IF YOU’VE EVER SAVED SEED for a number of years running, you may notice that over time, the plant makes itself increasingly at home—and performs better. Or perhaps a friend raves about “his” version of a particular tomato or squash or other open-pollinated crop, which does indeed seem “better” in some way. But why? Lately I’ve become fascinated by such signs of adaptation, and in this age of local-centrism, the idea of “local heirlooms” seems very timely. I asked my across-the-river neighbor Ken Greene, co-founder of Hudson Valley Seed Library, to teach me more—plus you can win some seeds, or best of all: come join me and Ken and others March 23, when we talk seed at a special event.
First, let’s do a little learning on the topic of local as it applies to heirloom seeds. I loved where the conversation led in my Q&A with Ken:
Q. “Local heirlooms” is a primary message, and mission, of Hudson Valley Seed Library. Explain.
A. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder and taste is on the tongue of the eater, defining the term “local heirloom” is in the hands of the gardener. Most seeds have traveled more miles than any of us will in our lifetimes. Very few of the varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that we love originally came from the places where we live. Many favorites, like tomatoes, originated in warm, sunny places like Central and South America. As the seeds traveled to new places, met new people with their own ideas of flavor, beauty, and use, they changed.
So local does not mean native, and heirloom does not mean set in stone.
For the Seed Library, a local heirloom means a variety that is open-pollinated (as opposed to hybrid or GMO) that has passed through many hands but has been in one area long enough to have changed to adapt in some way to its newest home. This might mean many generations in one community, or three or more successful seasons with one person.
A local heirloom is a variety that has co-evolved with us and landed in a garden or on a farm where it is thriving. But that is not the end of that seed’s story. Our hope is that our seeds, even the local heirlooms, will continue their wandering ways, discover new places, be changed and exchanged by new hands, and in turn change the lives of the people who grow them.
Q. How about some example of “local heirlooms” you’re especially enthusiastic about—and what if I’m outside the Northeast, where you are growing seed?
A. Our local heirlooms come from individuals and families all over the Northeast as well as from seed exchanges and other seed companies all over the world. We grow them on our farm to see how they do in our region. We want to see firsthand if they are beautiful, delicious, and healthy—and can deal with our short growing season, temperature swings, hot humid summers, and local pests and diseases. We also want to know if they are consistent enough to offer in our catalog or if they need further selection and improvement to do well in our region.
Some of our varieties may be familiar to heirloom gardeners everywhere, while others are unique or rare varieties that have never been commercially available. Because we are selecting for a cooler climate, anyone warmer than us will be successful with our seeds and most people colder than us (we even have Alaskan gardeners who grow with us!) will be happy with our selections. The main difference would be their planting dates, earlier or later than ours.
Q. Can you cite some specific “local heirlooms”?
A. A few of my favorite rare, unique, or just plain awesome local heirlooms we offer:
‘piracicaba’ broccoli: a far-flung local heirloom:
WHILE THERE is big corporate and public money being poured into creating hybrids and GMO seeds for “conventional” farmers, less work is being done for open-pollinated varieties for organic growers. Organic home growers are our focus. And that’s who this amazing broccoli called ‘Piracicaba’ is for. [That's its unfolded Seed Library "art pack" packet, up top.] Initially bred in Brazil, this cut-and-come-again broccoli is the perfect fit for becoming a local in the Northeast because of its tolerance for our hot summers. Instead of only getting one harvest of one broccoli head per plant, Piracicaba continually produces multiple sweet shoots of loose florets from spring through summer and into fall. It’s a perfect variety for gardeners who want fresh broccoli every day.
‘panther’ soybean: exotic but easy to grow:
SOMETIMES FEAR of growing from seed is fear of the unknown. More and more eaters are falling in love with the edamame appetizer they order at a sushi restaurant, but don’t realize they can grow it in their own gardens. It just sounds too exotic. But if you can grow bush beans (you can!) you can grow soybeans (really!) like ‘Panther’ edamame. Soybeans, just like other leguminous seeds can be direct sown. That means you don’t have to start them early or indoors, just put the seeds in the ground in the spring. By mid-August you’ll be harvesting buckets of the fuzzy green pods. Just steam, salt, and eat!
‘stone ridge’ tomato: deliciously salacious
THE SEEDS OF ‘Stone Ridge’ tomato were donated by Larry Fuscher, a local gardener. We grew 25 plants the first year to trial them. We found a diversity of traits, which is common for heirlooms being grown in dense gardens. So I wrote to Larry to get a better description of what the tomato should look like. He sent me a deliciously salacious email that compared the tomatoes, in more ways than one, to some people’s amplest body parts. Although it made me blush, by the time I was done reading the description I knew what characteristics to select for to get the tomato back to its ideal Venus de Milo form. It took us another few years of growing and selection before we offered this very unique local heirloom in our catalog. We still keep in touch with Larry and are grateful that he allows us to continually embellish both his tomato and its seed story.
march 23 with me, seed library, turtle tree:
shop, learn, connect
JOIN ME for an afternoon of seed-shopping, learning and fun on Saturday, March 23, in Copake, New York, 2:30-5:30 PM; ticket sales to benefit a local greening and preservation organization.
“Heirloom Gardening From Seed to Seed:” Ken Greene showcases our Northeast gardening heritage through elegant, humorous, and telling images from the Seed Library’s collection of antique and vintage seed catalogs, seed packs, and ephemera 1850s-1960s. Moving from history into the present, we’ll learn about easy, beautiful, and tasty heirloom varieties to grow at home. Along the way, Ken will offer simple tips for growing, harvesting, and saving seed.
Seed from Hudson Valley Seed Library and from Turtle Tree Seed—two nationally prominent but also local companies—will be for sale, and experts from both (plus me!) will be on hand to answer gardening questions before the talk and after, and to showcase seed-starting tactics and tricks. Come with your shopping list, and your questions; bring the family! Tickets here.
how to win seed library membership and seeds
I’VE PURCHASED THREE MEMBERSHIPS in Hudson Valley Seed Library, plus an assortment of some of the “local heirloom” seeds they sell, to share with you. To enter and win the memberships and seeds, simply comment below, answering this question:
Is there some seed that you or a family member or friend saves that you have a sentimental attachment to? Tell us about it. Or if not, is there an heirloom (open-pollinated) variety you order grow every year?
Feeling shy, or have no answer you want to share right now? Just say, “Count me in” or the equivalent, and you’ll be entered in the drawing.
Winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight Wednesday, January 16. Good luck to all!
Photo of Ken up top, courtesy of the Open Sesame film project; Ken’s at 2:10 in Open Sesame’s upcoming film’s trailer video below:
(Disclaimer: Seed Library is a seasonal advertiser on A Way to Garden, but our friendship precedes the ads. Others among my favorite seed companies can be found on my Resource Links page here.)