seed smarts 2: turtle tree’s special brand of tlc

Turtle Tree seeds and catalog logoTHE CONVERSATION CONTINUES about a different kind of seed company–seed companies that don’t just package and re-sell seeds, but actually grow some or all of their inventory themselves, spending endless hours year in and year out first-hand, making sure each crop is the best it can be. This week, my guest on the blog and on radio is Lia Babitch, co-manager of Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seeds—a very special company for many reasons even beyond the TLC they put into their open-pollinated crops. We talked about some exceptional peas, beans, yellow tomatoes, winter squash and even a chicory—a new-to-the catalog crop for winter forcing.

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LIA BABITCH of Turtle Tree Seed was the guest for the latest edition of the radio show. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The December 9, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

I PROMISED Lia I wouldn’t make her try to explain the entire system of biodynamics on the air–but in very short: It’s a system of agriculture that incorporates the power of all the dynamic, subtle forces of nature and does not incorporate any synthetic inputs like chemicals. Ever.

“We don’t any of the bad stuff that ‘certified organic’ doesn’t let you do,” says Lia, “but we also do a bunch of good stuff that helps the soil and the ecosystem.” (You can read more about it here.)

my q&a with lia babitch of turtle tree

Q: First: Let’s get a little background on the Turtle Tree seed company, Lia.

A. Turtle Tree Seed started in about 1994, and the first several years, it moved around a lot: to Colorado, Minnesota, on different farms, and finally it came here to Camphill Village in Copake, New York, in the winter of ‘97-spring of ’98.

Camphill Village is an intentional community that includes adults with developmental disabilities, and many of these villagers work at the seed company. The founders felt that this would be the right place to have this kind of a company.

Flower of 'Schweizer Riesen' peas.Q. What were some of the first crops that the Turtle Tree catalog included?

A. Among the very first crops was one that the founders brought back from Switzerland, where they had learned their seed-growing knowledge. It’s the ‘Schweizer Riesen’ snow pea (the name means Swiss Giant).  It’s a really wonderful snow pea:

The plants can grow 6 feet if you trellis them properly, and it has beautiful purple flowers [above] that are also edible.

Aunt Ada's Italian pole beanAnother is ‘Aunt Ada’s’ Italian pole bean [above]. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. We were given it by someone whose family had been saving it for many years.

It’s a dual-purpose bean—meaning for eating fresh or drying–with short, flat pods which as they ripen become sort of bumpy because the beans are forming. Unlike many other “green” beans, that’s when they are best harvested for eating fresh. The beans are really buttery and rich. Heavenly.

Q. Those have both become my must-haves since you turned me on to them a few years ago, Lia. Other favorite varieties you want to be sure to share?

A. There are a lot of favorites in the catalog—but one I want to mention especially is ‘Kimberton Hills Yellow’ tomato. A longtime friend of Turtle Tree’s selected this variety, and worked on it for probably 30 or 35 years. It is a tomato that seems to do well even in difficult years when other tomatoes don’t. It also has low acidity.

Seeds at Turtle TreeQ. You said that person worked on the tomato for 30 or 35 years—which brings up the subject of my seed series. 

In the kickoff last week to this seed series, Lia, John Navazio of the Organic Seed Alliance talked about the TLC and diligence it requires to keep heirloom and other open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seed varieties from, as he said, “going to the dogs.” 

Now, that work doesn’t start when the tomatoes are all ripe, or the beans are ready to pick, does it?

A. It starts with the seed. Before you even sow, you pick out any small seeds or ones that look funky. You just sow the best seeds.

And then of those, you pick the best plants: ones that germinate first, and are the most energetic, that just jump out of the ground.

The selection process continues like that throughout the life cycle. Anything else you don’t like: take it out and throw it away.

And plants that are really ideal get marked and set aside in a different place.

There are some other considerations, such as isolation distances for pollination protection; population size for crops that can get inbreeding depression, or simply said, some vegetables are like people, and don’t do well with a small population inbreeding over many generations. But the ones I already mentioned give you an idea of the simple basics of selection.

Q. What might get marked like that? Could it be any trait that you happen to like?

A. It can be, but you have to realize that when you do, that you are bending the genetic stream toward that characteristic. So you have to do it really consciously, and decide whet you are going to look for and keep up with that over the years.

You can’t decide you’re going to choose one year for one thing, and another year for another trait. You have to focus, and year after year choose the plants that best represent what you are going towards.

Q. So let’s say we had a ‘Brandywine’ tomato that you’re working with—do you have to both keep in mind something that looks remarkable in the row each year, and also refer to some kind of formal guidelines about what a ‘Brandywine’ needs to be? How do you balance between evolving the variety and keeping it true to type?

A. A backyard gardener can do whatever they like. But for a seed company it is very important to stay true to type.

So the selection we’d do for a ‘Brandywine,’ it would be for continued taste–that they still taste really good–and things like disease resistance, if we see one plant that is markedly better then the others in a row in terms of resisting disease.

We’d select for things that just don’t so much change the plant.

Q. So how long is your relationship with a crop? Is it always decades-long like that yellow tomato example you gave?

A. That’s not an unusual amount of time. Sometimes there can be a shorter amount of time, but even once you’ve gotten a variety that’s great and that’s stable, you still have to keep on keeping it up–to make sure that the variety stays the way you want it to stay, and doesn’t go off in the wrong direction.  It’s pretty much a continual process.

'Butternut' squash after storing till springQ. For instance, you shared a ‘Butternut’ squash with me a few years ago that you have been working on for “lastingness,” to be a really good keeper. [Those are mine after a long winter's nap--still great!] How many years have you been at that one and how did you do that? 

A. I think our ‘Butternut’ squash has been with us since the beginning of the company, too—or maybe even something the founders had before they started Turtle Tree.  With that trait in mind, you take all of your squashes and sit them in good storage conditions.

Eating the ones that start to go first, and always selecting and using for seed the ones that have lasted the longest.

Of course it’s always important for us to taste the ones at the end that last a long time before using them for seed—because if it doesn’t taste good, the fact that it lasted is kind of pointless.

Q. I know you have a “pet project” at the moment that particularly delights you, because of how good it tastes–a chicory that it is eaten in winter…when not much else from the garden is happening.

A. It’s called ‘Brussels Witloof’ forcing chicory. You grow it as a root in the summertime—it takes a long season, so you sow it in the spring as you would your carrots grow it all summer, and in the fall you dig it up and cut off most of the leaves, to maybe an inch above the crown, and then you re-plant the chicory roots in the dark. A good dark shed covered with a tarp, for instance, or a root cellar.

It grows the best heads when it’s forced where it’s warm underneath and cold on top—besides the need for darkness. In about 4-6 weeks, they make small heads, called “chicons.” You’ve probably seen them in the supermarket—as Belgian endive.

We’ve been growing it in trials for a couple of years, and now we’re offering it in the new catalog.

get turtle tree’s new catalog

win a turtle tree gift pack of seeds

Turtle Tree Seed logoI’VE BOUGHT THREE gift packs of seed from Turtle Tree to share with lucky winners. Each gift contains the ‘Schweizer Riesen’ snow pea and Aunt Ada’s pole bean mentioned above, plus ‘Myona,’ tomato, ‘Perseverance’ petunia, and ‘Boothby Blonde’ cucumber.  You will love them all.

All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way at the bottom of the page:

What’s the longest “relationship” you have with a variety of vegetable, herb or flower, whether you save its seed yourself or not? Which one have you been growing longest, and cannot imagine your garden without?

(For me: It wouldn’t be a vegetable garden without flat leaf parsley such as ‘Gigante;’ ‘German Extra Hardy’ garlic; and the flat-podded Italian-style bean known as Romano types.)

No worry if you have no answer—just say “count me in” or some such, and I will.

Three winners (U.S. and Canada only) will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Tuesday, December 17. Good luck to all.

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December 9, 2013

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