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February 18, 2014

A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME, JUST TO BUY SEEDS

Last Saturday while speaking at the monthly meeting of the Connecticut chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society held at the Comstock,Ferre & Co. complex in Old Wethersfield, CT, included a bonus shopping spree in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds retail store, who now owns are stewards of the oldest seed company in America.
One of the things I love most about living in New England is the history. I can drive by family farms with histories dating back to the late 1500's, stop by Longfellow's home on my way to a Rock Garden Society meeting, see camellias growing in a nineteenth century greenhouse, sit on the shore of Walden Pond for lunch. What's most incredible, is that today, I pulled open an oak drawer with corn seed in it, the very same drawer that maybe my grandfather pulled open in that spring of 1914 as he shopped for vegetable seed for his field crops, and even more amazing, it could very well be the exact same drawer and scale used by a farmer from 1825, as yes - this is the same seed store, the same creaky chestnut floor, the same wood stove, the same cash register even. I do love New England for experiences like this, but, a couple of years ago, this was almost lost forever.


Once empty rows in in old Comstock, Ferre & Co. seed store in Old Weathersfield, CT, are once again full of seed for both the vegetable garden and the flower bed. All, non GMO and many interesting varieties found no where else.

Today, although I miss the old ox blood stained buildings of the old Comstock, Ferre & CO from my memories of seed shopping here in the 1960's and 70's with my mom and dad, this American landmark has been not only saved, it has been truly rescued, and thanks to the generosity and support of a true visionary - Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, this gem from the past is now shared with the public not unlike the heirloom treasures so carefully preserved, within. The Gettle's care, not only about supporting non GMO seed saving, but they care about even more important things. Heritage, family and what many of us so easily forget, the DNA of our human experience.  The Gettles have kept their promise to operate this landmark in Old Weathersfield as if it existed in the 1800's. 

Read more, below:




Thanks to the generosity and dedication of Gere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the Comstock, Ferre & Co. seed company has been saved, and improved upon in many ways.


 Pulling up outside, I became very worried when I saw that the entire compound of barns and structures had been painted white and blue ( although, maybe historically they were this color in the 1800's?), but once inside, I was instantly transported back to what I imagine the nineteenth Century was like. No longer were there empty rows or drawers of seed, now there were hundreds of varieties, more than what I could tell is available in the Baker Creek Catalog. Sure, there were glitches that only a designer might complain about ( laser printed signage with default typefaces) but one could also claim that this is just a contemporary expression of folk art, right? All in all, it deserves a visit again, if only to buy one of those amazing fermenting crocks that I saw.


Nothing like shopping for seed with a hand basket, with the smell of cinnamon in the air, and the bright light of a new snowfall. All I needed was a sleigh outside and Laura Ingalls. "Nellie, git your hands off of that packet of Cosmos!"

If you have never seen the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalog, it's worth getting, if only for the great American story it represents. Jere Gettle started this business a decade ago in his cellar, and today, it's one of the world's most admired seed suppliers. The design and photography alone, is noteworthy.

Every inch of the Comstock, Ferre & Co. building is historically interesting, from ancient seed separating machinery to antiques, some of which are for sale.


It's safe to say that one can easily leave with far more seed than one needs, just by being caught up in the moment and the experience.




Some old boxes of seed still on the shelf from the old Comstock. Ferre & Co. days.

I wanted to sneak open one of these drawers!



Old drawers, each with a history and a story. Oh, if only that Cubanelle Pepper drawer could speak! The stories it could tell.

Some of the beautiful black seed packaging from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

I only have room for about a dozen varieties of tomatoes, really.....I mean it.

Your's truly with my friend horticulturist Tamsin Goggin (right), who seems to show up whenever I speak, which delights me. Oh, and her Primula Kewensis was spectacular. It was a good thing that she kept it in a box, or it might have found a new home!  Oh, I should mention that I spoke here this weekend as a guest speaker for the Connecticut chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.





Some of the seeds I returned with.



25 comments :

  1. Thanks, Matt, for such a fabulous post! I'm out west, with no such history. I'd give just about ANYTHING to be able to shop in such a company, steeped in the past ... what a treasure - so very, very pleased it was *saved*. Somehow this post gives me some faith in the future.

    p.s. I do get the BCHS catalog ;>]]

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  2. Hey Sweetpea, don't feel left out because you are on the west coast……remember, BCHS also has a beautiful retail store in Petaluma, CA near San Francisco. Its in the grand, old Sonoma County Bank Building.

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  3. hopflower10:26 AM

    I was just going to say Matt, that we have a branch of it here. It is in an old bank building. In fact, I used to bank there when it WAS a real bank. Now it is called the Seed Bank! Their seeds are quite popular,and yes, we have some old buildings like that out west here. There is an old hardware store in a small town not far from me that sells everything the old stores used to carry and more. This includes enamelware pans, old tools, farm equipment, etc. But I must agree that your shop there is a stunner.

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  4. Matt, thank you for showing us the inside of Comstock, Ferre & Co. I remember when the Gettles saved it. I was so glad. I've never been there, but one day, I will. Hopefully, I'll see you there. :) Congrats on another speaking gig. You do a lot of speaking my friend.~~Dee

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    1. Oh Dee, I am trying to not speak too much this year. Only 3 or 4 talks so far, I had to turn many down due to my job, and a new role I am starting. Maybe this will give me more time to prepare some new presentations later in the fall? Besides, who are you to talk...you are just as busy! Always great hearing from you, and congratulations on your new book!

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  5. I always loved going there to explore! It's a wonderful thing when people care enough to put so much of their time, energy & money into saving old buildings and businesses like these.
    And I also love Tamsin! We go back a long way of geeking out about plants when I worked at Ward's Nursery! she's great!

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    1. Hi Amy, that's right, we used to have our Primula Society meetings there! I remember now. Oh, that age is setting in!

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  6. Anonymous2:38 PM

    What an amazing place, I am very envious and if I was a little closer would have come to hear you speak!

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  7. Anonymous4:22 PM

    It is a very rare occasion that I see the name of the small town where I grew up. Wethersfield holds dear memories and that this fine institution carrys on a tradition in a building where history is in every brick, beam, and oak drawer warms my heart. I could spend HOURS in this store and not buy one seed packet . . . . Nah, not buy any seed packets . . . impossible:-)

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    1. It's a lovely town, you are so fortunate to have grown up there! Isn't it terrific that these buildings and heritage has been saved?

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    2. Anonymous7:15 PM

      Yes, it is terrific that these buildings are saved and our heritage is not lost. Some of my fondest memories were trick-or-treating. Back then you went out on your own and if you were smart, you went home to dump your candy in the closet and go back out for more:-) Then in the summer, we'd stop at roadside stands where my Mom would buy a bushel of peaches for 25 - 50 cents and make peach butter. Oh, and huge sunkissed tomatoes that you ate on the porch like an apple. It was a great time.

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  8. What a fabulous place. I knew about Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, but didn't know there was such an interesting physical store. I'm going to go visit first chance I get.

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    1. There are two stores, one in Petaluma, CA and one in CT. Then again, you could use their mail order service, even I do that!

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  9. Fabulous big seed store! I love it! I guess it's a good thing that it's so far away. I could get lost in there for days!

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  10. sigh, yes i've been to the petaluma branch too - well worth the detour. but sighing because: too much is never enough!

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  11. Thank you for this nostalgic trip down memory lane. Growing up in Alabama, we always purchased seeds at the local feed/farm store, but of course everyone gardened in Alabama. When I married and moved to rural Ohio, it was the same, you bought seeds at the Farm store. Retired I live in Las Vegas and the selection to buy seeds and plants is about as dry as the climate! I am reduced to ordering online.

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    1. I agree, I miss shopping at the farm store. We still do, but they usually only offer inferior seed. Baker Creek is a special case, as is Comstock, Ferre & Co. But I still buy seeds from all sorts of places, mostly online - I have to admit it though, I don't think that I could give up shopping for seeds online!

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  12. Matt, great post...just the kind of virtual field trip I needed to help with my Spring Fever. I have ordered from Baker Creek for several years and would love to visit the store! I did a map quest and it came up being a 5 hour and 20 min trip from our farm in PA, not sure that is going to happen anytime soon...so thanks again for the great pictures of the store.

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    1. Hmmm. Five hours is a bit far!. TIme for mailorder.

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  13. Lovely photos. Roanoke used to have an old-school seed store, Agnew Seed, but the building was auctioned off a few years ago. I loved the history of the place, but it seems that big box stores put them out of business.

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    1. I fear that the private seed store is a thing of the past (are you sure that it wasn't Agway?). Anyway, maybe this company is a good sign that things are changing.

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  14. I was on BHG today, voting for blog favorites when I decided "I should start reading a gardening blog" I clicked on yours because admittedly, I think my blogroll needs more men. But I was so pleased to see this post! I live in CT and have visited this place more than a few times. I'm so glad to add a local gardener as my first garden blog subscription!

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  15. Thank you, Mandy, it's nice to know that people are using the BHG link to visit a blog that they have never visted before. I never really know what to think about those blog contests, but they are nice people, and surely, every blog should win! Welcome!

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  16. Anonymous5:38 AM

    I thought the pilgrims came over in 1620. So your comment about the farms from the late 1500s caught my eye. Regardless you have a great blog. Keep up the great work.

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    1. Oh, I don't know what I was thinking when I typed that! That's what I get for typing in the early morning before work. I should have typed 1600 -1800's. We are old here in Massachusetts Bay Colony, but not THAT old! Thanks!

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