Seed catalogs have been arriving in many Walla Walla mailboxes for weeks now because it is time to start thinking about planting those backyard gardens.
Home gardens have been important in our area for a long time. French-Canadians at Fort Nez Perce at Wallula had large gardens and when Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived at the Fort, they admired the melons being grown there. Fort Vancouver provided the Whitmans with both seeds for their vegetable gardens and for their field crops. At Frenchtown, residents had been growing potatoes ten years before the Whitmans settled at the mission and obtaining seeds and “starts” from Frenchtown would have been beneficial, but there is no record of this cooperation.
The Whitmans cultivated melons and vegetables in their garden, and Narcissa writes in her diary of overseeing the garden and mentions picking radishes for dinner. There were so many visitors passing through the mission that a large garden was crucial. Narcissa wrote that there was “such a multitude of starving people passed us that quite drained us of all our provisions, except potatoes.”
Stockraisers Brooke and Bumford had a garden on the Whitman mission grounds after the Whitmans were killed. Visiting there in 1853, Isaac Stevens observed “they were harvesting potatoes as ever I beheld, many weighing two pounds, and one five and one-half. Their carrots and beets too, were of extraordinary size.”
As early as 1861, Walla Walla residents were building substantial houses and cultivating gardens. “Health, pleasure and profit” were the advantages of a well cultivated garden stated an 1863 article in the Statesman.
Where did these home gardeners get their seeds? Seeds and implements for gardening could have been ordered from the Knapp and Burrell firm in Portland, but mail order was less than convenient. So there was excitement when locals heard that Phillip Ritz, who had a successful nursery in Corvallis, would be establishing one here. In 1863, he bought land south of town and was soon was offering “every variety of garden and flower seeds” at his nursery along with trees and shrubs and roses.
In March of 1863, the Washington Statesman noted a “ number of gardens already in a fair state of advancement” and stated that some citizens may have planted in “hot-beds.” Judge Kelly reported that he had already sown a number of seeds in his hotbed in February and was looking forward to an abundance of vegetables next month. A house for sale was advertised as having “ground suitable for gardening and all conveniences for irrigating.”
Some vegetables and fruits were available for purchase. Frank Orselli, a very early settler, sold some produce at his bakery on Second and Main. But in the 1860s and early 1870s, the excellent produce of Italian truck gardeners such as Saturno, Tachi and Villa, and the varied vegetables later grown and sold by Chinese gardeners were not yet available. And then as now, the home gardener was motivated not just by frugality to grow his own produce, but also by the pleasure of tending a successful garden.
Garden advice columns were featured in the newspaper and in 1863 one recommended planting cabbages, beets, carrots, asparagus and onions. Also suggested was giving the “vegetable oyster” a try. We call this plant Salsify today; its root and greens can both be eaten. As early as 1867 prizes were offered at the Fair for “vegetables of merit” such as carrots, squash and parsnips.
Despite Phillip Ritz’s reputation as the earliest supplier of seeds, it was George Starrett who was not only a “pioneer seed dealer,” but one whose seed supply business lasted until the late 1950s. Mr. Starrett had other careers before he became a nurseryman. He arrived in the valley in 1870 at age 40 and had previously worked on railroads and in mercantile. His first wife died, leaving him with two children. In 1870, he married Leah, a widow who happened to be Phillip Ritz’s sister. It is likely that Mr. Ritz supported and advised his brother-in- law in his newly formed seed business.
Mr. Starrett had a reputation for providing seeds of every variety and for being expert at acclimatizing seed for this region. Offering catalogs and price lists for both flower and garden seeds, he solicited orders from outside Walla Walla. He also had a sister store in Salem. The combined area of his three seed farms was 152 acres and one of the farms is pictured in Gilbert’s Historic Sketches of 1882, showing a large outbuilding labeled “SEEDS.” The 1900 census lists two Chinese men, Ghee and Gee Gee, who lived on one of Starrett’s farms and were employed as garden laborers.
By 1878 the Starretts had established a retail store, a “Seed House,” on north Birch Street between first and second. George had retired by 1876 and his son W. G. Starrett became the owner of the seed business. Growing up in the business, W. G. had peddled his family’s vegetables to residents as a child. W. G. Starrett and his family lived on Birch next to the seed store. Their neighbor was local character, the widow Annie Mix, who was famous for her eccentric style of dressing and her trademark ruffled parasol. Known as a kind-hearted and generous person, she nevertheless fenced her home with a 12 foot wooden fence topped with barbed wire in order to keep the five Starrett children out of her yard.
Gardeners could buy seeds from the Starretts, but could also be supplied with spraying pumps, garden drills and cultivators. By the 1880s the “garden industry” was going strong and Starrett Seeds supplied the Italian and Chinese truck farmers, as well as home gardeners.
W. G. Starrett, who lived to age 81, had a reputation for his “unusually retentive memory.” Folks would gather at the seed store to hear him rattle off stories of events from the past. He recalled an 1872 smallpox epidemic and remembered that in 1893 flowers were blooming and citizens were mowing their lawns in early March. Dick Phillips has memories of visiting Starretts with his father Rodney, who always had a large garden. Instead of being sold in packages, Dick remembers seeds stored loose in drawers. W.G.’s daughter Dorothea Starrett continued to run the store after her father’s death in 1935 and worked in the store until old age. Dorothea was likely the woman Dick Phillips recalls waiting on his father.
Not many people remember the Starretts, but in 1989 Woodward Canyons winery, recognizing George Starrett’s significance in Walla Walla, dedicated a cabernet and merlot blend to him. The Birch street “seed depot” has been gone since the late 1950s and is now a parking lot. George Starrett and son W. G. would be gratified however, that there are still many in the community who value the “health, pleasure and profit” of a home garden.