a quick crop, there are a lot of fun.

MM: Expound on them a little bit; what they are.

SM: They're actually a true gourd. They're in the gourd family. So they're related to like a bitter melon and they're crunchy and they taste kind of like a green pepper mixed with a cucumber. They're really funky. They have a really wild and untamed form. They're all spindly and twisty. That's why we often do not see this crop even in Asian specialty markets in America, because they don't they don't pack and they don't ship well. So they never made it to market. And the seeds just haven't been explored very much here yet. But it's one of my favorite new crops; new to us I should say.

MM: And they look like snakes.

SM: They really do look like snakes. To the point that a lot of the Baker Creek garden staff have gotten scared that there was a snake in the garden.

MM: There is a giant kale. It's called thousandhead giant kale. What about that?

SM: That is well within your abilities, for sure. Thousand head kale is super prolific. And it does make a massive…I mean, I’m going to use the word fronds. They’re like, kale fronds. They’re huge! You know, you could fan yourself with them. And the nice thing is that flavor is not sacrificed. They're really buttery and have a nice texture.

MM: It looks like one leaf would be dinner.

SM: Yeah, definitely.

MM: Oh, man. And then I saw some peas growing in a pot. Tom Thumb peas. Is that something we could grow?

SM: Oh, absolutely. Yep. Those are quick maturing. They grow. They were adapted for container growing. So if there's any urban farmers listening or urban gardeners, you can grow them right on your patio, which I really appreciate. That is a mainstay of the urban farmers and those who don't have a lot of space, but also great for a home gardener. You can stuff a lot of those plants into your garden. And peas, they love cool weather. They taste better when they're grown in cool weather. So you can kind of either start them super early in the spring or let them run later in the season. Another great thing about peas that I want to mention for you super far northern growers, is that if for whatever reason they didn't have the chance to put on their pods, you can just eat the greens. The tendrils are delicious. So there's really no failing when it comes to growing peas, I guess, because you can always eat the tendrils and just pretend like you didn’t want the pods anyway. You just wanted the tendrils.

MM: And then another one that I had on my list was the Paul Robeson tomato.

SM: Ah yes, well, great news! Paul Robeson tomato has Russian genetics. And is Russia an analogous growing zone to Minnesota? Yes, indeed it is! The Russian tomatoes are always a good choice for you. Northern growers because they are typically early maturing and they’re super rugged. I personally love Paul Robeson as one of my top tomatoes of all time anyway. But it's just a bonus that it's one of the tomatoes that you can you can really depend on in Minnesota.

MM: You've just given us a lot to think about, Shannon. Is there anything you want to add, any other varieties or something else you'd like to mention?

SM: Two quick things. One, I want to mention the red ursa kale, because it's really beautiful. And it was bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Corvallis Oregon. I wanted to shine a light on a modern heirloom breeder, someone who's putting time into modern, open pollinated breeding. A lot of people think heirlooms are strictly old seeds. That's not necessarily true. Some of us define an heirloom as a seed that has been around for 50 years or more. Others of us define an heirloom as simply an open pollinated seed, which the seeds can be saved reliably. So check out the red ursa kale and let's give a nod to Frank Morton because he's been doing more modern-day breeding.

And finally I did want to make sure that I mentioned a regionally adapted seed company that's doing great work in your area that is called North Circle Seeds. You can look them up online. This is a collective of Minnesota growers who are adapting seeds to your specific location. So I want to make sure and give them a nod because they're doing great work and they're local.

MM: Shannon, thank you for talking with us this morning.

SM: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Happy garden dreaming!

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ website is: rareseeds.com

Listen to the full interview with Shannon McCabe below!