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Our Backyard Gardens: Seed Catalogs Arrive

Updated: Mar 3

Barbara Yates's garden

By Amy Halsted

When does the gardening season really begin? Mailboxes teem with seed catalogs in February and March, and many a backyard gardener is already hard at work months before the first daffodil is up. So it is with three local gardeners who share common passions for growing things and for creating sustainable habitat for people and pollinators alike. 

Kyle Snogren lives in Bethel and is celebrated for the abundance of his three-quarter-acre garden on Chapman Street. Tamara and Vernon Davis of Chapman Brook Farm on North Road in Bethel harvest from their Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association-certified (MOFGA-certified), five plus-acre garden to supply their farm stand and the Bethel Food Pantry. And Barbara Yates of Newry, who has been farming her twenty acres for more than 60 years, knows every inch of her land and what grows best using which techniques. All agree that the love of one’s garden is an all-season affair and that the moment a seed catalog finds its way to one’s inbox or mailbox, it’s game on. 

“Each year, we provide vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs to our neighborhood and put up plenty of vegetables for our winter needs,” says Kyle. “The entire family is involved in the pro

cess.” Located only a short distance from Main Street in Bethel, the Snogren front yard garden is 60% vegetables; 30% pollinator-supporting plants, herbs, and edible flowers; and 10% perennials. Thirty fruit trees—apple, pear, peach, and cherry—form the canopy while backyard beekeeping ensures pollinated blossoms. The Snogrens’ backyard is their “giveaway garden” where extra seeds are cast, bulbs and wildflowers bloom, and they raise plants to support the Bethel Library Plant Sale.

The Snogren garden

Kyle, who has been gardening for 55 years, is particularly keen on Baker Heirloom Seeds (“tested rare seeds,” he says), North Country Organics, Fedco, and occasionally he buys from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “The seed catalogs are incredible sources of information, including basic growing guides for New England gardeners,” he says. 

“In February and March, we’re pruning and shaping the fruit trees and as soon as we can work the soil, usually in March, we do.” The Snogrens also have the help of a local nursery who plants a variety of seeds for them while they finish installing grow lights (“something all northern gardeners should use”) in their basement.

Out on North Road at the corner by Daisy Bryant Road, Tamara and Vernon Davis already have half of their seventy-five-foot greenhouse producing spinach. “We start our growing season a year before the current season,” says Tamara. “I have four pages of seed notes from 2023. On March 5 last year, I know I was planting pink celery.” Like many small farmers, growing is an art form for the Davises. “Where do we put our energy this year?” “Are we grafting tomatoes?” “What are our data points for sustaining our MOFGA certification?” “Which weeds are we leaving to sustain our pollinator population?” 

"...The catalogs represent a lot of work and include comparison charts, growing guides, and disease resistance information. They are fun to read and so eloquent,” says Tamara.

In 2021, the Davises decided that part of their mission as small farmers was to have their site—Chapman Brook Farm—represent a real organic project. “We want to contribute to organic sovereignty and the fidelity of the practices an organization like MOFGA represents and promotes,” says Tamara. “By maintaining our organic status, we can feed people the highest quality organic produce. This is as important as anything else our garden represents.” Chapman Brook Farm is a five-plus-acre garden. To maximize space, the Davises use companion plantings: lettuce with tomato, corn with buckwheat, tomato with ginger.

Chapman Brook Farm

With their farm stand opening date in early June each year, the Davises use grow light systems which are “essential for home gardeners and easily available through Amazon.” They outline what they want to start when, including a transplanting schedule. In 2023, they had the first 250 beets planted in March. When ordering, they include cover crop seeds for the following winter.

“We receive catalogs from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing and Baker Creek. Our germination rate is highest with Johnny’s while the others feature highly adaptive, non-GMO, organic and heirloom seeds. The catalogs represent a lot of work and include comparison charts, growing guides, and disease resistance information. They are fun to read and so eloquent,” says Tamara. “Every year, I have to avoid getting seduced by Baker’s!”

“I use berms, beds and bags,” says Barbara Yates of Newry. “Over the years, I’ve found these are the best use of space, development of soil, and they produce the visuals and the quality I’m after.” On Sunday River Road for the past 60 years, the spry 88-year-old Barbara starts gardening when the snow goes.

“The seed catalogs are already in. A caution that sometimes their plant hardiness can be misleading. The best bet is to base your planting on what you know about where you live,” says Barbara. She starts working her land as soon as the soil allows. “I start when the snow goes. I rototill in April and May and plant from late May to mid-June. I buy most of my plants as seedlings because when I order seeds or seedlings, they come too early.”

After six decades of gardening, Barbara has narrowed down her plantings to vegetables—asparagus, string beans, chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, and potatoes which she grows in felt bags—perennials, annuals, and berms and beds. She has eight four foot by eight foot raised beds for vegetables and flowers and several 40 foot berms with arborvitaes, rhododendrons, azaleas, tree peonies, lilacs, high bush blueberries, lupine, irises, fall phlox, and more.

“What I think is most important to the backyard garden is the quality of soil. We eat organic so our food scraps are organic. This makes organic fertilizer. Paired with organic seeds and seedlings, I know what I grow is healthy. Even still, I get things like slugs. To combat them, I save my eggshells separately, dry them, crush them, and sprinkle them in the beds and under the hostas. Works every time.” Amending and adding to her soil for many years has led from a very rocky environment to fine soil and good drainage. “Where it’s still sandy and rocky, I just water every day,” says Barbara.

As the temperature rises and the call of soil beckons, the Snogrens, Davises, and Barbara agree: Gardeners are passionate, and gardening is therapeutic. Plus, in the end, you get high quality food and vases full of flowers for yourself and your community.

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