Mail-Order Heirlooms

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Nichols Garden Nursery started with a bucket of Elephant garlic in the 1940s and blazed a trail for growing a seed business.
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Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Keane McGee have run the family business for several decades.
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Fresh-baked sourdough bread made from Nichols' Oregon Pioneer Starter has been a mainstay since the earliest days of the business.
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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.

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.

Mr. Nichols also added beer and wine making supplies to their product line. Oregon, specifically the fertile Williamette Valley, is known for producing some of the highest quality hops anywhere. Nichols offers several varieties of hops plants as well as dried hops, yeasts and related supplies. They also offer cheese-making and vegetable fermenting supplies and books for the home gardener who’s interested in canning and preserving.

When Nick Nichols unexpectedly passed away in 1973, his wife Edith took over running the nursery and mail-order business. Then when Rose Marie and husband Keane finished college, they slowly moved into running the business. Edith passed away in 1999 and the business continues with Keane, Rose Marie and son David, now running the business.

Unusual & Exciting Plants

Nichols Garden Nursery joined the International Herb Association (formerly the International Herb Growers & Marketers Network) in the 1980s. Rose Marie said that connection provided a rare opportunity to meet and know some of the giants in the herb world — people such as Otto Richter (Richter’s Herbs in Ottawa, Canada), Tom Debbagio (author and owner, Debbagio’s Herb Farm in Chantilly, VA), Sal Gilbertie (Gilbertie’s Herb Farm (Westport, CN), Dr. Art Tucker and many others. She said they currently offer seed and plant selections that originally came from some of those connections, including plants from Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, including Mexican Mint Marigold (Tagetes lucida) and Green Pepper Basil (Ocimum selloi), a unique pepper-flavored basil native to Mexico; Nichols is one of the few places in the United States where the rare Green Pepper Basil is available.

The current generation of Nichols-McGees thrive on introducing new and exciting plants to their customers. Each year they search for plants and seed that will pique the interest of both new and seasoned gardeners.

For example, they may be the only company in North America offering Achocha (Cyclanthera pedata), sometimes called Bolivian cucumber, a plant that’s found in the book, Lost Crops of the Incas. A cucumber relative, the vines can reach 40 feet with bright-green leaves as large as your hand. The tendrils are used fresh or steamed, and the fruit, which look more like milkweed pods, are hollow; in Central and South America, the pods are stuffed with pork or vegetables and simmered in tomato sauce. The flavor is a bit like a mild bell pepper when cooked, which is the best way to prepare the vegetable.

Other unusual seeds that Nichols offer are several varieties of kale. Nichols says that until about 10 years ago, kale was hard to sell, but now that lots of recipes abound, it’s become a popular plant for health reasons. Their Walking Stick Kale is both a novelty — you really can make a walking stick (or a pole for beans) out of the stalk, plus you get bushels of kale leaves for the table. They offer Yacon from the Andes, an underground vegetable with sweet, crunchy tubers. Melokhiya, little known in the United States, but the most widely-grown greens vegetable in Egypt, is another.

Nichols has been involved in the All-America Selections program for many years. Each season they create a display garden to showcase some of the newest introductions from All-America Selections field trials. The vegetables, herbs and flowers in the demonstration gardens are the winners of years of trialing across North America and to become All-America winners, the plants must have demonstrated to be widely adaptable to a range of growing conditions. The All-America Selections program has been in effect since 1932 and many of those early winners have proven their exceptional qualities, going on to be considered true heirloom varieties.

Gone Digital

This year for the first time in the history of the business, Nichols moved to a completely online catalog. I asked Keane if he felt this move had been successful, considering some gardeners may still want a paper catalog. He said he definitely saw the move as a success, first from cutting costs since paper catalogs are expensive to produce and mail. He said the on-line catalog allows the customer to print a paper catalog if they choose, but it also allows him to update and manage current selections in the catalog in a more timely manner. “I really think this is the future of many mail-order companies. Moving to digital from paper means an overall reduced carbon footprint and a lowered cost we can pass along to our customers,” he says.

Nichols is small enough to give personalized customer service. You can email or call and get specific answers to questions about the plants or seeds you are growing from them. They’re a small, family-owned business that loves to encourage new gardeners, with a wide selection of seed and plants for the long-time gardener.

The Gardener’s Pantry blog, followed by customers and gardeners nationwide, covers “All things related to food and gardening” and Rose Marie often offers readers her own inspiring recipes and gardening tips. Rose Marie’s book (with co-author Maggie Stuckey), The Bountiful Container (Workman Publishing), is an authoritative guide to growing vegetables, herbs and flowers in containers and is available in all major bookstores.

Jim Long writes from Long Creek Herb Farm in the Missouri Ozarks.

Mother Earth Gardener
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