When I was a child, the card catalogue at the local library always fascinated me—wall-to-wall wooden cabinets and drawers brimming with index cards, and wafting the olfactory blend of sharp-sour typewriter ink and yellowing paper. Online cataloguing systems have long since swapped out romance for convenience, but Planters Seed & Spice Company in the historical River Market neighborhood just north of downtown Kansas City, Mo., knows that old ways are sometimes the best. This farm and garden Mecca, a Kansas City institution since 1924, still maintains its original seed library in the historic 1880 brick building it’s called home since 1928. When you walk through the glass doors at 513 Walnut St., you’re greeted with a wall of dark green wooden drawers and a floor-to-ceiling catalogue of every bulk seed you could imagine for your farm or home garden. The bulk-seed bins are a holdover from when founder Henry Wertheim first opened Planters as a commission house. Local farmers would come to the City Market to peddle their produce and pick up some fresh seeds at Planters on the way home.
Farm-to-table is the heart and history of the River Market, and in Planters, that neighborhood spirit thrives. Whether you’re a local farmer or just looking for a basil plant for your city balcony, the master gardeners at Planters can talk shop with you and offer expert advice. You can hunt through the wooden seed drawers while you plan this year’s heirloom tomato crop, or rifle through one of the equally exhaustive aisles of seed packets. The pre-printed envelopes are a convenient option if, like me, you need specific instructions on “How Not to Kill Your Plants.”
If you don’t have a green thumb, then you can still walk the building’s original, creaking floor boards and compare hog-themed lawn ornaments, sniff organic lotions and soaps, and dream up creative applications for the 40-pound bags of cow manure (a real steal at $3.95). Planters has stayed true to its name and spread over the years like kudzu vines into five adjoining buildings. The rooms, while connected with spacious archways, each have their own focus: one houses pesticides and poisons, another contains bright aluminum watering cans and planters in every color and design you can think of (and a few you probably can’t), and another with bird feeders, holistic grain-free pet food, and bat houses. If you find yourself in the confusing but enviable position of purchasing a bat house, I recommend the OBC model, which warns, “Other designs may have less than a 10% chance of attracting bats!”
For the less bat-oriented among us, Planters boasts another hidden gem: one of Kansas City’s best selections of bulk spices, coffees and teas. Vibrant bags of Hungarian Paprika sit on dark wooden shelves alongside aromatic strands of lavender and fiery chili powders. The spices are as fresh and potent as they are affordable: buy a crinkly cellophane bag of Planters huge, fragrant bay leaves for $1 and leave the timid supermarket leaves in their plastic racks. The coffees and teas are just as tempting, featuring flavors like Snickerdoodle Coffee and Ginger Peach black tea. If you’re not already overwhelmed by Planters sensory buffet, pull open up the original glass-front bins and inhale the aromas of your caffeine of choice.
Don’t be surprised when you finally make your way to the register and see an employee lowering a cloth-lined basket on a rope from the store’s upper level of offices. The store could keep records and send messages faster by phone or e-mail, but they still use the basket to pass notes and haul receipts up for bookkeeping. It’s the crowning human touch on a business devoted to keeping traditions, crops, and communities healthy and whole. The old ways, after all, are sometimes best.