Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring Horticulturalists

Jan Blum
(Seeds Blüm)

Editor's Note (Mike Dunton, founder of the Victory Seed Company):  About the time that I was graduating from high school, Ms. Blum was laying the groundwork for her pioneering seed enterprise. It was a very successful and unique cross, or perhaps blend, of a seed preservation organization with a commercial seed company. Seed sales served two purposes - to get seeds into as many gardens as possible (thus preserving varieties) and to fund the work itself.  For eighteen years, Seeds Blüm grew exponentially and did a great job at slowing the rapid deterioration of seed variety diversity that was occurring.

Although I have repeatedly tried, I have never been able to personally speak with Ms. Blum. And although the company closed without notice and upset a lot of customers, her pioneering seed preservation efforts make her one of my seed heroes. If you look at the company that I founded and operate, you will notice obvious similarities in structure, philosophies, mission and core values. We hope to further the preservation work and learn from the mistakes of others.

If you were once part of Seeds Blüm's "Garden-to-Garden Network" and are interested in continuing this work, please contact us.  And if Jan or Karla happen to stumble across this tribute page, I'd sure love to hear from you!

The following article,  "Grown from the Heart", was written by Carolyn Jabs and published in Self Magazine, April 1985.  This article is republished, for educational purposes, under the fair use clause of the 1976 copyright act. Text and images carry the copyright of their respective authors, photographers, and publishers. This page may be freely linked but not duplicated in any fashion without prior written permission of the respective copyright holders.

"Grown from the Heart"

PHOTO OF JAN BLüMVegetables weren't always her passion. She married young and spent two and a half years as a busy minister's wife to her husband, Rick. After Rick decided to leave the ministry, Jan went to work in a vegetarian restaurant. "Fresh broccoli was a revelation!" she says now. Before long, she'd become a vegetarian cook and organized a vegetarian cooking school. "I have an obsessive personality," she cheerfully admits. "I throw myself into things I love."

From there, it wasn't much of a step to growing. In the '70s, after an itchy career stretch for both of them, Jan and Rick decided that they should find a homestead -- a place to live where they could raise much of their own food, especially her vegetables. When a friend told them about a man who needed a caretaker for his home in the Idaho wilderness, Jan was packed and ready to go. Homesteading didn't match all of her fantasies: "Though it's an escape from pressures of one kind -- gritty urban stress -- others replace them -- hard winters, grasshopper infestations." Still, there were matchless pleasures, like seeing deer from the kitchen window and being able to take long walks in the wilderness after breakfast. The next year, she and Rick bought a half-acre homestead and started to build a house.

During construction, they boarded with Hugh and Bessie Cook. Hugh is a garrulous old-timer with a passion for gardening. While Jan helped him weed, he'd tell her tantalizing stories about old varieties that weren't available anymore because they'd been dropped by seed companies. He'd saved his own seed for a few favorites such as the early Large Royal Kidney Bean, a beautiful maroon bean which ripened extra early, but others, like the giant Hermit Tomato, seemed gone.

Jan was intrigued. "I'd always thought a tomato was a tomato," she says, "but here were colors and sizes and even vegetables I'd never heard of." When she started plotting her own garden the following year, she wanted to plant as many varieties as she could find. She discovered extraordinary tomatoes like Persimmon, which has a gorgeous orange color, and Currant, which is berry-size. Before long, she'd collected 400 different kinds of tomatoes, 800 bean varieties and a huge assortment of peppers, squashes and other vegetables.

Then, disaster. Three days before Christmas in 1978, a fire leveled their homestead. "I was heartbroken," Jan recalls. "All those seeds. . . I realized that if I hadn't shared them, they'd simply be gone." Painstakingly, she began reassembling her collection by corresponding with dozens of gardeners and seed entrepreneurs. And several of them suggested she start a seed company. One cabin-bound winter, she sat down to write a seed catalog, "just for the heck of it."

Seed catalogs are famous for hyperbole, but Jan wrote straight from her digging-in-the-dirt experience. She poured out her concern about the many old varieties teetering on extinction and her confidence that gardeners would like them if they tried them. Her catalog feels like neighbors chatting over the garden fence, sharing recipes, telling stories and exchanging advice on everything from how to harvest chard (pull, don't cut, the stalks) to where mint should be planted (by the garden faucet -- it appreciates the extra water).

Her parents chipped in $1000 to help with printing costs and Jan sent the catalog to all the people she'd corresponded with, as well as a mailing list she purchased for $250 from a small seed company.

When the orders started coming in, so did some second thoughts. First, Jan felt guilty about profiting from seeds she'd often been given by other gardeners -- but those doubts evaporated as she received letter after grateful letter from customers who'd spent years hunting for the old varieties she was offering. Then she and Rick, though he was very supportive, disagreed over how her tiny business should grow. After seeing the first orders, he wanted to join in, borrow money and start big. But Jan intuitively knew she wasn't ready. "I can't anticipated; I have to do, to work things through." she explains. Her go-slow strategy seemed all wrong to Rick, but Jan held out. "This business combined everything I ever wanted to do," says Jan. "I had to do it my way. And I had to do it on my own."

Eventually, disagreements over the business peeled down to a deeper problem: Their lives were pulling in different directions. When Rick decided to go back to school in Southern California, Jan stayed behind. "It was the hardest thing I ever lived through." she says quietly, "but neither of us was growing. I know I made the right choice because now I'm being nurtured and challenged. I get a lot of rewards for the things I'm good at -- and I'm being stretched to my limits."

Even so, the breakup threatened her business, Seeds Blüm. "You have to be emotionally okay to run a business," says Jan, "and I was anything but." She recovered by facing the pain squarely, by congratulating herself for even tiny accomplishments -- "Some days, I had to say to myself, 'You made the bed, hooray!'" -- and by taking on a partner.

Jan had been introduced to Karla Prabucki several years before. "I liked her instantly," says Jan, but Karla was so shy it took a long time to get a friendship going. Around the time Rick was leaving for California, Karla provided a lot of emotional support. "We had these long talks," says Jan, "and she told me that the two things she'd always wanted to do were gardening and carpentry. It was like a fairy tale. Here was this woman I really needed to know right at the moment I really needed to know her." Karla moved her trailer onto the homestead and eventually became a full partner in the business. "We share the same philosophy," says Jan. "We both feel that success isn't measured in things as much as in doing something you believe in and forming good relationships."

On the relationship scale, Seeds Blüm earns huge profits. Every morning Karla and Jan race to the mailbox so they can read the day's mail over breakfast. They get lots of Keep-up-the-good-work letters, as well as homespun observations about gardening and clippings from local garden columns. "We work with wonderful people," says Jan. "They've confirmed my belief that when you're honest and open with people, they're that way back. We've never even had a check bounce."

photo of Seeds Blüm office bldg as it looked in 1985That's important, because Seeds Blüm operates on the income from orders. Jan and Karla have never borrowed a penny for the company. "When you borrow, you have to knuckle under eventually," says Jan. "If you're going to have to squinch to pay back the loan, I'd rather squinch at the front end." She and Karla barter whenever they can and eat out of the gardens. Labor costs -- a major expense in the seed business -- are avoided by doing all the work themselves, from weeding to printing and collating the catalogs and cleaning seeds. Jan admits pay-as-you-go can be a strain -- they could use a computer now but don't expect to have the money for another year. But she's convinced that the discipline has spared them the top-heavy problems of overexpansion that capsize so many young companies.

The one thing she doesn't economize on is the seeds themselves. Jan and Karla concentrate on what works for home gardeners. "We go for varieties with special fragrance, flavor, nutrition and winter-keeping qualities," she writes in her catalog. "There are space misers for city gardeners... and some unusually colored plants."

"Unusual" is the right word for her bronze fennel or bright-violet broccoli. She's also partial to ornamental kale -- "a few of those crinkly magenta leaves make a salad spectacular" --as well as White Egg Eggplant, Purple Pod Peas and Red Stripe Leaf Amaranth. Color is a consideration when she designs her gardens -- pink cress against a blue-green cabbage -- and when she cooks. "I like to draw people's senses into a meal."

To get her seeds (Jan quickly discovered she couldn't grow it all herself), she built her own network of backyard seed growers, experienced amateurs who grow a pound of this and a half pound of that. Other small seed companies had tried similar networks and failed, but Jan's growers are incredibly loyal, partly because she often pays four times the going rate. "It's a squeeze now," she says, "but we'll need reliable sources as we grow. Besides, I grow seeds; I know how much work it is."

Her commitment to keeping rare old varieties available to gardeners is Jan's strength and, potentially, her weakness. "It's no help to anyone if you get so involved that you don't take time to keep yourself whole," she says. "When we start feeling burnt out, we take a break and do something totally unrelated, like motorcycling up to Sun Valley." Before long, Jan's itching to get back to her seeds. "There may be easier things to do," she smiles, "but this is my niche. This is where I can make a difference."

Historical Articles About Seeds Blüm:

  1. Seeds Blüm blooms!, by Kit Anderson, Gardens for All: The Gardener's Newsmagazine, April 1985.

  2. Conversations with Mother, "A small seed company is saving a precious plant heritage", by Sara Pacher, Mother Earth News, Jan./Feb. 1988

  3. "Of Daikons & Dinosaurs: Six garden pros share their favorite unusual vegetables," Mother Earth News, Jan./Feb. 1988

  4. Bio from 2013

About 2001

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