August 22, 2010

Heirloom Seeds

With some fanfare and publicity, it was announced last June that a treasured Connecticut landmark would reopen: Comstock Ferre Seed Company in Wethersfield had a new buyer, ready to restore and reopen the vacant store location.

Joene did a great post on it, and the Hartford newspaper did a write up.  It's open now, so I took an August afternoon last week to go visit.

Here are my impressions:

It's not a single storefront, but a complex of buildings built in the 1820s: barns, a brick house, a glass greenhouse, sheds, and wooden warehouses, all faithfully old, realistically antique, and, after 200 years, original.  A great historical destination, much more than just a store.

What hit me when we entered was not the look of the old buildings, but the smell.  Not musty, although it's old.  Not moldy.  Just ..... rich.  It smelled faintly of leather and smoke and animals and wet wood.  We live today in an antiseptic world of stainless steel, plastic, aluminum and ceramic, where nothing smells.  Our great grandparents still lived in a world where every breath held a heavy mix of the musky aromas of daily life.  Perhaps it was not pleasant --- smoke, manure, wet dirt, rotting wood, things curing, things decaying, stuff cooking.  But amazingly, my very first whiff inside this building evoked some ancient part of my ancestry, and it smelled very, very familiar.
All the seed trays and wooden racks, the floors, the bins, the beams are original
There's a mini library of organic gardening books and resources
Old labels, faded and torn, still mark some of the seed drawers
I am puzzled about how the new owners, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, will make a go of this place, selling $2.50 seed packets, but they've done it before in their home location in Missouri and in a site they've opened in California.  There's a room to the side that has museum artifacts from the 1800s, mainly old tools and farming mechanicals.  There's a room upstairs where antiques will be sold.  Just a few there now, but more will be brought in on consignment.

Lantern reproductions for sale are in keeping with the time period
And they plan to add consignment jewelry, crafts, and gifts, but they have to be the kind of things that would have been sold in the 19th century.  There's a small room with folding chairs for garden club meetings, and a big hall in one of the warehouses that can hold 200 people, after all the debris last touched by Amish workmen gets cleaned up.

They will offer some plant starts grown from their own seeds, but no other nursery plants.  This is not a garden center.  Its intent is to be a living history site that focuses on heirloom gardening.  And sells seeds.

Baker Creek apparently has had success in other locations making their seed stores a family destination, and eventually Comstock Ferre will be just that, with festivals, garden shows, and employees dressed in period costumes.

But for now it's all just big buildings, empty except for racks and racks of heirloom seeds, and two nice ladies holding down the fort until the costumed characters arrive.  I bought two seed packets to plant next spring, and one of the ladies said apologetically: "There's no tax on vegetable seeds, but I have to charge you state sales tax on flowers".

I laughed. "Even if I plan to eat these nasturtiums?  Even if these sweet peas produce peas?"  "Oh, well then" she said. "No tax if you eat your flowers".  And she didn't charge me tax.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is committed to keeping the 19th century vibe at Comstock Ferre, but they aggressively use 21st century technology to create a market for yesterday's product.  They keep a blog, which is worth reading here, complete with forums on gardening, gene altered food, and nature politics.  They produce a magazine called Heirloom Gardening. They have an active facebook page here and it's full of news.  There is an online catalog of course.

All of it is good, right in a gardenblogger's zone.  But tell me, when you visit, if it isn't the smell of the place that hooks you on their product.  That deep, old, evocative aroma of a time when the seeds in the bins and drawers represented the height of agricultural technology and not rescued heirlooms of the past.


  1. I think a visit here will go on my "it's winter and I need a gardening fix" list of places to visit. Hope by then they have more of the new Comstock Ferre complete.
    Thanks for the shout-out.

  2. Joene, I hope they get the whole living history thing going and it becomes a success.

  3. Baker Creek makes me SALIVATE! And I'm not even a veggie grower. I would love to visit their new store. We have their come-visit-us postcard upstairs, taunting me.

  4. Michelle, I hope you do visit! I'm not sure how long it will take them to really get this going full tilt, but they do have lots of seeds already.

  5. Hi Laurrie, I find it rather moving when I see a venerable old company revived for a new generation. May it attract and inspire a new generation of gardeners! :)

  6. Garden Ms. S, although I am not an heirloom seed grower myself, I too am glad to see this old company saving the past for future generations.

  7. It is fabulous to see old 'things' cherished instead of being torn down for something new, good for them.

  8. Deborah, I agree! Especially as I am becoming an old thing myself :)

  9. Wow! you've got the best picture there! I'm sure you're getting better working with heirloom seeds. They are totally amazing seeds. I like "my weeds are very sorry, they promised not to do it again". A nice compliments for them! Try some of the heirlooms offered in the internet! It will add to your collections!


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