A desire for healthier produce led to the rise of this successful small company —from flowerbeds in the city to heirlooms in the countryside.
‘Contender’ is a favorite heirloom bush bean at Annie’s Heirloom Seeds, and Julie Slezak says the cultivar is her favorite bush bean too. That should come as no surprise, though, because Julie is the founder of Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.
‘Contender’ is my favorite because it’s got great yields and it has a really wonderful bean flavor,” Julie says. She runs Annie’s from her home in Hudsonville, Michigan, so it’s hard to separate Julie’s personal love of heirloom gardening from the business activities of Annie’s Heirloom Seeds. In fact, the company’s name is a tribute to her grandmother, Annie.
Much of Julie’s initial gardening experience happened in an urban setting. While in graduate school, she planted flowers in the backyard of the Chicago-area walkup where she lived. “I’ve always wanted to try gardening, so I got the landlord’s permission to plant flowers in the back lawn,” Julie remembers. Julie also grew several plants in containers.
After relocating to the Chicago suburbs where they had a larger house and yard, the Slezaks focused on landscaping their property. Julie and her husband weren’t sure they were happy with city life and their graduate school plans. They began considering alternative plans. “My husband found a book in the library called You Can Farm. It inspired us,” Julie says. “The author, Joel Salatin, directs readers to ‘start now,’ so we ripped up part of the front yard and planted strawberries, raspberries, and a few fruit trees.” They expected to live and garden in the suburb for a while, but then Scott accepted a job in Michigan, and they moved to Clarksville. The Slezaks bought 30 acres there and tried raising beef cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and goats, in addition to vegetable gardening.
The garden area was a challenge in the beginning, and Julie had limited success. “I could grow peas, I could grow beans. The main reason I had trouble growing anything else was because it was a quackgrass field,” she says. Quackgrass is a very aggressive weed, meaning that Julie had the space to grow, but the quality of that space was diminished. Useful gardening information was also hard for her to find. Luckily, an experienced friend of Julie’s filled in the void via weekly visits, and assigned her garden homework.
A Family Venture
Julie started Annie’s Heirloom Seeds about six years ago. She appreciated heirloom vegetables and had a desire to provide high-quality seeds and customer service to other gardeners across the country. Before establishing her company, Julie personally experienced problems when ordering heirloom seeds — not receiving items she’d ordered, seeds not germinating, or the order arriving after planting time. Because of these various mishaps, Julie wanted to create a business which could offer what she and others were looking for: live heirloom seeds that arrived on time for planting.
It’s a family business. Julie handles customer service and writes the catalog. Scott writes the company’s newsletters. Their son Carl, 14, works part-time on their software and computers, helps with the gardens, and fills orders in summer.
Daughter Anne, 12, works in the winter and helps fill seed packets, pull orders, and band together seed collections. Youngest daughter Aurelia, 8, is actively involved in gardening. “She’s always planting something, although none of her garden makes it into the house because she eats it or gives it away,” Julie laughs. Aurelia doesn’t get any help with her garden except for some early weeding. On occasion, Aurelia has made gardening mistakes and learned she planted something too densely or that a cultivar performed poorly.
The Benefits of an Unconventional Garden
The first Annie’s Heirloom Seeds catalog offered 300 cultivars. Julie grew, tested, and tasted all of them. Now, Annie’s has about 500 cultivars, selected to provide an array of quality choices. “I want to give people a variety to choose from, while still offering a manageable number that’s not overwhelming,” she says. “Some years we add lots of items and other years we remove items because they aren’t popular,” Julie says.
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds has certain cultivars flagged in the catalog as “Annie’s Favorites.” The reason for that designation may vary across type, yet most are chosen for superior flavor. “Being easy to grow and reliable are large factors in choosing a favorite as well,” Julie says. Favorites can change over time. One year, the ‘Cylindra’ beet was a favorite; last summer, it was ‘Detroit Dark Red.’ Cauliflower can be difficult to grow, but Julie had good results with ‘Violet of Sicily,’ so it’s been flagged as a favorite. Other favorites include ‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ sweet corn, ‘Minnesota Midget’ melon, and ‘All Year Round’ lettuce.
The company also offers vegetable seed collections, such as the Beginner’s Garden Collection and the Children’s Garden Collection, to make cultivar selection easier. There are also collections for container gardening.
According to Julie, “Almost any tomato or pepper can be grown in a container, and a friend of mine taught me that almost anything can be grown in a 5-gallon bucket — but luckily there are some miniaturized vegetables that do really well in smaller containers.” These include ‘Masai’ bush beans, ‘Golden Acres’ cabbage, ‘Paris Market’ carrots, and ‘Tom Thumb’ lettuce.
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds also offers flower seeds, but Julie says heirloom flower seeds are harder to source. Many of those offered can be used as companion plants, “helping and protecting your vegetables.”
Most heirlooms offered in the catalog are sourced from other growers. Heirloom seeds that Julie produces in her gardens include a pepper, cabbage, a few flowers, and some bean and tomato cultivars. “We make an effort to grow only those things that are unavailable commercially,” she says. Other items she’s currently researching include onions and celery.
Julie uses marigolds, basil, borage, and other herbs as companion plants to repel insects among her heirlooms. Zinnias are used to keep beetles away from her beans. “We’re trying to figure out what repels what bugs and what we should plant together,” she says. Annie’s Heirloom Seeds continues to innovate their practices for better heirlooms.
BIO: John Sorstokke is a freelance writer and lifelong gardener based in southwest Michigan.
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