Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Territorial Seed Company Owners, Tom & Julie Johns—What they love to grow and why!

Last month we shared with you some of our employee's favorites to grow in the garden. Well, we thought it would be great for you all to hear from Territorial Seed Company owners, Tom and Julie Johns, about what they love to grow every year.

But first a little background...
Tom and Julie purchased Territorial Seed Company from its founder Steve Solomon in 1985. They can remember the newspaper ad which simply read ''... mail order seed company in Lorane for sale.'' They were early Territorial Seed customers. It suited their self-sufficient lifestyle in Cottage Grove of organic gardening, home canning, and building their own home. Tom was part of the Cottage Grove Sentinel's advertising staff until 1984, calling on Main Street businesses for the booming 40-page weekly paper, when Main Street businesses sold everything needed for daily living. Through the recession of the early 1980s, Tom traced the decline of local business to those tied solely to the local economy. With this insight, Tom and Julie decided to add self-employment to their self-sufficiency.

And now, just over 30 years later, here is a list of the must-haves for their garden!

Improved Meyer Lemon
—I’ve had success growing various citrus trees for the last few years. My favorite is the Meyer Lemon. The fruit gets ripe just in time to make pies for Thanksgiving and other holidays.

Tomatoes—Sungold is my choice for a cherry tomato. The flavor is wonderful and it’s a nice addition to salads. San Marzano Gigante 3 makes great sauce!

Lettuce—we eat a lot of salads so I like to have different types of lettuce growing. I prefer the romaine types like Valmaine and Outredgeous for the crunch and color variation. They are also great for lettuce cups. Arugula adds a nice nutty flavor to a salad as well!

Summer Squash—making a stir fry dish for dinner is a regular thing at our house in the summer. To get a good color combination I like to pick the fruit from Sunburst, Benning’s Green Tint, Black Beauty and Yellowfin when they are really small to add to the dish.

Winter Squash—Buttercup stores really well during the winter. Roasting the squash has great flavor and also makes a great soup base or pie filling.

Beans—the French filet bean Fortex sautĂ©ed with some garlic and butter is my choice to grow for a tasty side dish. If I want to do some canning for the winter my choice is Kentucky Blue.

I try to always have something growing at the house so it’s easier to pick when I’m ready to cook something for dinner. The food our family likes to eat guides what I plant. So, I like to have garlic and onions on hand to add flavor to dishes and they store well too. Potatoes are also really easy to grow and put in storage for the winter. Harvesting potatoes is kind of like digging for treasure!

Delicata Winter Squash— Perfect size, texture, and sweetness! I love eating the thin skins too (just like potatoes)! This was the first squash that we raised for seed; probably over 20 years ago now. When I was researching how to tell if the squash was ripe enough for processing, a retired seed production fella told me to throw the squash 10 feet into the air over asphalt, and if it broke apart from the impact it was ready!

Oregon Spring Tomato—Released from Jim Baggett at OSU in 1984, and remains the go-to slicing tomato for short season gardeners. Oregon Spring ushers you into the long anticipated fresh-from-the-garden tomato season. At the time Jim released Oregon Spring, Territorial was quite small and we did not have any capability to grow our own seed. No other seed company picked it up, so in 1985 we contracted to have it grown in California by a European based seed company called Nickerson-Zwaan. Once we had the seed in hand we slowly got it out to other home garden seed companies, and before long Oregon Spring was a home garden favorite across the country. This tomato inspired us to learn how to grow much of our own seed. It also created a great relationship between Dr. Baggett and ourselves, as he knew that if he released his lines to us first we would get them into the marketplace quickly. 

Umpqua Broccoli—As good as any other OP broccoli on the market. Territorial funded the development of Umpqua and Thompson broccoli back when Tim Peters worked for us in the 1980’s. We have continually grown this seed since that time, and you see it in many home garden catalogs across the country. A great broccoli for home gardeners as its ability to produce side shoots is impressive. I named this broccoli Umpqua because much of the selection work was done in the Umpqua Valley just south of our farm.

Sweet Meat Squash—this is a Pacific Northwest treasure for sure, as it was bred by the old Gill Brothers Seed Company out of Gresham, OR. They have not been in business since the early 1960’s, when at that time they were purchased by Harris Moran. Around 1990 I was visited by a fine seedsman by the name of Sandy Frazier that worked at Harris Moran. Sandy gave me some original stock seed of Sweet Meat that he had obtained directly from the Gill Brothers days. We have been very careful with the seed productions on our farm over the years to make sure we are offering the exact strain as bred originally by the Gill Brothers.  One of the best tasting squash you could eat! 

Hooker’s Sweet Indian Corn—Donated to Territorial by Ira Hooker in the early 1980’s. By Ira’s account he had been World War II buddies with a Native American fella from Western Washington, and his buddy’s family had grown and saved this sweet Indian corn for generations. It had white kernels when it was perfect for fresh eating and then turned blue when it dried down. It made the most beautiful blue corn flour. Steve Solomon liked the corn so well he had a fellow in Canyonville, OR grow it for Territorial starting in about 1983. To honor Ira as well as his war buddy, he named it Hooker’s Sweet Indian corn. Ira was in his 80’s back then and said he was getting tired of being responsible for keeping the corn alive, but he loved to eat it, so a deal was struck that for the rest of his life Territorial would provide him Hooker’s Sweet Indian and all his other seed needs free of charge. We have continually grown this variety ever since. In recent OSU corn breeding trials it’s always the quickest to germ in cold soils, and is early maturing—little wonder, as it’s been grown in the Pacific Northwest for who knows how many years!

Tom and Julie’s goal has always been to help improve people’s self-sufficiency by enabling them to produce fresh and quality food right in their own backyard. Their favorite’s list could go on and on (hence the 160 page catalog)—so from their list to your kitchen, we hope you’ll find some favorites of your own. Happy gardening!

Authors: Tom Johns, Julie Johns & Mel Reynolds


  1. Really nice blog TJ & Julie! and I learned some new things, I've always loved the idea of seed saving and heritage plants.

    Cindy Hartman
    Bend, Oregon

  2. After 5 decades of gardening in Zone 7, I am now learning how to garden in Zone 4. But it's fun learning the differences (like you really can't put out anything 'early' in the garden in February).