Acquiring seeds, cloning ancient trees and writing urban farming laws

January 23, 2011

The Gardener’s Anthem: “Oh, Say Can you Seed?”

I attend Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show (Mid-Am) each year for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great place to hobnob with my horticultural chums. Next, it’s a place to almost get away from winter. Unlike the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, MidAm is more about business and less about art and design, but there’s just enough green to cheer you up on a dreary January day. Finally, I always come up with at least a couple of good show segments just by wondering the aisles. This year is no exception.

Later, I’ll tell you about a family that is saving trees not by saving the actual tree but by preserving its genetic material. But let’s start with a regular on The Mike Nowak Show, Mr. Brown Thumb, who also writes on his Chicago Garden blog. If you’re a regular listener or reader of these pages, you know of his involvement in the One Seed Chicago campaign to annoint a vegetable seed as Chicago’s favorite for 2011. (And if you’re not familiar with that, you obviously skipped my home page to get here. Go back and take a look at the heated campaign, complete with mudslinging and goofy videos.)

It turns out that Mr. Brown Thumb’s interest in seeds goes well beyond that. He is also the co-founder of #SeedChat on Twitter, a live chat that takes place every Wednesday night at 8pm on Twitter. Gardeners from all over come together to talk about everything related to gardening with seeds. Search for #SeedChat on Twitter to join in. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that MBT does some work for Renee’s Garden but, as you can see, he has his eye on many other companies, like Botanical Interests, Seed Library, Kitazawa Seed Company, the D. Landreth Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange, Seed of Change and others.

Here are some suggestions from MrBrownThumb that he says will help you when deciding who to order seeds from.

  • Partner with a friend or member of your garden club. You don’t need every seed in a seed pack, unless you have a lot of space to garden, so split a seed pack with a friend.
  • Hit the gardening forums like and and search for coupons.
  • Check the Facebook page and website/blog of your favorite seed company and see if they’ve posted coupons. Some may be offering free shipping or a small discount for ordering seeds this month.
  • If you don’t like giving out your personal information, check the local independent garden centers and nurseries. They’ll stock seeds from the smaller seed sellers who specialize in rare and heirloom seeds. Buying seeds in your community will save you on shipping and handling, which can sometimes cost you more than the price of a couple of seed packs. Plus, you’re supporting local businesses.

Or you can skip the ordering process all together and swap seeds with your fellow gardeners in person. Seed swapping is a great way to meet other gardeners, share seeds from your garden and get introduced to flowers and vegetables you may not have grown before. On February 12, 2011 the Lurie Garden is hosting a Seed Savers Swap at the Chicago Cultural Center from 10am-Noon. Lurie Garden staff and MrBrownThumb will be on hand to share tips on planting and seed germination. Visit and click on “Fall and Winter Adult Programs” to learn more.

The Forest Park Community Garden has also just announced their second annual seed swap on February 27. FPCG President Jessica Rinks (also known as @snappyjdog for you Twitter fans) says that the event will be from 1 to 4pm at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison Street in Forest Park.

Here are links to some companies that you might want to consider ordering from:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Botanical Interests online
Bountiful Gardens
Comstock Seeds
D. Landreth Seed Company
Fedco Seeds

Hudson Valley Seed Library

J. L. Hudson, Seedsman
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Kitazawa Seed Company
Renee’s Garden
Seed Savers Exchange
Seeds of Change
Select Seeds
Territorial Seed Company
Terroir Seeds (home of Underwood Gardens)
The Cook’s Garden

Last but certainly not least, if you’re concerned that a seed company might be selling genetically modified (GM) seeds, you can see if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, a list compiled by the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Saving the world’s greatest trees by passing on their genes

I wrote earlier that I often find interesting ideas for show segments at MidAm and, boy, did I stumble across one this week. The photo on the left pictures what I call “Team Archangel.” And they may very well be angels of one kind or another. Who knows for sure? All I know is that I have a lot of respect for people who are trying to preserve and propagate the true remaining giants on our planet.

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is located in Traverse City, Michigan in my home state. The organization isn’t even three years old yet, but its mission is stunningly ambitious: to collect, reproduce, reforest and archive old-growth trees using the best, most important genetic specimens that remain in the world. If you’re wondering what that means, it means that they find the oldest and the largest trees in existence and clone them using traditional agricultural methods–collecting tissue and cuttings. They then plant them wherever they can, so that the genes from these great–sometimes iconic specimens–will carry on in some way, even after the great trees are gone.

The patriarch of the group is David Milarch, who founded Archangel as a successor to his first not-for-profit organization, Champion Tree Project International. I’ve seen him on the videos on the website and I’ve talked to him in person and I can tell you that he’s a salty, irreverent visionary. I’m going to keep my finger on the panic button when I talk to him on my show…though I’m not really worried that he’ll say something that will get me in trouble. He is joined by son Jared Milarch, who you can also see on the website videos.

This is a great cause and I’m delighted that I met these terrific people. If you can, log onto their site and contribute to the continuing life of the world’s greatest living things.

Good Growing: New laws for new ways of farming in the city

Whether you understand it or not (and many people do not), the various city departments have much to say about what you can grow within the city limits and what you can or cannot do with those commodities.

Martha Boyd from Angelic Organics Learning Center is once again on the show to talk about an upcoming City of Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP) meeting that will consider an ordinance proposing changes to Chicago’s zoning laws. This could have a serious effect on urban agriculture and community gardening for years to come. DZP sought out and received input from members of the Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) steering committee. The proposed zoning ordinance has been introduced to the Council and will soon be heard by the Zoning committee, most likely on January 27 at 10:00 a.m. At least it’s on the committee calendar at the Chicago City Clerk’s website. You know how those things go.

Martha and I will chat far too briefly about this on my show today. So if you have an interest in whether Chicago residents will be able to grow food and under what circumstances, I advise you to take a look at an AUA article posted this week called “Urban Agriculture Zoning in Chicago: Navigating the Rules” as well as a story by Nevin Cohen that looks at food policies in several major U.S. cities on a blog called Urban Food Policy. We have a long way to go and it’s a complex subject. I hope the right people are paying attention.