D. Landreth Seed Company, the choice of U.S. presidents, planted in southern York County

Cover of the D. Landreth Seed Company catalog.  SubmittedThe D. Landreth Seed Co. quietly operates in the former Summer’s Cannery in New Freedom in southern York County, Pa. But it has a history that it can boast about – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt were among its customers. The company’s catalogue has a lineup of 1,000 different varieties of vegetable and flower seeds. It sells seed by the ounce or by bulk order. This image is the cover of a catalogue that reminds you of a book. Also of interest: Milkweed, a gentle York County native plant that attracts butterflies, played an important wartime role.

Landreth Seed Company, the supplier of seeds to U.S. presidents, has been replanted by the Melera family for 10 years.

And the company, nestled in southern York County for seven years, bills itself as the oldest seed house in America.

So Yorktownsquare.com readers need to know more about this historic member of the York County community.

Fortunately, we have this 2007 York Daily Record/Sunday News story about Landreth – ‘Oldest Seed House’ takes root in New Freedom – that tells its story:

The D. Landreth Seed Company has put down roots in New Freedom.

The company, established in 1784, is showing signs of new growth thanks to the dedication of owner Barbara Melera.

Barbara Melera and her husband, Peter, bought Landreth in 2003.

By then, the company that once counted George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among its customers had become a shadow of its former self. The company that once sold seeds to presidents from Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt was supplying only a handful of hardware stores.

“I was a venture capitalist for almost 20 years and decided it was time for me to retire. I decided I wanted to run a small company, and a friend of mine told me about this company. It was in some degree of distress, and when I learned about it and its historical significance, my husband and I decided this was going to be our project,” Melera said.

Melera, intrigued by the long history of the company she calls an American treasure, recognized the importance of bringing the company into the 21st century and
of connecting with farmers and gardeners to meet their specific needs for a wide variety of seeds.

They moved the operation from Baltimore to New Freedom last August.

The company offers nearly 1,000 different varieties of vegetable, flower and herb seeds in quantities from a half-ounce packet to bulk purchases; heirloom seeds and bulbs; and grass seeds mixed to order.

It also has a selection of other gardening needs, including organic fertilizer; West County gardening gloves; unique stainless-steel hand tools imported from Sheffield, England; gardening tools for children; vintage seed packets; and note cards picturing vegetable- and flower-seed packets.

Items are available in New Freedom and online at http://www.landrethseeds.com.

Melera has taken inspiration from the three men who made the company a success – David Landreth, who founded the company in Philadelphia in 1784; his son David Landreth II, who expanded the business; and grandson Burnet Landreth.

Melera and her husband wanted to specialize in three lines of business: building the collection of heirlooms, gardening with children and container gardening, she said.

Heirlooms

One line of business the company planned to specialize in was “building its collection of heirlooms and what I call classic flowers and vegetables,” Melera said.

While there are three definitions for heirlooms, “the most widely accepted definition is a variety that has been in cultivation for at least 50 years, so a lot of those 1950s vegetables are technically heirlooms,” Melera said.

Purists tend to accept those that have been around for at least 100 years, which turns out to include a surprising number, more than most people would expect.

The third definition, also fairly broadly accepted, is a variety that has been cultivated by a family or group of people for several generations. Technically, that could be a vegetable that is only 40 years old. The Amish and Mennonites have many varieties and incredible collections that would fit this definition, she said.

Pole lima beans are among those vegetables grown in the 1940s and 1950s that would be considered heirlooms, she said.

“The pole lima beans are becoming harder and harder to find in a general merchandising situation. They have fallen out of favor, and they never should have. They are a great small-garden vegetable. You get much greater crop yield per plant and they take up less space than a bush bean does,” Melera said.

There are flower varieties that are considered heirlooms, among them zinnias. Interestingly, it was David Landreth who introduced the zinnia to the United States, bringing it from Mexico in 1798.

Landreth has one of the largest collections of heirloom and vintage varieties in the world. This year, for the first time, the company has published a separate catalog dedicated strictly to a collection of heirloom bulbs and tubers. Gardening for children

The second area of focus is “to teach people how to teach children to garden, to put together a collection of varieties that every child should grow, and we have done that,” Melera said.

The children’s garden collection features a list of vegetables from beans to zucchini squash, a variety of flowers including teddy bear sunflowers and sweet peas, and a selection of herbs ranging from basil to parsley.

“I think every child should learn to garden. I put my two in the garden as soon as they could walk,” she said.

There are guidelines to teaching children to garden, she said.

From spring to fall, always have something going on in the garden, set a specific time for gardening, including weeding, and make it fun by playing games such as counting the number of dandelions the child can pull. Have the child help to clean the garden in the fall and plant something that will come up early in the spring.

“If you’re going to have a flower garden, don’t plant a mix of flowers, plant a drift of one or two colors because, for children, that leaves a much more colorful impact,” Melera said.

Queen Anne’s pocket melon, a plant that is listed as a “must” for a children’s garden, produces tiny fruits with smooth skin and jagged orange and yellow stripes that have an incredible fragrance. In Victorian times, women carried these fruits in their pockets because of the pleasant aroma.

Another “must” is the Mexican sour gherkin, which produces cucumber-like fruit shaped like tiny watermelons. The fruit tastes like cucumbers sprinkled with lemon juice and is great in salads.

Tennis-ball lettuce is described as tiny, 7-inch heads just the right size for little hands to harvest. Four o’clocks with flowers that bloom at 4 p.m. and moonflowers that only bloom in the evening are a great way to teach children how plants respond to changes in light.

Landreth has a line of sturdy gardening tools made to fit the hands of pint-sized gardeners.

Container gardening

The company also specializes in container gardening, an area that is growing in popularity.

“When we first bought the company, we said, ‘Look, things are getting smaller and smaller in terms of gardening. People don’t have the time, they don’t have the space, so we really need to develop an expertise in container gardening,'” Melera said.

Among the things they have learned is that you have to fertilize at full strength a minimum of every two weeks and, when growing tomatoes, add bone meal every three weeks to prevent blossom-end rot.

The time from planting to ripening is much shorter. For example, a plant that takes 75 to 90 days to ripen in the ground will ripen in about 60 days if planted in a container. Then, after harvesting a vegetable, you can plant a second crop.

Examples of container plants

A hot pepper called the black pearl, a 2006 All-America selection, grows to about 24 inches, has purplish-black leaves and stems, white flowers and clusters of round, purplish-black peppers.

“Someday, this pepper will be an heirloom. I have never enjoyed a plant as much as this one. If you are only going to try one new plant this year, you should try this one,” Melera wrote about this plant in the 2007 catalog.

The fairytale eggplant, a 2005 All-America selection, is the perfect container plant. At 18 to 24 inches, it produces 4-inch fruits that are sweet.

The snail flower, another favorite, produces beautiful, exotic-looking white or yellow flowers with purple wings. These fragrant flowers are borne in cascades of curls that look like snails, according to the catalog.

Sometime in the 1770s or so, Thomas Jefferson received a snail flower as a gift. He fell in love with the plant and its fragrant blossoms and had them planted around his home in Virginia. Visitors to Monticello can still enjoy the beauty and the scent of this unusual and complex flower.
Landreth history

ESTABLISHED BY DAVID LANDRETH in 1784, the D. Landreth Seed Co. is the fifth-oldest corporation and the oldest seed house in America.

David Landreth and his family traveled from England to Montreal, Canada, in 1780. His dream was to start his own seed company. After four years, he moved to Philadelphia and opened his first garden center on High Street, now 1210 Market St.

Early on, he sold seeds to the city and several local estates, but as the business and his reputation grew, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, were buying Landreth seeds.

He brought the zinnia from Mexico to the United States in 1798 and introduced the first white potato in 1811, followed by the introduction of the tomato in 1820. He perfected the first variety of yellow tomato and, in 1826, introduced a new kind of spinach, Bloomsdale, which continues to be popular today.

David Landreth II joined his father in the early 1820s and, in 1828, they founded the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.

Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Landreth continued to introduce new plants and shrubs, promoted the art and science of plant breeding, and prepared thousands of pounds of vegetable seeds for Commodore Perry to carry with him on his expedition to Japan. In return, Perry brought back what were the first Japanese shrubs and plants to be imported to America.

Burnet Landreth followed his grandfather and father into the family business, and the company passed down through the family. Eventually, it was sold outside the family.

Current owners Peter and Barbara Melera purchased the company from Ben Goldberg, who had moved the warehouse to Baltimore in 1969.

200 years of catalogs

THE D. LANDRETH SEED CO. has been publishing seed catalogs for more than 200 years.

The 2007 version specializes in heirloom and vintage varieties, and features seeds for everything from artichokes to watermelons and wildflowers, zinnias and herbs.

The descriptions and color photos of the varieties available make this catalog not only informative, but also a real treat to the eye and a great way to turn a cold winter day into thoughts of spring.

Brand-new and hot off the presses is a catalog dedicated to the company’s heirloom bulb collection of garlic and flowers. Most of them are historic species that are difficult to find. This first edition features 18 heirloom garlic varieties and more than 130 heirloom flower varieties.

The catalog took four years to develop and is truly a labor of love.

Gardeners will be delighted with the information on the varieties of flowers and garlic, including their history, planting tips and prices.

Even more delightful are the illustrations of antique watercolors of many of the flower bulb varieties, from the collection of the International Bulb Center in the Netherlands.

The equally impressive garlic illustrations were done by Elise DiPace of Catonsville, Md.

The company is building a photo library of bulb varieties and, as more become available, they will be added to the company’s Web site, http://www.landrethseeds.com.

Catalogs are available online or by calling (800) 654-2407.

070209-bil-Plantholt.jpg

Barbara Plantholt Melera, co-owner the D. Landreth Seed Co. in New Freedom, appeared in a very interesting story in the York Daily Record/Sunday News story in 2009 about aptronyms explained by its headline: These names fit their owners.

 

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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