Customers sometimes kid Bill McKay of Winchester, whose Seeds from Italy catalog offers the largest variety of Italian vegetable seeds in the United States. "They'll say, `Hey you, McKay! What are YOU doing selling Italian seeds?" the catalog publisher remarked. McKay's mother's maiden name was Franceschelli, however, and he grew up on a Lexington farm owned by his maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from Abruzzo southeast of Rome. "They worked me like a dog. I hated it!" McKay said of his teenage years toting buckets of water and pulling weeds.
But the seed for loving to grow things had been planted, and a gardener sprouted. As an adult with a passion for fresh vegetables, McKay remembered his grandparents' "Goccia d'Oro" (Drop of Gold frying pepper) and "Bionda Cuore Pieno" (Blond Full Heart escorole) with longing. Unable to find them in American garden catalogs, he began giving wish lists of vegetable seeds to friends visiting Italy. "I used to drive people crazy," he said.
Eventually McKay began corresponding directly with Italian seed companies to get seeds for his backyard garden. One day a representative of Franchi Sementi, a large family-owned seed company in Bergamo, Italy, since 1783, asked him to become the company's first American agent. So four years ago the recently retired director of community activities at Fort Devens started a mail-order business as a hobby, selling traditional heirloom Italian vegetable seeds. To his surprise, the one-man business run out of his 1810 farmhouse in Winchester took off, and has more than doubled its sales every year since.
"It's been infinitely more successful than I thought it was going to be," said McKay.
The catalog was initially aimed at gardeners of Italian descent like McKay but was soon discovered by foodies who garden, devotees of heirloom vegetables, and small-market growers, many of whom sell to restaurants. Now McKay says he's working "16 hours a day seven days a week" through the busy January-March seed catalog season. But he's still having fun. "This is my baby and I really like doing it and I want to do it right."
McKay prides himself on customer service. "The nicest thing I get are these really wonderful letters like one from a lovely 81-year-old man whose father brought this white zucchini from Italy and he grew it and saved the seeds every year. Then one year, he lost it." Bees had cross pollinated the heirloom zucchini with another variety growing nearby, and the seeds, which breed true if grown in isolation, were worthless. McKay went hunting through Italian seed company catalogs and found "Lungo Bianco di Sicilia" (Long White Sicilian zucchini) and sent the man a packet. McKay also started offering it through his catalog, and now the thin, light-green, 10-inch-long zucchini is one of his better sellers.
McKay is often guided by customer requests and recommendations in selecting the 350 varieties of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds he carries. "This year I got a new tomato called Ball of Fire after two people wrote that it was the best tomato they'd ever eaten."
McKay usually trials vegetables in his backyard, where he gardens on an acre, though this year he solicited a bunch of customers to do trials through his quarterly newsletter of growing tips and recipes.
Varieties unique in this country to Seeds from Italy, said McKay, include an old Northern Italian beefsteak called Red Pear that produces giant 1-pound tomatoes, and a round red onion from Calabria called Tropea Rosa Tonda, which is the focal point of a weeklong July food festival in the town of Tropea.
The Seeds of Italy catalog and website contains many recipes that are especially useful for unfamiliar vegetables and greens such as agretti, also known as "Barba di Fratte" (Monk's Beard), a 2-foot-tall bush whose bitter leaves should be sauteed in olive oil.
Other unusual offerings include fava bean, six kinds of rape, four kinds of arugula, and many varieties of chicory, escarole, zucchini, tomato, pepper, cardoon, basil, and fennel. Some of the names roll trippingly off the tongue such "Gobbo di Nizza" (Hunchback of Nice cardoon) and "Bacio di Satana" (Satan's Kiss chili pepper).
Seeds of Italy also carries nine shell bean varieties. "Every village had its own variety in the old days," said McKay. "You would never find someone from Venice eating anything else but Lamon shell beans. That's why there are so many seed companies in Italy. Everyone grew local varieties, so every region would have a seed company specializing in what was in their area."
McKay had been on the phone that morning trying to get some seeds unloaded in New York that had been sitting in a cargo container for three weeks. Shepherding seeds from the three Italian companies he imports from can be trying, McKay admitted. "Ninety-five percent of my seeds are Franchi Sementi. It's a wonderful company, really nice folks. But they do things differently in Italy. They close down on Dec. 24 and reopen after Epiphany, which was Jan. 6 this year! I understand they want to be with their families, but it causes real problems. I don't think the Ball Seed Company (in Illinois) goes home for two weeks after Christmas." McKay sighed. "But I love Italy. They really know how to live there."
Seeds from Italy catalogs are available free by writing to P.O. Box 149, Winchester, MA, 01890, or visit the website at www.growitalian.com.
The reorganization at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in the wake of the resignation of its controversial CEO, John C. Peterson, continues to focus on the new Elm Bank facility in Dover.
In the new position of director of horticulture and education, Tom Strangfeld will assume leadership of all horticultural and educational responsibilities previously under Peterson's control. "I am really thrilled because I have wanted to work for a nonprofit and I see Mass. Hort. as a whole new ballgame now, with a lot of good, new people that I'm looking forward to working with. Elm Bank is a fantastic site with nine new gardens that I want to maintain to a very high quality. I want to help the trustees and members realize their vision for it," Strangfeld said in a telephone interview. He will also be involved with expanding children's programming and with the Society's New England Spring Flower Show, for which he designed many prize-winning exhibits while working for Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton for 28 years.
Strangfeld most recently created a master plan for a 75-acre sales site at Weston that includes the garden set for the new gardening television show "People, Places and Plants" starring Roger Swain. Mass. Hort's Board of Trustees, headed by Keith Hutchins and Elaine Fiske, will continue to search for a new CEO to oversee the financial and organizational management of the society.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society has also announced a series of joint projects with Horticulture magazine, which is observing its centennial year. Mass. Hort. members will receive subscriptions to the magazine, whose staff will produce the Society's bimonthly newsletter, "The Leaflet," and the show guide for The New England Spring Flower Show (March 13-21). Horticulture magazine will also be a Flower Show sponsor.
Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of the best-selling "The Well Tended Garden" and the new "Well Designed Mixed Garden," will lecture Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Weston High School auditorium as part of the annual Winter Horticulture Lecture Series cosponsored by Mass. Hort., The New England Wild Flower Society, the Arnold Arboretum, and Wellesley College Friends of Horticulture. Call 617-933-4921 or visit www.masshort.org for details.
Joy Logee Martin of Logee's Greenhouses in Danielson, Conn., died Jan 26 at age 92. She was a longtime owner of the charming, old-fashioned greenhouse complex internationally known for its rare indoor plants, which was established by her father, William D. Logee, in 1892 and is now run by her son Byron Martin. A herbalist specializing in begonias, she was an emissary for houseplants through her radio and television appearances and lectures. She also introduced many varieties of South African scented geraniums and reintroduced the fragrant Parma violet to American gardeners.