giveaway: what’s a ‘local heirloom’? a chat with hudson valley seed library (join us march 23!)

piracicaba-broccoli-frontIF 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:

ken greene seed libraryQ. “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.
A few other 2013 varieties of note: ‘Upstate Oxheart’: Big tomato, big love. ‘Flashback’ Calendula: A gorgeous Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seed Company) creation. ‘Gift’ Zinnia: A scarlet beauty.

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.)

  1. Marj says:

    I save Dr. Martin lima beans for my all time favorite, but labor intensive, lima bean.
    Ditto for Yukon Gold potatoes and hardneck garlic…and a big, juicy red/pink tomato that a colleague’s family has raised for generations here in VA’s Shenandoah Valley.
    Count me in.

  2. Marisa says:

    I love this idea (of local heirlooms)! Would like to continue the evolutionary legacy here in our school garden in Tennesee…

  3. Joanne says:

    For several years, we had been planting turnip seeds that we got from my 90 year old husband’s parents who got the original seed from their friends in Wyoming County (western NY) many decades before (probably 50 years ago). Two years ago we realized they hadn’t saved any more seed and we were both out, so we left some of our last turnips in the ground over the winter, under mulch. This past summer we had a bumper crop of seeds! We did a late planting of our new seeds and they came out great here in the eastern part of upstate NY.

  4. maria rice says:

    Two favorites. Dragon egg cucumbers& pineapple tomato. Heirlooms from Baker creek heirlooms. I trial many types each year in Oregon but continue the favorites. Cheers!

  5. Steve says:

    Brandywine tomato, Butternut squash are two favorites which I always save the seeds. Last year harvested over 70 squash from my relatively small garden. It is amazing how well they have done over the years.

  6. LaVern says:

    Count me in! We save a purple speckled pole bean seeds that my Dad’s family brought from Europe in the late 1700s. They will grow to unbelievable heights and bear a heavy crop of beans. We also keep heirloom strawberry plants that have been passed on from my Mother’s great uncle. They have absolutely the best flavor and are very prolific. We just started saving Cheese Wheel pumpkin seed that has been in a friends family for several generations. It makes the best pumpkin pies. Heirloom seed companies really provide a great service of keeping these old varieties viable but also preserving history.

  7. Linda says:

    I save a lot of seeds. My favorite seeds to save are tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans. Probably my favorite of these is Rutgers tomatoes, mostly because they were the first seeds I saved, and the ones I plant now are descendents of those first saved seeds from about 20 years ago. So they’re my sentimental favorites.

  8. Kristen says:

    I’m starting my first from-seed garden this next spring (just placed my order yesterday from the Seed Library!). Not sure if I’ll be ready to save seed from this years harvest, but it is something I’m interested in exploring more as my thumb becomes greener!

  9. alexandra Day says:

    I am new to heirlooms and as many people in my family stopped growing years ago I am left trying to find them else were. As of right now I have only have kale and had to buy them. No awesome story like some of you lol.

  10. Sarah Finerghty says:

    It hasn’t happened yet, just bought our first home on acres of land. This spring will be our first and with it a bountiful garden (i hope!) We do have some beautiful kale seeds a dear friend gave to us that I am excited to liberate in the soil. I look forward to cultivating and starting our own tradition and sentimental attachment to the seeds that provide us so much joy and love, and spreading that along. Congratulations by the way on the new book, can’t wait to pry it open!

  11. Deborah says:

    I am a farmer’s granddaughter who remembers eating heirloom tomatoes warm from the vine. I don’t know the variety unfortunately but the experience is so vivid these 60 years later. I do collect the seeds from my sweet peas – a blessing from my past.

  12. Gigi Gruber says:

    I have been given “neighborhood beans” seeds by neighbors while living in California and again when I moved to the desert Southwest. Each is very different from the other. Both have been prolific! It reinforces the notion: plant what will grow!

  13. Justine Iceks says:

    Alas, I don’t have any heirloom seeds or amazing stories to tell – yet. ;-) But I spent last summer living in Turkey with my in-laws and learned a lot watching my mother-in-law save cucumber seeds for her kitchen garden. I’m excited to learn more about growing from heirloom seeds in the U.S.

  14. cintra fricke says:

    My tomato seeds want to save themselves every year………I haven’t saved any veggie seeds but it seems like since I was a little girl the marigold seeds in my garden have been saved.

  15. Kate says:

    This will be our second garden season, and my husband (once a reluctant gardener) has several garden plans going now. I saved seeds from the flowers that sprang up from the long dormant beds once we started watering, and I also saved a jar full of spaghetti squash seeds from a gifted locally grown squash. My husband bought seeds in KY from his family’s general store, but I doubt they are heirloom. Nevertheless, we will try kale, dill, sugar pumpkins, and such in our super-short Colorado growing season!

  16. Lisa R says:

    I am looking forward to starting a new family tradition of favorite heirloom seeds. My husband and I recently moved to Montana, where he has a family history, but unfortunately, I have no idea what his past generations loved to grow here. Short as the season may be, I have gardened in northern parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I look forward to what this new climate will bear forth.

  17. Linda says:

    I save many kinds of seeds from year to year but the one I have the most sentimental attachment to is a large Italian paste tomato that I’ve been growing for more than 30 years. My father, who died 20 years ago, first got the seed from his local barber. The tomatoes are large, meaty and very tasty. They’re great for sauce and so much larger than other paste tomatoes.

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