ONE SQUASH SLEPT ON THE WINDOWSILL, another in the cabinet beneath the sink. Both stayed firm (and presumably delicious) all winter long, and then some—far into the next year. Lia Babitch and Ian Robb, co-managers of Turtle Tree Seed in Copake, New York, may store their ‘Butternut’ differently, but the greater mission they’re part of is the same: to offer biodynamic, open-pollinated seed to gardeners and farmers that’s been selected to be the very best it can…which if you’re a winter squash means sticking around a good long while. Meet these gifted gardeners and more of their very special seed varieties, and maybe win one of two $20 Turtle Tree gift certificates I’ve bought to share with you.
A Treasure in My Backyard
There’s an expression about finding a treasure right in your own backyard, and for me, Turtle Tree is just that. Operated as part of the oldest Camphill Village community in the United States, it’s just “across town” from my place (if you can apply that expression to a drive on winding roads across six miles of fields and hillsides).
At Turtle Tree, as in all the other aspects of life and work at Camphill, adults with special needs are part of the team that harvested, dried, cleaned, germination-tested, packed and shipped more than 42,000 packs of seed to more than 40 farms and 4,000 home gardeners in the last year. Turtle Tree, founded in the early 1990s, is the only exclusively biodynamic seed catalog in the country (more on biodynamics—a type of organic farming or gardening that incorporates awareness of dynamic, subtle forces in nature—is below).
“Camphill Village is a community of people, some with special needs, who live and work together caring for each other and the Earth,” the village’s website explains. The principles behind the community, and behind the biodynamic practices of the gardening and farming there, are based on anthroposophy, the teachings of philosopher, scientist, and educator Rudolf Steiner, Ph.D. (1861-1925). The name Turtle Tree and its logo—a turtle with a tree on its back–comes from an Onondaga Tribe legend. The turtle is the North American continent; the tree is the tree of life.
It’s also simply a very joyous-feeling place. In the seed-company offices, no one was lost in their iPods, but rather focused and engaged in a meditative collaboration, each contributing his or her contribution to the greater whole.
Selecting for Variety Improvements
TURTLE TREE GROWS several dozen of the seed varieties it sells, and buys in some varieties from other biodynamic sources. Listening to Lia and Ian talk about how they refine the seed strains they do grow out in Copake—or even do the best by a crop they’re growing for the dinner table—got me thinking about watching my own plants with a sharper eye.
So how do you know what to select for, I asked? Is there some rulebook?
“We’re a seed company, so we have to select for ‘true to type’ qualities,” said Ian. “That’s a seed-company mandate, to maintain the variety.” Meaning that ‘Butternut’ must be the right size and shape, dark orange inside, and have the right degree of sweetness—but to that list of “true-to-type” characteristics Turtle Tree has been “intensively selecting for storage,” said Lia (her squash on the windowsill, Ian’s beneath the sink). So it’s true—and hopefully a little better.
Then Lia told me a story of this blend of art and science: of a strain of celeriac that was given to three breeders to work on. The assignment: It must have good leaves, and a big, round root that is white and smooth, and not pithy. Years later, the results of the three breeders’ work was compared—and though all were experts and pursuing the same assignment, all three strains were different (with the one woman’s even different from the two men’s—hers more a mound of foliage than their leaves that jutted upright!).
“We make observations all along the way,” said Lia, “from the moment of germination,” discarding any twisted or stunted seedlings, and not waiting until harvest time to select the best ones to save seed from for next year.
They’re starting to work on a botanical cousin of the ‘Butternut’ now, too—a ‘Long Island Cheese’ winter squash, another variety in the species Cucurbita moschata. “The moschata don’t succumb to bacterial wilt, so they’re really good for our area,” Lia reminded me, and ‘Long Island Cheese’ has a New York heritage—so nice in that way, too, for a New York-based seed company.
They’re also starting to adapt a melon, ‘Noir des Carmes,’ to local growing conditions. “The crew called them ‘smelons’ because they were so fragrant last year,” Lia recalled. But, oops, the variety seemed to have no innate disease resistance, so they saved seed from the most fragrant fruits of the few surviving plants for this year’s sowing, the first step toward a better strain.
Other Turtle Tree Favorites
THE CATALOG DESCRIPTIONS really distinguish Turtle Tree: You won’t find a generic “24 inches tall and heavy producer of 3-inch pods” description here, but instead real first-hand, intimate feedback on what you can expect from each variety. All are open-pollinated—so you can save your seed for next year. Some popular varieties:
‘Butterflay’ spinach: Quick-growing, late-bolting, a vigorous spring and fall variety with a rich flavor.
‘Rolanka’ carrot: Who wouldn’t want a carrot that can still hold up as tasty even after a year in storage? (That’s them after their long siesta in the photo.) A strong, sweet and aromatic flavor in large, deep-orange carrots. ‘Rolanka’ in the catalog.
‘Schweizer Riesen’ snowpea (it translates as ‘Swiss Giant’):This Swiss heirloom was one of the original Turtle Tree offerings, paler but sweeter than your average snowpea, with various tasty parts: purple blossoms, tender foliage and tendrils, and of course peapods. Great for adding to salad. Order peas.
‘Aunt Ada’s Italian’ bean: This heirloom traveled from Italy to Colorado around 1900, and though it has flat pods like other Italian green beans, it’s a little different: It’s best eaten when the beans are a little shelly—when the seeds start to show through—and the pods are much shorter (maybe 3 inches) than typical varieties. Good as a soup bean, too (and that’s a big brown bag of it before packing into packets, climate-controlled storage at Turtle Tree). Order it.
‘Clear Dawn’ onion (always in short supply!): This variety came from the extremely long-storing hybrid ‘Copra,’ but is open-pollinated, and has been grown for more than 30 years by biodynamic farmers and gardeners. Onions, including this one, at Turtle Tree.
What Is Biodynamics?
IT WOULD BE IRRESPONSIBLE to pretend to explain biodynamics in a paragraph or two, but fortunately the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (founded 1938) offers greater depth, and so can the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Bio-Dynamics. Meantime, some little bits I have taken away so far:
A biodynamic farmer or gardener, Lia and Ian explained, sees the farm or garden as a whole, and tries to treat it as “its own individuality.” Soil health—part of the bigger emphasis on healing the earth—is always in mind.
Composting is like an art form in biodynamics. Planting, cultivating and even harvesting are timed to consider the phases or cycles of the planets. Crop rotation cycles are observed, with plants broken down into four categories (root plants, leaf plants, flower plants and fruit plants) for this purpose. So a root plant like carrot or beetroot (which need less nutrients) might follow a heavy-feeder leaf plant like cabbage (which will have used up some richness in the soil, but left enough for a root crop).
A series of preparations, called the biodynamic preparations, are used in various ways—added to compost, watered into soil or sprayed onto plants, etc. They draw on the goodness in manure and also in plants like horsetail (Equisetum), oak bark, yarrow, nettles, dandelion, valerian and chamomile (a preparation-plant collection is sold in the Turtle Tree catalog).
I plan a proper post about biodynamics, but first I must study up, so I’m currently reading Maria Thun’s “Gardening for Life the Biodynamic Way” and “Culture and Horticulture, a Philosophy of Gardening” by Wolf D. Storl. Maybe you want to read along?
(All variety photos from the Turtle Tree website.)
How to Win the Gift Certificates
I HAVE PURCHASED two $20 Turtle Tree gift certificates to share with winners who’ll be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, February 26. All you have to do to enter is comment below, telling us whether you grow any open-pollinated varieties and/or save any seed from year to year, and if so, from what varieties.
Feeling shy? Just say “Count me in,” and you’re entered; no pressure. But I’d love to learn more about your adventures with open-pollinated plants and seed-saving, if you care to share. Good luck to all.
- Shop the Turtle Tree catalog now. For a free paper catalog email turtle [at] turtletreeseed [dot] org or call 518-329-3037.