(By Rose Marie Nichols McGee)
Feature Photo: Rose Marie and Keane McGee and bounty from Nichols Garden Nursery. (Photo: Nichols Garden Nursery.)
My father started Nichols Garden Nursery back around 1950. He had a strong background in horticulture and deep interest in rare and unusual seeds and garlic. He ran the smallest and least expensive ads in a few gardening magazines, and wrote an occasional gardening article. He introduced Elephant Garlic to the U.S.A. This gave the business a bit of a start, but not enough of a boost to develop the business for a man with a wife and two young children.
One day Dad sat down and carefully composed a letter to the Burpee Seed Company. He described what he was doing and hoped he could accomplish. He enclosed his rare seed and garlic list and said he would appreciate any advice as to how he might start developing Nichols Garden Nursery into a viable business.
About ten days later a letter arrived from the W. Atlee Burpee Company. The letter was full of kindly comments and this critical advice: If you want to make money in this business then you must offer vegetable seeds!
Dad began trialing seeds from two Italian seed companies. The next season Nichols was importing Italian varieties that were scarcely ever seen in this country. Unbelievable as it may seem today, arugula was almost unknown here in the 1950’s. It was hugely popular with Nichols customers, and many people would leave a note saying they had looked for it in vain up until Nichols offered it. Nichols expanded its seed offerings to include many lettuce varieties, more herbs, Italian tomatoes, peppers, and pansies.
The Italian vegetable varieties gave Nichols a good start. Customers were eager to try out vibrantly flavored vegetable varieties that were easy to grow, varieties that were different from what was offered by other companies. Also, many gardeners were of Italian heritage and wanted to grow Italian varieties, but had not been able to obtain them. This was shortly after WWII. Italian seed growers were eager to sell seeds to the U.S.A. Thus did Nichols make good use of the wisdom generously offered by an established seed company that was willing to help a newcomer.
Dad told me about another situation that represented perhaps the utmost cooperation among seed people. Japan was a major seed growing country that had been hugely affected by WWI. Their agriculture was just getting back on track as WWII threatened. Japanese seeds were entirely different from what was available in the U.S.A–fast growing greens, an array of brassicas, unusual carrots, cucumbers, edible pod peas, and soybeans. Japanese seed companies feared that a war might utterly destroy their unique varieties.
One or two Japanese seed companies quietly approached some of their American customers. Japanese seed was brought to the U.S.A. and discreetly passed on to American friends. War came. Several hundred Japanese seed varieties sat safely in cold storage in the U.S.A. while Japan and U.S.A battled. Peace came. When the Japanese seed companies were ready, their seeds were all returned.
There has been a long history of cooperation among members of the seed industry. This has been lessened today by the domination of huge seed companies with sometimes oppressively competitive approaches.
May OSSI revitalize the seed world by making breeding material available to all. May OSSI signal a new era of seed camaraderie and cooperation.
Rose Marie Nichols McGee, second-generation co-owner of Nichols Garden Nursery, started working with seeds and plants as a young child. “I grew up often reading with a book in one hand and weeding with the other,” she says. Nichols Garden Nursery offers over 1,200 seed varieties for home gardeners and small growers in the U.S.A. Rose Marie and her husband Keane have worked for and run Nichols for more than three decades. Rose Marie’s other interests are writing, cooking, Slow Food USA, and various other garden and agricultural organizations. “I am very excited by the possibilities OSSI offers our company to purchase seeds from breeders here in the Pacific Northwest,” says Rose Marie. Rose Marie is co-author, with Maggie Stuckey, of McGee & Stucky’s Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers https://www.amazon.com/dp/0761116230/ref=r_soa_w_d . Nichols online and free paper catalog is at NicholsGardenNursery.com.
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