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Where to Get Heirloom Seeds

Posted by David Grau on

Originally Posted on February 28, 2013

Greetings Farmers and Gardeners,

We hope you will find our gardening tips and information helpful. Valley Oak Tool Co. is proud to be part of the sustainable, local food revolution. You, our customers are serious home gardeners, market gardeners, and farmers, and have been using our tools for years, working the land with minimal use of fossil fuel. We're proud of providing an important tool in your sustainability tool shed.

Gardening Tips

This time of year finds us in a bit of a cold spell after some warm, sunny days. Gardeners with greenhouses can be starting seeds of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers (read about our farm visit to learn about how some local farmers we know start their seeds). Direct seeding of beets, kale, radishes, carrots, potatoes, chard, collards, peas (best if pre-sprouted at this date), and spinach, can be done now. Think of all those delicious, tender greens that you can harvest in late spring.

Where to get seed?

heirloom vegetablesWe're frequently asked to recommend seed companies. David Grau, the founder and owner of Valley Oak Tool Co used to be a farmer himself! He recommends the following seed companies for good seed.  Wild Garden Seed offers a great variety of organic seeds from which to choose. Their catalog has informative descriptions of their seed varieties, and offer an astonishing 83 different lettuce varieties! He also likes the seeds from Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri puts out a beautiful catalog, filled with stunning photos and descriptions of vegetables, flowers, and melons.  Renee's Garden Seeds offers seeds of vegetables, flowers, and herbs, and they also put together packets with multiple varieties of things like lettuce, peppers, chard, tomatoes, and more. This is a great option for the home gardener who wants to try different varieties but doesn't need to buy three separate seed packs. Johnny's Select Seeds is an employee-owned seed company which offers high quality seeds for farmers and home gardeners. Alas their tool quality is not up to par with our own Valley Oak Tool Co. quality. (We've had emails from customers who've broken their Johnny's tools in a matter of hours!)

We encourage you to take a look around your region for small seed companies, growing open pollinated and heirloom seeds. Supporting regional seed companies encourages regional self-sufficiency. In the Valley Oak Tool Co. region we have Redwood Seeds growing certified organic, open pollinated, heirloom, non-GMO seeds. The Redwoods (that's their last name) even go out and give talks to the surrounding communities about seed-saving. Learning to save seed can be an interesting and rewarding endeavor, and we encourage you to give it a try. Susanne Ashworth's book Seed to Seed is an excellent reference for seed savers.

Farm Visit

We visited Brian Marshall and Nancy Heinzel of Sawmill Creek Farms in Paradise, California. They grow more than forty different tomato varieties! Their greenhouses were filled with the beautiful sight of little, green tomato plants, some of which are pushing out their first true leaves. They grow tomato, pepper, eggplant, herbs, and vegetable plants for their own farm, and they sell the same varieties to home gardeners.

View the video we made of our visit.


All the tomato varieties they grow are suitable for the home garden. The heirloom varieties offer a wide selection from which to choose. They come in colors and tastes to suit most any palate. Heirlooms often have very thin skins though and are not good shippers. This is why you don't find a whole lot of heirlooms in the store - even getting some of their heirloom tomatoes to the local market is tricky. A particularly delicious tomato is Aunt Ruby’s German Green, of which Nancy said is “…a wonderful tasting tomato but getting her to the market without making gazpacho is tricky... and then the first person to come along and squeeze her, well, it's truly all over at that point.”

Nancy said heirloom tomatoes can be “finicky and headstrong,” so someone just starting out with a garden might consider planting a few hybrids, along with the heirlooms, to ensure at least some harvest should the weather decide to take an unfriendly turn. Nancy also recommended growing cherry tomatoes, which are practically a sure thing in a wide variety of weather conditions.

Soil block starts at Sawmill Creek FarmNancy showed us a couple of different ways she starts her seeds in the heated greenhouse. She uses a small soil block tool for some of her seed starting. The soil block tool makes little soil loafs of one-inch squares,  out of which sturdy tomato plants grow.  She transplants them right into four inch pots. She also uses six-cell plastic containers, 200 cell styrofoam seed trays, and rolled newspaper pots.

They use a heated greenhouse to start the seeds, and then move the plants to grow on in an unheated greenhouse. The plants have to work a little harder, put on good root growth, and end up being rather sturdy plants by the time they go to the market. The unheated greenhouse has a wonderful feature, which is a sort of two-tired growing set-up. The lower level in the greenhouse has raised beds along the sides, in which they still had beautiful chard plants growing. They put platforms above these raised beds and that is where their seedlings grow on. When they water the seedlings, the overflow goes to the bed below, and any nutrients are captured in the lower bed. This set-up truly impressed us.

In addition to growing produce and vegetable starts for market, Sawmill Creek Farms has one entire acre devoted to growing fresh produce that goes to hungry people in their town. They teamed up with A Simple Gesture, a grass roots organization which works to get food to hungry people. Thanks to Brian and Nancy, those food offerings contain nutritious, fresh vegetables. What an amazing couple of farmers they are.

Brian and Nancy sell their sturdy Sawmill Creek Farms tomato plants starting in April, at the Saturday morning Farmers' market in Chico, and at the Holiday Market in Paradise.

Gardening in Texas

Allison Smith, one of our customers, sent us her story about the struggles she had with gardening last year. Fear not, dear reader, she is not discouraged in the least!

monarch butterflies on lavenderIn the summer of 2011 I decided to grow cut flowers for sale. I had some space and I was already growing lavender for the honeybees. I started reading anything I could get my hands on or find on the web. Unfortunately, all the while not taking proper notice that these were books and articles written by folks on the west coast or up north. I figured it couldn’t be that hard. Throw some seeds in the ground, water and voila! Also, I was so taken by all the beautiful photos of all those gorgeous rows of colorful flowers. (I bet they were plastic…..doh!)

The tiller I wanted would not be available until spring and I was anxious to get started so I bought a Valley Oak Broadfork. (By the way, they are very tough. The delivery guy placed it just inside the gate. When I came home the truck sat too high for me to see it and I ran over it. Not a scratch and luckily no punctured tire.) I put in a bulb bed first. Then sowed rows of flower seeds. Spring came and the flowers almost grew themselves as we had a very rainy season. Unfortunately I lost all the lavender to root rot. I planted a new batch of lavender and put in a drip system. Weeds and weeds and bugs and bugs descended on my babies. OMGosh!

Summer came and I could not keep up with the watering. I could be wrong but I don’t think it rained once, and of course it over was 100 degrees many, many days. Most seeds wouldn’t germinate, too hot supposedly. I learned a great deal about T-tape but it was too late in the season and no self-respecting seed was coming up in that heat. Since it was so dry nothing was growing for the cotton tails so they munched anything of mine that dared to peak out of the ground. I fenced it in….the dogs took out the fences chasing the bunnies. I started germinating fall seeds inside in the laundry room. Unfortunately I was unaware of “day length” issues so once I transplanted them they couldn’t wake up. Then the “Texas sized” grasshoppers came!

Oh well……..there is always a learning curve, right? I’m not giving up. I’m doing it again this year and it’s a whole new ball game…….the driest spring ever.

I do have a few beautiful photos from last fall when the Monarchs came through and luckily for me zinnias seed themselves.

Good luck to all you growers out there and don’t give up!

Allison Smith

Send us your story

We loved reading Allison's story. Do you have a story about a particularly successful gardening season, or plans for the coming season? Maybe you'll try some new and improved methods. Tell us a story about your farm or garden, and we could send it out in an upcoming newsletter and blog!

Cute Chicks

Newly hatched chickOne of our Valley Oak Tool Co. team keeps a flock of about 20 chickens in her backyard. She noticed a hen starting to go broody, so she started saving eggs, from two of her particularly likable, and productive hens, to hatch out. On February 2nd she set seven eggs under the broody hen, and twenty days later (during which some of the nights had near-freezing temperatures, which cause a bit of worry on the integrity of the hatch) seven cute chicks appeared, with their little heads looking out from the feathers of their hen. They came out for a little snack, with their hen watching over them. Peep peep!

Hatching chicks using a broody is pretty easy considering the hen does almost all of the  work, and one not need to worry about power failures during incubation. The hen turns the eggs, keeps them at the right temperature and humidity, and then she even raises the chicks. Our chicken keeper has also raised hatchery chicks, and she prefers the broody hen method. The chicks seem much more robust when they are hatched from a broody. Plus, it is so fun to head out the coop and hear the "peep peeps" on hatch day! Not to mention the delight she takes in watching the chicks following their mother hen around the yard.

Do you keep chickens in your garden or on your farm? Do they play an integral role in your gardening or farming? Email us your chicken story!

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