Like many gardeners who grow plants from seed, my father waited impatiently to get his seed catalogues each year. A new year, a new garden — maybe the best garden ever. Then came the ritual of deliciously thumbing through pages, circling entries and making lists: the anatomy of a dream. Although he looked through catalogues from several companies, he only ever ordered from Veseys Seeds, based in York, Prince Edward Island. The company had clearly taken root in his psyche.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, Veseys has clearly taken root in a broad swath beyond my backyard.
A man for short seasons
The company’s founder, Arthur Vesey, “had a phenomenal personal garden as well as a market garden, selling vegetables to grocery stores and markets,” says John Barrett, Veseys’ director of sales, marketing and development.
As a champion of growing giant pumpkins, Arthur had a reputation for securing and testing seeds that were suitable for the cool, short growing seasons of Atlantic Canada, and in 1939 he created a small listing of vegetable varieties, distributing it to people he knew.
Fast forward to this year: the 168-page main spring catalogue includes flower and vegetable seed and starter fruit plants, plus almost 50 pages of tools and accessories. There’s also a 70-page spring catalogue for bulbs, perennials, roses and shrubs as well as a 60-page Fall Bulb Catalogue featuring all the favourites such as tulips, daffodils and other well know fall planting varieties. Catalogues go across Canada and into the US.
New people, new offerings
“Between seeds, bulbs and fundraising, we produce over a couple million catalogues every year, and have 100 staff,” says John. “It’s grown to somewhat of an immense entity from Arthur’s day of having two or three people working for him out of his house on a seasonal basis.”
In 1956, Arthur hired Bev Simpson, and in the early ’80s Bev and his wife, Shirley, took over the business. John Barrett arrived in 1997; the company ventured into new categories bit by bit, says John.
“We’re constantly increasing our customer base, but in the last 22 years we’ve also been offering more things to our customers. Because of the trust and the long time that many of our customers had been with us, it wasn’t a big leap for them to buy more from us,” he adds.
Focus on container gardening
“Urban gardening is popular,” says Veseys’ horticulturist Heidi Wood, “so we’re focusing more on varieties for container gardening; varieties able to succeed in a relatively short climate and give a good yield in a small setting.”
She suggests a cucumber called Patio Snacker, and also a fingerling potato called Russian Banana. Edamame and pole beans can be grown in containers, as can dwarf sunflowers and huckleberries.
Other trends include companion planting — although not new, it’s becoming more mainstream — such as incorporating marigolds into beds in an effort to deter pests. The smell of some varieties will deter rodents as well, Heidi says. Adding herbs, such as dill and lemon balm, may work, too; lemon grass apparently deters mosquitos.
Watermelons are also getting more attention. “Global warming can change our zones… plus, people are having more success with some longer-maturing varieties, because they’re extending the season with structures such as row covers.”
Yet tried & true
But for as much as Veseys’ seed business has evolved, the core emphasis is still on selling best-bet varieties. Everything it sells is tested first in trials, with a three-year rotation in both vegetables and flowers on location at its 40-acre research farm.
“We grow what we already have in our catalogue alongside new varieties in our trial gardens,” Heidi says. “If a new variety proves to be better and the availability is good from our supplier, we will look into switching it up, or in some cases add to what’s already on offer. It’s good to keep testing our long-lasting reliables to see if they’re still at an optimal level as they were a few years ago.”
“For example, Gold Rush, a yellow wax bush bean, has been around for a long time, but it’s still the frontrunner!”
Why did my dad buy seeds only from Veseys? He liked the certainty of knowing what he was getting. Oh, he tried a new striped beet from time to time, but he liked his staples, not least of all the York turnip, which happens to be on the cover of the current anniversary catalogue with its retro illustration that harkens back to Veseys’ early years.
“People can tour the trial gardens any time,” says Heidi. “It’s open to the public; just come out and walk around. It would be nice for people to come out and see why we’ve been here this long, especially in our 80th year.”
Veseys catalogs available in print and digital formats
Go to Veseys.com to request a catalog in the mail or view online. There’s a version for bulbs and for seeds.
Visit the Veseys Trial Garden
The flower trial garden and storefront of Veseys is located n the rural community of York, outside Charlottetown.
This article was made possible thanks to sponsorship by Veseys.