at adaptive seeds, celebrating diversity in kale, squash, tomatillos

Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still of Adaptive SeedsWE’VE BEEN SEED-SHOPPING our way around the nation in my recent series on the radio and blog—and now we’ll head around the world a bit, led by Andrew Still, half of the team at Adaptive Seeds of Sweet Home, Oregon, an exciting relative newcomer to the retail organic-seed marketplace.  We’ll talk kale (wait till you see the diversity!) and winter squash, and even a tomatillo as big as your hand, among other must-have’s.

As with many other blessings, I have my friends at the Organic Seed Alliance to thank for my introduction to Adaptive Seeds, which had a big year in 2013: Andrew and his partner Sarah Kleeger turned their entire farm operation over to seeds, closing their CSA; completed their official organic certification; and ramped up to double their seed assortment to 400 varieties—including 65 new to their catalog this year.

my q&a with andrew still of adaptive seeds

Q. So a little background first, please, Andrew—a short history of Adaptive Seeds and what you and Sarah [photo above] are doing.

Adaptive Seeds logoA. This is our fifth catalog. We have been farming between Brownsville and Sweet Home, Oregon, on the eastern edge of the Willamette Valley, north of Eugene. We grow on about 10 acres. We used to have a winter-vegetable CSA, and grain and bean production, but now we’re almost entirely seeds.

Q. Let’s back up, Andrew, to a moment before the Adaptive Seeds catalog was founded in 2009, and talk about the Seed Ambassadors Project. As your partner Sarah Kleeger described it to me: “We’re seed nerds, so we took our life savings to Europe to look for seed.” Really?

A. We were working for other organic farmers around the area, and so we had two things on our hands: a little bit of savings, and seasonal unemployment. And we were really into seeds.

So we decided what we’d do for vacation in 2007 was fly to Europe, and meet with a bunch of people in Northern Europe, and collect seeds, and talk about seeds, and maybe do some seed swaps and seed saving. Kind of like a vacation with a purpose.

It snowballed into something quite big. Aside from realizing too late that St. Petersburg in January is pretty cold, we ended up meeting with dozens of seed companies, and underground seed growers, and seed savers—and we visited about 10 countries over four months and brought back about 800 varieties of vegetables that were not available commercially in the U.S.

It was a big gift that the universe gave us, and it encouraged us to get into seed production.

Q. Why Northern Europe as a destination?

A. Northern (and Eastern) Europe translates really well to the Pacific Northwest and northern U.S., meaning those seeds are already partially adapted to our areas.  The seed we brought over with us seemed to thrive there, and the seed we brought back seemed to thrive here. It’s a good parallel. It was a really fun international exchange.

Q. Andrew, on the Adaptive Seeds website, I see you state your “Seed Priorities,” and a few of them are terms I think would be great to talk about.

Some were straight forward–like you state that among your seed priorities include:

  • Rare and heritage varieties
  • Oregon and Northwest-bred varieties
  • Early maturing and Northern-adapted varieties
  • Highly nutritious staple foods
  • Public-domain, modern varieties

And then you also mention that your focus includes: “Adaptivars, grexes and landraces.”

Can you define those last ones? The word landraces came up recently in a chat with Native Seeds/SEARCH of Tuscon, for instance—and I grow one beet from Alan Kapuler in Oregon that’s a grex, but that’s all I know about those terms.

A. Those terms are fun, and people call them different things. But it’s about diversity in a seed, and we like to say that one of our main goals is to bring biodiversity back—for farmers, for gardeners, to our plates—and that includes bringing biodiversity back to the variety level.

That means not just 20 different varieties, but a variety that has a lot of genetic diversity within it. An adaptivar is just a play on a cultivar—but that means it’s more adaptable, or more resilient.

A grex is kind of collection of different individuals in a mix—a term that comes from an orchid-breeding concept.

And a landrace is a variety that native people used to grow and still grow, that tended to have a lot of biodiversity in their population, so they were more resilient in the face of climate and what the cultural needs were.

Q. So you are looking for diversity within each variety?

A. I think it’s kind of fun because when we have a population of things we call it our “party mix,” so we have a corn party mix, and a ‘Butternut’ party mix–and a friend of ours has a brassica population that he calls the “the B. rapa Re-Mix.”

Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds in fieldQ. Very funny. You organic seed farmers are just too groovy for me!

So: One more that I noted in your company priority list: “winter garden varieties.” And I also seem to recall that your first “product” or crop was kale, which ties into that theme—how did kale become the starting point for Adaptive Seeds?

A. We noticed that a lot of home gardeners were excited about kale in the Willamette Valley, especially in the Eugene area, and we had been participating in winter-gardening workshops and trying to figure out how to fill that gap through the winter in our local food system.

Kale was like the easiest first choice: Anyone can grow kale; it’s really forgiving, and it’s really winter-hardy. And there was a lot of [genetic] material already here. We started saying that it was the “totem vegetable” of the Pacific Northwest.

And it’s also great because you can eat it and save seed on it, too—you can eat some of the leaves and it still lives through winter and flowers to set seed. The Pacific Northwest is really the center of kale biodiversity on the planet now. [View all the kales at Adaptive Seeds.]

Kale Coalition kales at Adaptive SeedsQ. And you brought back many varieties from your European trip, yes?

A. Yes, and then our friend Nick Routledge planted 14 varieties of Brassica oleracea kales from our trip in his garden, and they all did really, really well, and they all flowered and crossed with each other and he called it “the Kale Coalition” [above]. It’s been a really successful variety for us. So I guess that’s an example of a landrace (or grex).

You take 14 varieties of European kale that weren’t available in the U.S., all crossing with each other—and you get what’s sort of the ‘Rainbow’ chard of kale.

Q. That’s a lot of kales!

A. It’s kind of overwhelming to deal with a lot of diversity. People say diversity is the answer, but sometimes diversity can be a burden, if you’re not expecting it. But it’s really exciting to have the opportunity to experiment with it, and offer up that diversity to our customers.

And there’s some really strange stuff in there—I never knew kale had those traits. Like there’s a Blonde Butter kale that’s almost neon yellow; it’s not the hardiest but it tastes fantastic. There are collard greens crossing with lacinato kales with weird Russian curly kales—it’s really interesting to see it all come together.

Theron's Winter Harvest winter squash, Adaptive SeedsQ. It looks like you share my passion for winter squash, too–but is the PNW really a good place for growing winter squash?

A. People think the Pacific Northwest is a really rainy place, but we have really wonderful Mediterranean-paradise summers. It gets hot, but not too hot, and it’s dry—and winter squash thrives, as long as it’s not one of the Southern varieties that needs a really long season. So, for instance: ‘Sweet Meat’–a Pacific Northwest heritage variety, originally introduced in the 1920s, or ‘Theron’s Winter Harvest’ [above photo] that a friend’s father bred in the 1950s, crossing a ‘Sweet Meat’ with a ‘Pink Banana’ jumbo squash.  What he ended up with was a gigantic 20- or 30-pound ‘Sweet Meat’ that’s pink. [Browse the Adaptive winter squash selections.]

Piacentina winter squash, Adaptive SeedsQ. I saw a great new giant blue one [above] in your 2014 list, too.

A. Yes, ‘Piacentina.’ It’s from the Piacenza area of [northern] Italy. Italy has a ton of really cool squashes, and that one’s gorgeous with a fantastic taste.

Plaza Latina giant tomatillo from Adaptive SeedsQ. Any other new or favorite other goodies you want to share? I have to ask about this one: ‘Plaza Latina Giant Green’ tomatillo. Whoa! What did you feed it?

A. When we were living in Eugene, I stopped at the Plaza Latina grocery store, and they had these giant tomatillos and I was like, “Yes—that’s the tomatillo I’ve always wanted.” I let it sit on the counter for a couple of weeks to ripen the seeds, and I planted them.

‘Plaza Latina’ is a little late compared to other tomatillos we’re used to, but it tastes great. And it actually makes green salsa verde—most make a sort of yellow salsa. We call it the ‘Brandywine’ of tomatillos; it’s about that size.

Q. And speaking of the genus Physalis: I see you have another species besides the tomatillo–a ground cherry. Tell us about it.

A.  It was the classic ground cherry, and was here when we came to the farm, and it keeps volunteering.

A lot of our customers are more of a permaculture mindset, and we like to carry varieties that will self-perpetuate—not invade, but keep themselves going. So we named it after the watershed and the guy who used to farm here: ‘Otto’s Brush Creek’ ground cherry.

'Sugar Magnolia' purple snap pea podsQ. And you offer Dr. Alan Kapuler’s purple sugar snap pea, ‘Sugar Magnolia.’ I have long admired his breeding work—and that pea, lately [I wrote about it here].

A. We like to carry as many of his varieties because they suit this region, and they’re not always as accessible as the common varieties. His peas grow like crazy here. [Browse all the Adaptive peas.]

Q. They do for me, too. So: Any last thing to recommend?

A. Chicories! They’re a passion of mine, and they grow so well here and taste fantastic all winter long.

enter to win some adaptive seeds

I BOUGHT TWO $15 GIFT CARDS from Adaptive Seeds in winter 2014 [NOTE: GIVEAWAY IS COMPLETE], and all you had to do to enter to win one was answer this question in the comments box way down the page

Do you grow kale, and if so—what’s you favorite kind, whether a variety or a general type such as curly or “dino” (a.k.a., ‘Lacinato’ or ???).

Me? I still love those that hail from the first kales I ever grew, the old-style heirlooms that I came to know as ‘Ragged Jack’ and ‘Red Russian.’ I’m not a curly kale lover, particularly–but many of my friends prefer them.

No answer, or too shy to tell? Just say something like “count me in” instead and I will.

I selected two random winners after entries closed at midnight Tuesday, January 21, 2014.

prefer the podcast?

ADAPTIVE SEEDS’ Andrew Still 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 January 13, 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.

(Photo of Andrew and Sarah from Organic Seed Alliance; other photos except purple pea pods from Adaptive Seeds.)

more seeds

  • Browse my entire seed-shopping series to date at this link
  1. margaret says:

    And the winners are: Renee B. and Fern! (They wull be notified by email.)

    Thanks to all of you for your kale tales (tee hee). Loved hearing what all you are growing, as ever. Keep them coming.

  2. pam says:

    I grow the siberian and russian varieties in my unheated greenhouse. They are so hardy in our Oregon mountain winters . For the summer garden I love the Italian palm kales with their beautiful blue green color. ( and they make tasty kale chips.)

    1. margaret says:

      I love the big Red Russian, Pam. I have grown it for decades. My seedlings are just popping up under the lights in my slightly heated shed!

  3. Kelly Cook says:

    I live in Hays KS. Do you have any seeds that you think would grow in this area? If not, can you recommend a company like yours that has seeds that could grow in this climate? Thank you.

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