The Anti-Consumerist Gift Files: Seedy Stuff

Ok, those of you who know me know that I am not much of a consumer. If I can buy it used, make it myself, or make do with something I've already got, I'm pretty good. I hate the frenzy of shopping that accompanies the "Holiday" season, and I think the most awesome thing about being Jewish is that Chanukah is a minor holiday, and generally I'm sitting around with my feet up while everyone else is racing around.

I'm a big fan of homemade gifts - this year most of the grownups in my family got homemade jams and such, and a bunch of meat chickens, raised at home at my house. Now I realize that most of y'all aren't going to be doing *that* - but most of us could do more homemade than we do.

But realistically, it is now December 7, and long past the time to be preaching "yes, go out and begin carving wooden toys." That is, if we didn't start thinking about it before, it is probably too late. And for many of us, last January would have been too late - life is not easy and making stuff takes time. So we are probably going to buy some stuff. Me too - I don't make any claims to perfect purity.

Then the challenge becomes buying things that are truly good. I don't mean some high-end commercial designers new "eco" bag or other greenwash bullshit of that sort. I mean really ethical stuff, that gives somebody something they actually need, or that will be beautiful and useful. And finding that stuff is hard - truly. So over the next couple of weeks I'm going to offer up some suggestions for really good presents.

My first suggestion comes from a place that is near to me both physically and to my heart - the Hudson Valley Seed Library. The HVSL is dedicated to collecting and preserving seeds with local ties to New York State and the Northeast, and making them more widely available. These are heirlooms with ties to a particular place, raised with people who are interested in both their past and their future. The Seed Library is also committed to making them available affordably to low income gardeners.

And they support local artists - what's wonderful is that many of their seed varieties are offered as "Art Packs" which are *gorgeous* seed packages designed by local artists, to support the library's larger mission.


The above is one of my favorite images, but they are all stunning. They offer gift packs here, with old and new world flavors. And they come in a biodegradable seed starting tray, with chocolate covered seeds. Vegan chocolate. Seriously. How could you not love this gift?

Who would want this? Well, the best estimate is that there were 8 million new vegetables gardeners last year, so the chances are that you know someone out there who is excited about growing food and who needs seeds. If they live in a place where it is dark a lot in the winter, they need the hope that seeds bring with them too.

What if they don't live out near me? Well, most of these seeds will be good in any temperate climate, but you can also check out local seed companies - if you live in the hot and humid US southeast, try Baker Creek Heirlooms. If you live in a hot, dry, desert climate, the place to go is absolutely Native Seeds/Search , if you live in a coastal/northwest climate, try Salt Spring Seeds in Canada. Or there's the granddaddy of all heirloom seed catalogs, Seed Savers.

I shouldn't really be mentioning this, because t-shirts probably don't fall in the category of truly needed things. But I'm a little bit in love with the HVSL's "Blight Bites" t-shirt here - anyone who got blight last year will appreciate it! So if you know a new gardener who started last year and ended up with no tomatoes at all, here's something to go with the seeds for next year!


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Hi, Sharon!

Love the new blog - the chicken is awesome!!

I have a question/request for help: I want to get a food garden going in the spring. I have a couple beds prepared, and I'm ready to go. Only problem is that every time I look at seed catalogs, I get absolutely overwhelmed with the choices! I'm in southern Michigan, zone 5, and have no idea where to start (we eat nearly everything, vegetable-wise). Can you offer a list of how many/what veggies and beans would be a good place to start for someone just taking the plunge?


Yay for seeds and for gardening!

My siblings-in-law and spouses last month conversed on the Christmas lottery (each adult person gets a random other relative to give a gift to, for no more than $25 -- there was a similar one for the kids), and we all opted to drop the lottery, so there's a few fewer presents being bought. Everyone agreed the most important part was being able to spend some time together. Still have a few presents to get, but fewer is good :)

Once again I'm buying some small presents for some of my friends for Yule/Solstice, but they're beeswax candles made by a local person. She does have to order some of her supplies from further away, but at least I'm not contributing to more miles after that (all local friends), and I'm supporting the maintenance of useful skills. That's why a lot of people were buying pickles this summer at the farmers market -- the maker and seller of pickled cucumbers and also of green beans, was a rather enterprising 10 year old boy. They're also good ;)

By Heather G (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hi Sharon! Welcome to the family. It looks like you've got some great stuff here. My partner and I are very invested in local food (and not buying a lot of excess crap!). We'll definitely check out Salt Spring Seeds as we're living in Vancouver right now. We feel very fortunate that so many people in this area care about local and organic produce. Look forward to reading more.

I'm afraid you may end up pestered with many questions.
My favorite gardener is trapped in a place where officially they don't allow vegetable gardening. Do you have any recommendations for edible things that are pretty enough (like ornamental peppers) or inconspicuous enough (like basil) that she can grow them without anyone noticing they are foodstuffs?

Becca, my advice for what it's worth, a large shallow planter can grow a tasty salad mix quite beautifully. Think heirloom lettuces and radishes. Placed on a patio table as edible decoration. Kale and sweet potatoes both have visually attractive varieties, an arrangement of them would easily go under the radar.

The mention of the chocolate coated seeds from the HVSL had me puzzled for a moment - I was picturing gardeners earnestly sucking the chocolate off their beans before planting them ;)

By sealander (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

I needed to read this lovely post today. I've been growling all afternoon, ever since my 1st grader came home with a little envelope for something called a "Kidz Boutique" that they are running at the school. It seems that you are supposed to fill in the people you want them to shop for, and the budget for each person - then you send in the cash, and the "volunteers" help your child pick the perfect useless piece of plastic junk from China for each person on the list! The bottom of the pre-printed envelope reads "Thanks for giving your child the gift of giving."

Will I let my child be the ONLY 1st grader with no money, no list for the "Kidz Boutique?" I wish I could say I was that strong, but I'll probably let her buy something for someone . . . maybe for her 13 year old brother, who keeps arguing with me that I have become "twisted and paranoid ever since I started reading all those peak-oil blogs." Let HIM be the recipient of the balsam scented candle in frosted glass votive holder.

Kate in NY

By Kate in NY (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Nice hen :)

Supposed to be summer here - more like damp and miserable today. I've planted some peas and beans so that will add to the lettuce and bok choy. Oh sorry, I was reading the other blog! Now I'm off topic...

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Erika, can I answer you in a post later this week? I think that's a great question, and it deserves a longer answer than I could give it here in comments.

Becca, there are lots of ornamental edibles. Okra is gorgeous, so is eggplant, and I love the look of fava beans. Fennel is feathery and beautiful. Dark red leafed beets make a great background plant and there are kales that are gorgeous. "Fish" hot pepper has variegated leaves and is quite pretty. Scarlet runner beans are commonly used as an ornamental, but are also delicious Red lettuces interspersed with green ones, there are red and purple basils, and shiso/perilla is lovely. Also, I like to mix flowers and vegetable together in containers - mini-cherry tomatoes spilling over the sides with calendula or marigolds, peppers mixed with verbena, etc.... If you put some flowers around it, it becomes ornamental!

Kate, my sympathies. Trust me, that stuff happens to us too!


Kate in NY:

Thank you SO much for that post. Now my mom sees that I'm not the only one screaming about "Peak Oil" and the evils of "useless, China-plastic junk" at holiday time.

Stephen B.

By Stephen B (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink


Congratulations on your new blogging home. Your success is well deserved.


My advice for a beginnings gardener (and its free advice, so you know what that's worth) is to start with the easier gardening crops, hopefully have some success the first year, and then add a few new things each year.

Here is my list for some of the easier veggies to grow.

Kale and chard. These are both big, productive plants, not at all related, but both produce very well with few problems. Both are easy to start either in small peat pots or directly in the garden. The chard will look like its dying as summer moves in, but don't pull it out! Just cut the leaves back to about 3 inches high, water it over the summer, and it will come roaring back in the fall. Also, collard greens are a close relative to kale and do very well in the summer.

Tomatoes. If you like tomatoes, you've got to grow a few plants. If you've got a good farmer's market, find a grower who has healthy looking plants. Try a cherry tomato, an early tomato, and a good slicer. Grow an heirloom, and try a really reliable hybrid like Celebrity. (I only grow heirlooms, but I've been growing tomatoes over 10 years.) See what does well in your area. And don't put your plants in the garden too early. (Mid-May is probably right for your area. Ask a local experienced gardener.)

If you really want to try starting tomatoes from seed the first year, Highmowing Seeds and Fedco Seeds both have good selections for your part of the country at fair prices. Tomato seeds need to be started indoors about the 1st of March for southern Michigan. Tomato seedlings need very strong artificial light for about 12 hours a day. Feed them with a good organic fish/seaweed mix after about 2 weeks, but use a weak mixture on small seedlings. Victory Seeds web-site has a great how-to on tomato seed starting.

Peppers. The easiest, most reliable peppers to start with are the small-fruited ones. Sweet peppers would include the Italian frying types and pimentos. Most hot peppers are fairly easy to grow. Pepper seeds need to be started indoors about the same time as tomato seeds, and need the same kind of lighting. They go outdoors a few weeks after tomatoes.

If you start your own tomato or pepper seeds, find some information about "hardening off" your plants. Plants going from a sun-free, always, warm indoor climate to the outdoors need to be acclimated to the outdoor conditions.

Squash. A small squash plant can grow in about a four foot circle. A big squash plant can send out vines 20 feet in all directions. A great tasting small plant that I've grown is Burpee's Butterbush (available from Fedco Seeds.) But there are many other fine varieties. Make sure your squash plants get plenty of compost and other organic nutrients.

Cucumbers. Also easy to grow. Like squash there are also bush and large vining varieties. But the large ones are nowhere near as long as the big squash plants.

Herbs. Basil, dill, fennel, and many others are easy to start from seed. Herbs are another category that I would look for from a good local grower, especially rosemary and lavender.

Lettuce. Easy to grow, but it takes lots of feeding, weeding, and watering.

Onions and garlic. The easiest varieties of onions to grow are the so-called multiplier onions. Egyptian 'walking' onions are one variety. See Southern Exposure's seed catalog for a good selection. Garlic is typically fall planted in all but the coldest parts of the United States. If you mulch and weed these crops well both are easy to grow.

Snow and snap peas. Very easy, lots of good choices. You might need some "starter" bacteria from your seed company if you haven't grown them before.

Beans. Also easy, also lots of great choices. Pole beans need support, and take longer to produce. Many gardeners say they taste better than bush beans. Try one of each if you have room.

Peas and beans need close weeding their first couple of weeks. After that, in my experience, they shade out the weeds.

Work on composting and soil building. If you have healthy soil, you'll have healthy plants. Enjoy your plants, nibble in your garden, but bring in a few things for your family to enjoy, too. :)

By Another old gardener (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Erika, I don't know how big your new beds are, but if you only have a little space, or a little time, I would suggest planting foods that are "expensive" or that you will only eat fresh.

When we moved here I only had about 20x30 fee to work with and I planted mostly peppers and tomatoes because I can't afford to buy them in the quantities we eat. I also planted some bush beans, just because I like them, and lettuce, a few peas (better fresh)and cucumbers and squashes around the edges. Oh yes, onions too, my oldest son eats tons of onions, I'm lucky if I get any to mature around him.

It wasn't much of a garden compared to the 1/2 acre I planted at my old home, but was enough so I felt like I was doing something. HTH.

About those homemade gifts.... This year I wasn't as diligent as last. I am giving my neices and nephews gingerbread houses as gifts, but am buying the candy. I did buy a few items off Etsy, three of which were handmade by someone else, with much more skill than I have, and my 7yodd and I found a twisty walking stick that she wants to give her favorite uncle. Everything else was purchased at a store with attention paid to the country of origin and not much else.

"There is always next year" sometimes feels like my mantra.

By Pine Ridge (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

Erika- Search Google for Michigan Master Gardeners and check out their site. They'll know what can and can't grow there. Also search for your county name and the words extension service to find the local agriculture guys.

And try the forums at because they are full of gardeners.

I can't help you, because I'm in Phoenix and we're still picking tomatoes.

By Lazy Gardens (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hi Sharon - love your work - congratulations on all you are doing. I wanted to mention our little seed company out in California, Edible Gardens. We have heirloom seed collections in a seed-saving kit, all inspired by Vandana Shiva and nearly all the seeds are endangered. If any of your readers are interested, we are doing FREE SHIPPING on all sales before Dec 20th. Come to Santa Barbara and give a talk - we love you here!

Love this blog. Such a pleasure and it is so important for each of us to me mindful of our consumption. One suggestion for gifts: Here is a link to a very small business that sells homemade soaps (literally - this couple makes the soap at home) And their products are fabulous! Bora got me a box (one of every flavor) for our anniversary this year.

We also feel fortunate to be Jewish at this time of year. Although we do splurge on Chinese and a movie....some traditions are hard to change!

By Catharine (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink