Editor’s note: With snow on the ground, and more in the forecast, it’s the perfect time to think of gardens, large and small. This story was originally published March 8, 2016. The thought of packages of seed displays shipping to all corners of the U.S. even while the snow plows are out, made this family-owned business and its connections to the world of growing seem even more relevant. Rob Hart, VP and treasurer of Hart Seed Company, recently represented the company at the record-breaking 56th ASTA Vegetable & Flower Seed Conference in Orlando, Florida, that brought together more than 900 seed industry professionals from 31 countries for four days. Topics covered included plant breeding innovation, global business, communications, food safety, organic seed.
A seed is a miracle. A wish and a promise for beauty, bountiful crops, fragrance, plus food for pollinators – all encapsulated in a perfect package. As the seasons change, so does the business at the Hart Seed Company of Wethersfield, Connecticut.
From nearly microscopic dust-like specks to those shaped like a guitar pick – packets hold a universe of possibilities waiting patiently for earth, sun, time to grow forth.
The Chas. C. Hart Seed Co. is the oldest seed company in the U.S. that is still owned and operated by the same family that founded it. For five generations, they’ve grown by this rule of thumb – “the highest quality seed at down-to-earth prices.”
In addition to those colorful seed packet displays that appear as a harbinger of spring, there is a less well known (to much of the general public) wholesale side – working with golf courses, municipalities, homeowners’ lawns and those who grow large gardens that call for bulk vegetable and flower seed. It also supplies the turf market with equipment, materials, seed.
“Every few months we’re doing something completely different,” said Robert Hart, vice president. “The two different parts of our business really don’t overlap too much. The lithographed packets we send out to hardware stores and garden centers, everything else falls into our wholesale operation. We’re selling a dream of a garden, there is a lot of trust involved. The Hart Seed logo represents 125 years of building that name and selling the highest quality of seed we can. Starting with seed is the most cost-efficient way to grow things – the vast majority of seeds you can plant at the end of May and be successful.”
Hollyhocks. Sunflowers. Fennel and lavender. Herbs. Borage. Peas and beans. Tomatoes, squash and peppers in a bewildering variety, pumpkins. Corn. Specialty strains. Living treats that indoor cats love to browse on. Micro-greens that are easy to grow from seed especially inside on a windowsill or a container – year round. The packet seed handles the displays for retail sales, individual gardeners through retail outlets, and via The Online Greenhouse, accessible from Hart’s retail store and their website.
To many humans, the cheerful and instantly recognizable logo of a red heart emblazoned on each packet is part of the growing season. Hart + heart.
Seed sales also are an economic indicator and rule of thumb as to a store’s health. Since many times seed packets are an impulse buy, sales also serve as a barometer of foot traffic.
“In a good economy, flower seed sales tend to go up; in a bad economy, vegetable sales will rise. Vegetables always outperform the flowers. When people have a concern about where their food comes from, they plant gardens.”
Many don’t realize there is a walk-in retail shop at the back of the low-key brick-fronted complex in the historic Old Wethersfield. A small sign near the road indicates a sales room, but word of mouth is how most find their way. Inside is a wall of seeds, racks and bulk vegetable and lawn seed; spades, rakes, clippers, goodies for gardener and, landscapers.
Turface is a brand name for the calcified clay that is used on baseball infields. Recently, 10 tons were delivered for use at The Hartford Yard Goats new ballpark stadium, now under construction.
“Grass is a perennial. Everything over here is individual varieties – basically bluegrass, ryegrass, fescue – and then some other unusual kinds, improved cultivars. Some of it is for lawns – but some are stock mixtures pre-mixed – 500 to 1,000 pounds. Percentage is grass, turf grass, lawn. This is the first year we’ve had two suppliers of grass seed, so we have a lot more cultivars.”
“People will tell me they’ve lived in town for 30 years and never even knew we had a store,” said Rob Hart as he walks the long hallway lined with company history, framed photographs. Here is the original building; a fire that took it down and the firemen fighting a blaze; another depicts a salesman in Maine with a shiny black auto with a Hart logo on the driver’s side door. Gardens grown for food and to support efforts in World War II; a vintage panoramic view of an industry gathering; the original company letterhead. A black-and-white image of boxed seeds stacked for shipments to Project Heifer. Heritage is honored, but business moves forward in step with cultural shifts, too.
“We’ve introduced an organic line of seed. It takes about three years for us to figure out how anything in the packet seed is doing because basically, we’re already ordering for the following year before we get any of the returns back.”
“Organics are getting the most press right now, but are still a small part of the industry,” he noted. “We’re expanding our territory further west and south. We have customers in 42 states. Some specific varieties can’t ship to some states. Many customers have been with us a long time such as GM Thompson and Sons in Mansfield Depot, Conn. Most I remember from 10 to 15 years ago picking up seed displays, spending summers going around to all the stores, counting what was left from their display; that way I got to meet our customers.” A tour of the building reveals a bustling enterprise – here is where seed packets are filled, picked, packed, shipped for displays around the country. A vault holds safe bags of bulk seed in a humidity and temperature controlled room. Two company cats patrol, alert for any possibility of hungry intruders. The door to the seed vault opens. Inside the climate controlled room is a slight aroma of something like fresh rye bread. It smells alive, it smells good.
“That’s the carrot seed,” explained Rob, descending the steps. “This is where we keep higher value vegetable and flower seed. Corn. We have two cats who work here because mice don’t just nibble, they get into the bag and tunnel through.” (By the way, the cats are featured on the Hart Seed web site.)
A big bin holds the sunflower seeds waiting to grow. “Rosemary, there are 3,000 tiny seeds in here,” he says. “It doesn’t act as a perennial around here, not hardy enough.”
Yes, he eats kale but prefers a microgreen mixture, which is a lot more tender. “This variety of kale has been in the catalog since 1901. We’re always looking at new varieties, members of several different associations within the industry. Mother Nature doesn’t like monoculture.”
The office of Sandy Merrill, garden seed buyer and packet seed manager, is a workshop of sorts as she works on an optimum formulation for seed starting – a crumbly earthy scented soil mix.
A wooden display rack display shows off the artistry of heirloom seed packets with lore and stories on the back.
“The outhouse hollyhock – that’s my favorite one,” said Rob, who said discarded wooden boxes once filled a barn and were used as kindling by his grandfather not so long ago. Now they are prized objects, collectibles. A recent wooden display box sold for $125 via LiveAuctioneers. Pages featuring the Hart logo and vintage items are also in collections displayed on Pinterest.
Footnote and update: In 1892, Charles C. Hart founded the company in the family kitchen. Every year the company receive letters, emails and calls wanting to know if Hart’s seeds are free of GMOs. The reply? “The Hart Seed Co. does not distribute any seed that has been produced through genetic engineering. Period. That’s our promise.”