Mail-Order Heirlooms

For many decades, Nichols Garden Nursery has offered rare seeds and herbs on order. To this day, they grow and collect new and unique produce for other growers to enjoy.

  • Nichols Garden Nursery started with a bucket of Elephant garlic in the 1940s and blazed a trail for growing a seed business.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Keane McGee have run the family business for several decades.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Fresh-baked sourdough bread made from Nichols' Oregon Pioneer Starter has been a mainstay since the earliest days of the business.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Achocha, also known as Bolivian cucumber, is similar to a mild bell pepper when cooked. It's very rare, and Nichols is the only nursery in North America that offers it.
    Photo by Jim Long

In the late 1940s, Mr. N.P. (“Nick”) Nichols opened a retail nursery in Albany, Oregon, which is located in the heart of Oregon's famous Willamette Valley. With a degree in horticulture and a great love of plants, he began offering vegetables and herbs to local residents.

One day, a Czech farmer dropped by the nursery with a pail of huge garlic cloves he’d grown, saying he’d brought the starts with him from the old country and wondered if Nichols might be interested in some. Nick, who was of Greek ancestry, already used lots of garlic in his family’s cooking. He quickly developed a taste for this milder form and larger bulbs and started growing them in his nursery. By the end of his second season of growing the Czech garlic, he had enough to sell. He dubbed it “Elephant Garlic.” 

In 1950, Nichols began running classified ads in Organic Gardening magazine, offering to sell his giant garlic by mail. The cloves of garlic came with a small pamphlet he’d written, “The Story of Elephant Garlic.” He continued selling his garlic through the magazine for many years, a practice that launched him into the mail-order business, a business which is carried on by his daughter, Rose Marie, her husband, Keane McGee and their son, David.

Early Homesteaders

As the mail order nursery and seed business grew, Nichols began offering other items he thought would be of interest to gardeners. He stocked not only a wide selection of heirloom seed, but added “homesteading” products that he used and liked himself.

One of those homesteading items were his sourdough bread starters. The inspiration for the first of the starters came from an Alaskan miner who’d retired and lived nearby. Back in those days it was common for the miners in Alaska to maintain their own sourdough starter as they lived and worked for months at a time in remote wilderness. This fellow had kept his sourdough starter going for much of his working life, and it came from a starter he’d been given by a fellow miner decades earlier. The retired miner shared the starter with Nichols, wanting to insure his starter was passed along.

Nichols' other sourdough starter, which he named “Oregon Pioneer,” came from a strain of sourdough that had traveled West with the early pioneers on the Oregon Trail. “They’d inoculate the starter to keep it going with fruit peels, grape skins, and the like and that was the beginning of our sourdough starter which is like a traditional French starter,” says Rose Marie Nichols McGee, Nick’s daughter. Both Alaskan Miner and Oregon Pioneer sourdough starters are sold dehydrated and brought to life with the addition of water for making bread, pancakes and other baked goods.



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