seed shopping, with lia babitch of turtle tree seed

LET THE seed shopping season begin. The 2024 offerings are being loaded into seed-catalog websites, and the earliest print catalogs are already arriving in our mailboxes, as if to help soften the separation anxiety we may feel if we’ve already put our gardens to bed for the winter.

One that I always look forward to is Turtle Tree Seed, a biodynamic company where years ago, I discovered a few must-have vegetable varieties that I’ve grown every garden season since.

Lia Babitch is co-manager of Turtle Tree Seed in Copake, New York, which offers about 400 biodynamically grown varieties of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. Turtle Tree is part of Camphill Village Copake, a nonprofit intentional community of adults with developmental differences.

We talked about biodynamics—and she enticed me with news of some of the upcoming seed offerings, too.

Plus: Comment in the box near the bottom of the page for a chance to win your choice of $25 of Turtle Tree seeds.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 4, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

seed shopping with turtle tree’s lia babitch



Margaret Roach: Hi, Lia. Are you going to get us shopping; are you [laughter]? We just did a recent “New York Times” garden column together, which was also fun for me… Any excuse to talk seeds with you. So, the catalog’s at the printer [order a free copy], and stuff’s being uploaded madly into the website. Is that where you guys are at?

Lia Babitch: It is, yes. And also, seed packets are madly being filled.

Margaret: Oh boy [laughter]. So, probably to briefly just set this scene, Turtle Tree is part of Camphill Village in Copake, New York, up in the Hudson Valley, as I mentioned in the introduction. And what’s Camphill Village?

Lia: So, Camphill Village is an intentional community that especially surrounds the needs of people with developmental challenges. And we are part of a network of Camphill Villages worldwide, but each one is independently run. And ours is in Copake, and it’s in a beautiful valley of about 700 acres, mostly woodland. And in that valley we live in, there are about around 100 people with developmental challenges, and about 130 or so people who support, including families with children who grow up here. We live in houses with usually a family or some long-term people, and then three or four or five folks with developmental challenges. And then, a revolving staff of young people who come to volunteer from all over the world to do an interesting gap year and have a new experience.

Margaret: Every time I come to visit, I feel like it’s like my happy place. It makes me feel better because everyone, regardless of their abilities or any limitations, is invited to contribute. Everyone has a job, a part of every process. I think you call it life-sharing, and it’s work-sharing, too. It’s like everyone’s involved.

Lia: Absolutely. For the people who live here, we don’t earn a salary. So, in that sense, we’re all equal, and you just contribute what you’re able to contribute. And for somebody, it might be that they are able to sweep floors, and for somebody, it may be that they are able to do administrative work in the office. And those jobs are all valued and important, to make sure that everyone is well cared for in the village.

Margaret: Yes. And in the village, there are other businesses besides the seed company, and the whole place is nonprofit. Camphill is a nonprofit and everything’s nonprofit. But there’s a bakery and there’s other businesses as well that-

Lia: Yeah. There’s a really great coffee shop that has really good coffee [laughter].

Margaret: Yes, it does.

Lia: Yep. And a wonderful bakery. There is candlemaking, book binding, and papercraft, woodworking, and then as well, there are many land areas. There is a dairy farm that is just for our own use, but it’s wonderful to have the cows, and a lot of people can participate and care for the animals. There’s a herb and healing plant garden, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s 3 acres of just absolute beauty, of raised beds and herbs and flowers that are grown as much for beauty as for use, but they’re all put to use as well. We help make some remedies for Uriel Pharmacies who does homeopathic remedies.

Margaret: So, lots of endeavors going on that are part of the community, part of the whole.

Lia: Yep. And there’s also forestry, people who look after… Mowing in the summer, leaf raking in the fall, snow shoveling in the winter, but also maple syrup. And that’s a big part of our winter work on the land.

Margaret: Oh, nice. Nice. So, the principles behind Camphill and behind biodynamic gardening and farming are based on the teachings of the philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner. And so, biodynamically speaking, that’s important because he gave these lectures… Oh, how many years ago was it? When was-

Lia: It was in 1924, so almost 100 years.

Margaret: Yeah. So, a century ago, that were the basis of biodynamic farming and therefore also gardening, these principles that were set forth. And I have seen it referred to, biodynamics referred to, as “premium organic.” And you always say to me, “Well, we do all the stuff they do in organic, and then we also do some other stuff.” Right [laughter]?

Lia: Exactly. Yeah. So there are many ways to get into biodynamics, but maybe an accessible way is that we look at the whole area of land as an organism, and we try to have that organism have many healthy parts and that work together well and that support each other. And we also work with the Stella Natura star calendar [above], and we also work with herbal remedies called biodynamic preparations that we use for the land and to help build healthy compost. Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah, and I was going to ask you about that because I’m a lifelong composter, and I have a giant compost heap and so forth, and I think, like a lot of gardeners, we would like to do even better with it. And I feel like you almost like cultivate your compost. It’s much more thoughtful and considered. You’re not just throwing stuff in and hoping for the best.

And I noticed in the catalog—and they derive from one of those Rudolf Steiner lectures from a century ago—that there’s a series of, I think, six compost preparations, herbal. I guess are they powders maybe that you add to your compost? And I wanted to ask you about those because you sell them as well.

Lia: We do, yeah. So, for our own use, we make them all on our farm, but there’s also an organization called Josephine Porter Institute, which makes biodynamic preparations for people who aren’t able to make them in their own farms or gardens because it’s an involved process. And those six different herbal remedies, those go into the compost pile. And as you make the heap, then they can go in. And then every time you turn it, if you’re really intentional about it, then you can add more. And they just help to balance out both the life inside the compost, and then also how that will support the life of the plants.

For us, compost is so essential, because we don’t buy in outside fertilizers of any kind. All of our fertility comes from the land here. So, it comes from our cows, which we’re so blessed to have cow manure. It’s like gold. Really, I think even more than other cow products, the manure is the reason to have a cow.

But also just the plant matter that we have that grows in abundance every year, and then needs cutting back or… So for us, the compost is our fertility, and that is what makes our gardens beautiful and vibrant and what builds the soil. And so, for us, it’s really essential to have good compost. It’s not something that we’re going to… If it’s like, “Well, it’s O.K. this year. We’re going to just add a little bit of this and a little bit of that from someplace else.” That’s not how we…


Margaret: Right. And these preparations, I think there’s yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian. And again, they’re from the century-old formulas. It’s really fascinating. So, I’m interested; I’m kind of (haha) digging in. I want to learn more about that and see what impact that would have.

So, I always order the same things, Lia [laughter], as I said in the introduction, as long as I’ve known Turtle Tree, I always order the same things. That big sweet ‘Schweizer Riesen’ snow pea and ‘Aunt Ada’s’ Italian pole bean [above], that has become the secret ingredient in my vegetable soup, and a long-storing selection of ‘Butternut’ squash that you have that really, really keeps all through the winter and into the spring.

But I want to widen my horizons for 2024. And so, everyone always has a strong opinion on the best tomatoes, and everyone loves to grow tomatoes. So, I see you even have some sort of these samplers, these multi-packs and mixed packs, where I can get five kinds of tomatoes and try them.

Tell me some tomatoes that you think Margaret should try, or other people should try, some favorite tomatoes as a starter.

Lia: Let’s see. There’s so many, it’s hard to choose. But I think there are a couple that I always have to grow, and one of those is the ‘Blush’ [top of page]. It’s an elongated… It’s in the cherry tomato section, but it’s more of, I don’t know, an oval shape than a cherry shape.

Margaret: Uh-huh. So, more grape than cherry?

Lia: Even more like very small plum tomatoes. They’re kind of pale yellowish, and then they get these pink stripes on them, which are really pretty. But aside from being pretty, they’re also really delicious. And if you dry them, they’re like candy.

Margaret: Oh my goodness. Great idea. That’s great to know, a good one for drying. That’s great.

Lia: And we have several other ones in our catalog that are also good for drying, but that one, it’s really just like candy. Yeah, it’s so amazing.

Margaret: O.K. So, ‘Blush’?

Lia: Yep. And if you can bear to save any to dry, that’s…

Margaret: [Laughter.] If they even make it into the house from the garden.

Lia: Exactly. Yeah. So, there’s that one. And then for canning, our ‘San Marzano.’ ‘San Marzano’ is a very standard variety, but I love our selection of it so much. And we’ve had years where it didn’t get weeded, and it was just in a swamp of weeds and it still produced. There were years where we didn’t stake it, and it was fine. We’ve thrown everything at this tomato, and it just produces no matter what. And I make a lot of tomato sauce, so for me, that’s really essential.

Margaret: Oh, great; great idea. That’s great. That’s good to know.

Lia: And then the other one… Well, there are a couple of other ones for slicing that I just adore. I really, really love the ‘Striped German’ tomato [above], which is red and yellow striped and absolutely beautiful. Great flavor, and just looks great on a plate if you’re doing something where you’re going to put something on top of it and have little bites. It’s just so beautiful.

And then also for flavor… Well, that one also has fantastic flavor. And then there are a couple of others that are really, for me, just outstanding. There’s ‘Persimmon,’ the ‘Persimmon’ slicing tomato, ‘Aunt Zabeth’s Belgian Beefsteak,’ and the ‘Black Krim’ tomato. And those are all just… Well, there are more, too, but-

Margaret: Yeah. “And then, and then, and then, and then.” [Laughter.] But those are some great ones because those are ones… I think I grew ‘San Marzano’ a million years ago, but those are ones I’ve not grown. So, that’s great.

You have multi-packs and mixed packs, so you’ve got five smaller packs, like samplers, as I said before. And I think you have a tomato assortment in each of those different sampler offerings, the multi-packs and the mixed packs. I think one is the mixed pack of heirloom tomatoes. So that’s another way, without buying five full-sized packs of something, to maybe try an assortment of things. And I think you have even a smaller multi-pack of different tomatoes. And so, that’s an invitation to expand our horizons to really try some new things.

Lia: Yeah. Because you might not want 25 of the same kind of tomato plant.

Margaret: Right, right. And that’s the thing is it’s… Right. Perfect.

Lia: It just depends on the seeds, but you’ll get a couple of plants of each that you can put in your garden. If you don’t have a huge garden and you want to have a bigger variety, then that’s a great way to do it.

Margaret: Right. So, I mentioned a bean that I always grow ‘Aunt Ada’s’ pole bean, which is a dual-purpose bean, and it’s just fantastic. And as I said, I use it in my vegetable soup and I just eat it steamed and so forth as well. But I love the one called ‘Provider’ because if there was ever a good name for a plant, that bean is well-named, because boy does it provide. Do you agree?

Lia: Yeah. Yeah. Beans, the more you harvest, the more they grow. But this really takes that to the extreme.

Margaret: [Laughter.] It just keeps providing. It’s like it’s a bush bean, and it just keeps going and going and going. It’s amazing.

When we did the “New York Times” story together, you called out something with the common name of Cape gooseberry to me. And the thing is, it’s not a gooseberry, actually, and it’s more closely related to ground cherries or tomatillos, but it’s not one of those, either. And what is this thing? [‘Schoenbrunn Gold’ Physalis, below.]

Lia: Yeah. It has a shell like a tomatillo or a ground cherry. And inside, it has a little tomatillo- or ground cherry-shaped berry, but it doesn’t drop like a ground cherry drops when it’s ripe. And it doesn’t pop out of its shell like a tomatillo does when it’s ripe.

Margaret: So, it stays in the husk?

Lia: Yeah.

Margaret: It stays on the bushy plant in the husk.

Lia: Yeah. And when the husk turns tannish color from… It’s green and then it turns yellowish and tan as it dries down. Then usually, that’s when the fruit is ripe, and it’s quite a bright golden color. Sometimes people know them as golden berries, and it just has this outstanding, totally different flavor. It’s very tropically and citrusy and you just think, “What the heck is this?” Yeah. And it’s great in chutneys, it’s good in sauces. If you can get out of the garden without eating them all, you can use them for those things. Yeah, it’s quite a different flavor. It’s kind of a both sweet and savory, has both sweet and savory options, I would say.

Margaret: Right. And it’s a Physalis, the genus, and I think it’s species peruviana. And in a different species of Physalis, you have a gorgeous purple tomatillo, which I think that’s Physalis philadelphica, I think. So, the purple tomatillo would make a salsa of a really different color, right? That would be hilarious.

Lia: It does, yeah. It’s beautiful. And also the purple tomatillo, when it’s really ripe, especially if you have a nice hot summer, the fruits are actually delicious raw as well. A lot of tomatillos I find can be a bit too sour maybe.

Margaret: Yes, yes.

Lia: Good for salsa but a little too sour. But this one, it actually sweetens up. It’s not very, very sweet. But it sweetens up enough that you can definitely eat it raw as well. And we’ve even juiced it, which just makes us-

Margaret: [Laughter.] Because you’re just nutty over there.

Lia: We figured what the heck?

Margaret: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. I guess if you’ve got enough of something, you’re going to try all the angles, right [laughter]?

Lia: Well, also when we’re saving seeds, we have to whirr it up in the blender, so then we strain out the juice. So there’s that component as well. That was where we first got the idea to try juicing it.

Margaret: That’s hilarious. That’s hilarious. So, I want to just take a minute to talk about some flowers because I don’t want to run out of time. But you have so many great flowers, and I know both you and Ian Robb, your co-manager at Turtle Tree, are crazy about flowers as well as edibles. And I love that you have seed-grown dahlias. Now, tell us about that because I think the big objection to dahlias is the tubers are expensive, if you bought them from tubers. Yeah.

Lia: Yeah. A packet of seed is like $4 or so, and you can get probably 30, 40, maybe 50, 60 plants out of it, even more maybe. And those plants will grow into full-size dahlia plants. The interesting thing when you’re growing them from seed is that you just never know what you’re going to get, because dahlias readily cross-pollinate with each other, and they just create new forms all the time. So, our mix is mostly kind of the daisy-shaped flowers, but you never know. Some might be fully double. Some might be semi-double. Some might have the spidery cactus-shaped petals. Some might have quite oval petals, and then you just never know what colors you’re going to get.

This year, we had a lot of oranges and reds and yellows, which we usually do. We had a few pinks in there, a couple of whites in there. But one of the yellow ones was this huge multi-double or fully double flower that had a little bit of pink just at the edge. And we’ve never seen that form before. It just appeared. And there were beautiful orange ones that had lighter orange towards the outside and darker orange in the middle [below]. Yeah, so you get all these different things, and you can then save the tubers from the ones that you like the best and you have to-

Margaret: Oh, so you can grow your own tubers? [Laughter.]

Lia: Exactly.

Margaret: Of course, old Margaret over here didn’t even think of that aspect of it. That’s funny.

Lia: If you have 30, 40, 50 plants, you can make a hedge out of them, which we often… We have a big long row, and in August, September, it’s just this mass of flowers. And the bumblebees absolutely love it. They spend the nights in the flowers very often. So, if you’re picking flowers in the early morning, you might have to disrupt some bumblebees before you bring your flowers in. But I think they sleep there during the cold night, and then they have a pollen source right next to them when they wake up.

Margaret: Well, and pollinators love those single-flower forms, the daisy-like flower forms like you were describing, because they can get sustenance from them. And the other thing you were talking about: what shows up, the color and shape range that reveals itself from generation to generation. And I should have said earlier on, I think I probably forgot, all of your varieties besides being biodynamically grown are also open-pollinated. So, if you let something self-sow, it’s going to reveal itself, right? It’s going to show more diversity.

Lia: Yeah. And with the dahlia certainly, it’s very easy to save seed from them if you want to. And then you’ll have a completely different set of probably some similar but not altogether similar dahlias next year. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. They’re a lot of fun.

Margaret: O.K. Any other couple of quick flowers that you want to shout out for us that we should consider? Because a lot of us go for zinnias and marigolds, and it’s the usual suspects, but anything else to…

Lia: One of my favorites right now is our ‘Salmon Frills’ poppy. And yeah, as it says, it’s salmon, peachy, pinkish color, orangey-pink. And it is mostly double, but also some semi-double blooms. And the bees just absolutely love it. It’s really easy to grow, because you just throw the seed out on the cold ground, maybe rake it in a little bit if you feel like it, and they grow. And of course, so there’s the bees in the blossoms—sometimes I’ve counted 10, 12 bees in one blossom. It’s so busy. And then they have the really cool seed pods as well. So, you get this whole season of different interest, which I really like.

Margaret: So, this is an opium or breadseed poppy then?

Lia: Yeah.

Margaret: Papaver somniferum. Yeah. Oh, I love them. I didn’t know there was a salmon color. Oh my goodness. Now I’ve got to definitely mark that down to add to my order. That’s a great idea. And you’re right; I love the pods. The pods are just the best as well, and they’re so filled with those tiny seeds. So, you just direct sow like late winter? Is that what you’re saying? Into an open space?

Lia: Yeah, early spring. Even just when you’re sowing your peas. Or even sometimes the winter before, or the late fall before. You could even sow them now, I suppose. And of course once you grow them, then you have a million seeds, and they will self-sow if you leave them that long. Also, the seed pods are these little salt shakers that you can just shake all over if you want.

Margaret: Yes, they’re wonderful. Well, lots of good possibilities, Lia Babitch, co-manager of Turtle Tree Seed in Copake, New York, not far from me. I’m just so happy, and I’m so excited for a new seed season. I think we all need some good news. And it’s coming in the mail by catalog, right? So, thank you.

more from turtle tree seed

enter to win $25 in turtle tree seeds

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What’s your favorite tomato to grow?

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prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 4, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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