southern-style heirlooms, with ira wallace of southern exposure

Ira Wallace, crowder peas and red okraCALL ME A SOUTHERN WANNABE, but for decades I’ve been lured to the listings of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, seduced by things like seed for black peanuts (no kidding!), red okra, and collards galore.  Ira Wallace (above), Southern Exposure’s well-known longtime home garden expert, offers a 101 on Southern heirlooms—irresistible no matter where you garden—and I offer chances to win gift cards for SESE seeds, in a story and podcast.

Ira is a board member of the Organic Seed Alliance, and also the author of the brand-new “Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” (affiliate link). Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, situated in central Virginia, between Richmond and Charlottesville, offers 700-plus varieties of open-pollinated seed, including many heirlooms, many mid-Atlantic and Southeast focused.

Which brings up the topic of regionality—a potential factor in how a particular variety of tomato or cuke or another crop will perform for you.  Notations in catalogs such as days to maturity or how a variety holds up to heat or handles diseases common in your area may have influenced whether you chose one type of seed over another. Lately I’ve been learning how regionally sourced seed–seed that was grown on a seed farm with relatively similar conditions to mine–can also help me succeed, because seed adapts over the generations to the environment.

So I’ll admit I’ve become more of a seed locavore lately, but that hasn’t stopped me from being more than anything an adventurous and even insatiable gardener and trying things from all over the map, to see if I can make them happy.

In my latest public-radio show and podcast, Ira and I talked about the signature crops of Southern Exposure–all of which I think you will want to try, too, so watch out!

prefer the podcast?

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE SEED EXCHANGE’S Ira Wallace 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 23, 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.

the q&a with ira wallace of southern exposure

Q. Can you give us a little background of Southern Exposure first?

A.  It was originally started by Jeff McCormack and his wife, back in 1983. They had come to Virginia looking for warmer weather, from the Northeast.  Jeff had learned from an exhibit at Sturbridge Village [in Connecticut] about heirlooms, and had become involved with the early Seed Savers Exchange, and was on the board for eight years. They thought there should be a catalog for people who weren’t quite up yet to saving their own seeds. It was definitely a labor of love, because there was no money to be made from it for many a year! [Read the whole SESE history at this link.]

Q. Southern Exposure is operated as a cooperative today, isn’t it?

A. In 1999, Acorn Community Farm, which is a cooperative, took over the stewardship from Jeff, who wanted to go on to explore his interest in herbs and herbal medicine. I’m the old person here, but most of the members of the coop are in their 20s, the new generation of people who are trying to make a new local farming revolution.

Q. As its name implies, Southern Exposure has a mid-Atlantic and Southeast focus, but I assume there are other plant-hungry gardeners such as myself who shop from the catalog?

A. We grow seeds that do well here, and we try to tell people who want seeds from varieties that are more happy in the Southeast ones that will do well for them. For instance, we offer ‘Cajun Jewel’ okra, a spineless dwarf type that we also offer to our friends at Fedco Seed, because people in Maine want to have okra, too!

Q. So you give some caveats and advice for other regions on your website?

A.  The internet has forced it upon us–people can find us, and they want their Southern varieties! We want to give them the same good advice that we do people in our region, on what is going to possibly do well for them with a little extra love and care. [Get the SESE growing-guide links, for most anywhere, at this link.]

Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, okras at Southern ExposureQ. Let’s talk about some of the signature crops that you started with, or that have been with you so long that they are now SESE’s DNA. Are they all Southern favorites?

A. Earlier on, we were much more focused on varieties that were just from here. As the country has changed, people from other countries have moved to the U.S., and they want those varieties that they are familiar with, and so we offer a wider range of things than we did originally.

But some of our original crops—like Radiator Charlie’s ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato—are still here.

Q. What? Radiator Charlie’s ‘Mortgage Lifter’?

A. Radiator Charlie was a guy named M.C. Byles from West Virginia, and he developed this tomato in the 30s, by taking four of the best Beefsteak-type tomatoes that he could get hold of: ‘German Johnson;’ one just called ‘Beefsteak;’ another one that was an Italian Beefsteak; and another than was an English Beefsteak. All were varieties he had gotten from people who were recent immigrants. All unnamed, all big, all beautiful.

And he put them all in a little circle, and put one plant in the middle, and he hand-pollinated it form the plants around it. And then he saved those seeds, grew them in a circle, using which ones were best, and he did this again and again for several years until he has stabilized a new, open-pollinated variety that is a big Mama of a tomato. [It was released to Southern Exposure in 1985, which has sold Radiator Charlie’s tomato since.]

Q. That’s a great example of the point of this seed series I’ve been doing on the show and website—about how OPs need someone to look after them to stay true and continue to evolve/adapt.  If someone hadn’t taken the time to do that, and to stabilize it in the first place—if someone hadn’t put in the TLC—these varieties don’t even happen in the first place, or then remain true to type. It takes people, and time.

A. We work with a lot of small farmers to produce many of the varieties we offer. Every few years we grow out our stock seed—which means looking at every single plant, and picking seeds that are true to type for that variety. You’ll put those away and used those for the seed crops we’re growing the next few years.

This is how we make sure, as best we are able, that what we tell people they are going to get, they’re going to get.

Q. Southern Exposure was the first place I ever saw the words “greasy bean.” Tell me what those are. (Two kinds, one dry one green, are in photo collage below.)

A. It’s a green bean that doesn’t have hairs. What makes that matte color you see in most green beans are minute hairs on the pods. But greasy beans don’t have those, so the pods look shiny, like you’ve put them in oil.

The other thing about greasy beans: They will remain tender as the beans develop in the pod.

Q. And what about okra?

A. Oh, so many okras, so little time! [I counted 21 varieties of okra in the current catalog.] Okras are really beautiful plants, so if you don’t have room in your vegetable garden, and you have somewhere that you need a quick hedge, you can plant an okra planting and have it be an annual hedge.

Roselle, collards, crowder peas at Southern ExposureQ. I saw something else in the catalog that’s unfamiliar to me—roselle (bottom left in the photo above). What’s that?

A. Oh, roselle—I love roselle! It’s Hibiscus sabdariffa, and it’s the thing that makes the zing in Red Zinger tea. In Egypt [where it’s called karkade] they make a nice tea from it; it used to be a crop in Florida, and just before the turn of the 20th century they called it Florida cranberry. It’s still sometimes called sorrel or Jamaica sorrel.

You can make a tea from the leaf tips of young leaves, or from the swollen calyxes. They really look like a fruit, but botanically it’s the roselle’s bright red calyxes over the forming seedpod that you can harvest. They are so pretty–and a number of studies show that roselle lowers blood pressure.

Q. Speaking of Florida, didn’t you learn to garden there?

A. Yes, from my Grandma. We had a pecan tree, an avocado tree, and sapote in our yard—and plenty of crowder peas (see photo top of page), and okra.

Q. Crowder peas?

A. Crowder peas, Southern peas, black-eyed peas—they’re all variations on the same thing [and all at this link in the 2014 catalog]. And they are so good—you can eat them when they are green, and mostly Southerners eat them that way, or you can have them as a dried bean in the winter. You can take them and dry them—we put up a lot of them so we can have Hoppin’ Johns in the winter.

Q. I love collards—and Southern Exposure has quite a selection, including an unusual one that’s variegated.

A. The variegated collard only actually variegates when you winter it over, which you can do in the South. Up North, I don’t think it will work for you, but if you have a little unheated greenhouse, it would work.

They only need 40 days of vernalization, so if you start them in the fall, by midwinter they’ve had that, and that’s when they start showing this variegated characteristic.

Q. Okra, collards, greasy beans, crowder peas—and peanuts, too, right?

A. Yes! Have you had any of our black peanuts (below)? [All the Southern Exposure peanuts.]

Sword lettuce and black peanutsQ: Going forward, do you continue to acquire “new” things (or new old things!)?

A. We do. One way we do it is that we both attend and organize seed swaps–including the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello that we co-organize with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. We have a great big seed swap out on Jefferson’s terrace. I feel like we’re carrying on his tradition of bringing stuff to his neighbors.

People will also bring a family heirloom to us—like this nice silver okra called ‘White Lady’ that one woman, Cheryl Hughes, brought us, that her family has been maintaining. They bring it, and we grow it and check it out for a couple of years and if we like it and it’s true to type, then we offer it to our customers.

We do that a lot with Southern peas—and new greasy beans!  A few years ago at Bill Best’s seed swap in Kentucky—the first Saturday in October every year, at Sustainable Mountain—he had 200 feet of greasy beans, with a different variety every 20 feet. He and all of those oldtimers from that area are there. We love it. We feel like it’s a part of our mission to help preserve these varieties.

Also, many of the people who have them are older, even, than I am (and I’m not a spring chicken). To teach these skills to the next generation, we work with interns, and both young and new farmer conferences, and also with a lot of veterans who are coming out of the service.

Q. Before we say goodbye for now, Ira: What new or special things do you want to make sure we all look at in the latest catalog?

A. One thing: A Taiwanese lettuce, a sword-leaf lettuce (left side of previous photo collage), which is quite different looking and tender and light green. We like that very much. There’s also a Southern pea called ‘Piggot’ that’s a family heirloom from Louisiana.

enter to win southern exposure seeds

I’VE BOUGHT TWO $15 GIFT CERTIFICATES to share some Southern Exposure seeds with lucky winners. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Do you plant any edible plant you think of as “Southern” in your garden, and where are you gardening (place and/or Zone)?

Besides collards, I have tried some of the Southern “peas” (they’re in the genus Vigna, unlike snow peas or snap peas or shelling peas, which are in the genus Pisum). And do sweet potatoes count? I’m Zone 5B in New York State’s Hudson Valley.

I’ll select two winners at random after entries close at midnight Friday, January 3, 2014. Feeling shy or have no “Southern” crops to share? No worry; just say “Count me in” or some such, and I will. Good luck to all.

miss other posts and podcasts in the seed series so far?

(All photos from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.)

  1. Suzanne says:

    I tried collards last year for the first time in my Michigan garden, but the bunnies enjoyed them and didn’t leave any for me. :)

  2. Misty Smith says:

    Count me in. I live in PA zone 6. I haven’t had a garden in 5 years. But previously I did grow some okra. I’m hoping to get back to gardening this spring. Maybe I will try planting some sweet potatoes this year.

  3. Jess says:

    I live in Virginia, about 20 minutes from Souhern Exposure HQ and every summer our back porch turns into and exercise in the love of food. My daughter loves growing beans.

  4. Christel says:

    I don’t plant anything really southern at the moment, but I’ve always wanted to try planting okra, sweet potatoes, and black eyed peas. I’m in zone 4, Central Wisconsin, so some of the longer growing season plants can be a challenge, but between starting seeds inside and using shelters outside, I think I can make it work :-)

  5. Iris says:

    totally southern garden here… we do turnip greens and sweet potatoes plus butterbeans for sure… zone 7a/6b if I’m standing straddle… ;))

  6. Kathy Lee says:

    I always grow tomatoes and a couple of different types of squash. Last summer I tried sugar watermelons. I am in zone 8b.

  7. Carah says:

    Do you plant any edible plant you think of as “Southern” in your garden, and where are you gardening (place and/or Zone)?

    I haven’t been gardening very long & consider everything southern (joking). I am just starting to look at heirlooms seeds. Before I just got seeds from a local source & planted.

  8. Stacy C says:

    I’m zone 9 and Cajun, so I plant the majority of my garden in okra (Clemson Spineless) and crowder peas (many different varieties). Our favorite summer dinner is pan fried okra with crowder and purple hull peas with fresh tomatoes. Talk about ‘slap your mama’ good.

  9. Tatiana Lisle says:

    Zone 7 here…Love the seeds from SESE..it’s my go to for seeds.. we always do greens.. And have done peanuts in the past.. The black ones look interesting!

  10. Samantha H says:

    Count me in!

    I want to start a garden this year since I have a place to put one after 4 years of apartment living!

  11. Cutter says:

    Count me in. I’m in Southern NY. Does that count as “southern”? lol ;) I usually kind of wing it. plant what ever i want & do the best I can, & hope for the best. sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. but i usually learn something. so i call that a win.

  12. Ginny says:

    I like to grow okra. It really is a very pretty plant even if you never harvest the okra to eat. I also grow sweet potatoes but lately it seem like I grow them to feed the voles! I am just starting to explore collards. I discovered the wonder of kale when we spent a year in Baltimore years ago but collards are not very common here in the center of Pennsylvania.

  13. Pam K says:

    It only took one green of growing turnip greens and Swiss chard to convince me to do it every year. The same may soon be true of kale as well. Where I live in the Missouri Ozarks is on the line between Zone 6A and 6B.

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