Editor's Note (Mike Dunton of
Seeds): 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 never
been able to personally speak with
Ms. Blum. And although the company closed up 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,
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"
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."