growing wholeness at turtle tree seed

turtle tree collage

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.

march 25, 2017 workshops at turtle tree

JOIN ME and my beloved neighbors and friends from Turtle Tree biodynamic seed company for a special opportunity to visit their charming and inspiring headquarters at Camphill Village in Copake, New York, and learn by doing how to successfully grow from seed. Camphill is a community of people, some with special needs, who live and work together caring for each other and the Earth, following practices inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. In either a morning or afternoon half-day workshop, you’ll learn the basics of biodynamics, about timing plantings by a cosmic calendar called Stella Natura, and go home with a flat of seeds you sow in the greenhouse with expert advice. Get all the events details and register by clicking the button below:

Eventbrite - Seedy Saturday 3/25: Hands-On Workshops at Turtle Tree Seed

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.

seeds at turtle tree

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.

aunt ada's beans storage

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.)

  • Shop the Turtle Tree catalog now. For a free paper catalog email turtle [at] turtletreeseed [dot] org or call 518-329-3037.
  1. Marleigh says:

    I save seed from tomatoes, tomatillos, squash and melons every year, and last year I dried and saved beans from my favorite “Cherokee Trail of Tears” variety. Feeling a bit reckless this year, so I’m going to try my hand at carrots and brassicas this go-round, and I need to save seeds from this year’s peppers before I run out of my favorite varieties.

  2. Raydeen says:

    I have not routinely saved seeds, but I am heading that way. I try to plant heirlooms and OP. Living in Hawaii we saved and planted papaya seeds- which sprout and grow so easily in the sub-tropics, it’s really a no-brainer. And, of course the pumpkins that came up “wild” in t he cow pasture every year!! My friend Debbie saved as many seeds as she could. I saved and brought them with me when we moved back to the mainland. They were probably the offshoot of some long ago hybrid, but they were delicious. I named them “Debbie’s Wild Pumpkin.” Unfortunately, after years in hot areas, and no garden space, I’ve no more.
    Just last year started gardening again after way too long away. Very excited about biodynamics, and I am planning on gradually introducing the practices into my garden and yard.

  3. Anne says:

    I save seeds for beans and lots of flowers – marigolds, cleome, sunflowers. I try to save potatoes for seed, but they’re so good we usually eat them all!

  4. margaret mary dabe says:

    My brother presented me with both big blue stem and little blue stem seeds he harvested. Soon I will start them in the back magic junk room to give them an extra growth time in this abbreviated clime. They have been wintering in the garage.

  5. Jennifer Erena says:

    I try to grow mosty heirlooms. I don’t remember all the open pollenated varieties, except Rutgers 1934 tomato, but I know I had others. I am still in the novice stage when it comes to pollenation. Last year, I saved seeds from organic butternut, christmas lima, and a small orange bell, along with some herbs. I have not heard of Turtle Tree, but it sounds delightful. I work with a nonprofit that gleans unsold/excess produce and distributes it to hunger ministries; a small group called In-Feed joined us – they plant food on unused/blighted urban land, grow heirloom varieties and save seeds. We have an heirloom seed sale every March as a fundraiser. We love heirlooms and edible gardens!

  6. Val says:

    We have a small ranch garden to share with all the kids who come to the ranch for camp! We haven’t started saving any seeds YET but what a great addition to the youth gardening program and learning experience! Thanks for your encouragement and generosity.

  7. Beth says:

    Bought delicious heritage variety potatoes from a farmer friend last fall and have enjoyed them all winter. Now they’re sprouting vigorously in my dark, cool pantry, and I’m going to answer their call and plant them asap!

  8. joules says:

    I have been continuing my uncle’s tomato plants. I remember year after year, my mom going to get Uncle Chuck’s plants to put in our garden. He finally passed away a few years ago (after growing them for over 50 years) and I now grow about 200 or so seedlings each year, (nervous for some reason that they won’t do well) and then give them away to family and friends.
    It’s a roma type.
    My aunt Jerry (Chuck’s wife) told us the true story. I always thought it came over from Italy with the family, but Chuck actually got it from another Italian neighbor of theirs – Joe. So each year I grow Joe’s tomatoes; that my uncle Chuck loved.

  9. Jennie says:

    I save seeds from my Waltham Butternut squash every year. Two years ago it resulted in a prolific crop of beautiful butternuts that stored until spring. (The veggies were so beautiful that friends thought the ones stored on the table were plastic decorations!). Last year’s crop didn’t fare as well. But I am sure that I will soon have my own well adapted and beautiful butternuts every year!

  10. Patty C says:

    Please count me in! I have never tried this, but have read that this is a sustainable practice which will help us keep the great plants growing.

  11. ikkinlala says:

    We try to grow open pollinated seeds as much as we can, but we don’t save seeds as much as I’d like to. We do save peas (Homesteader and Green Arrow) and a few kinds of flowers.

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