IT WILL COME as no surprise to regular listeners that I’m mad about small, farm-based companies that sell seed grown without chemicals and with a regional focus—seed matched to a particular set of conditions for best results. I enjoyed a conversation with the founder of one such company, High Desert Seed in Colorado, and even though I don’t garden in the high desert, I confess I’m very tempted by the unique offerings like toothache plant and a gorgeous eggplant from India (above), all with wonderful stories behind them.
Before Laura Parker founded High Desert Seed, she had many other seed adventures, including working in India with activist and seed saver Vandana Shiva, and later back in the U.S., becoming Executive Director of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. We talked about the importance of regionally adapted seed, and she showcased some goodies she’s working on—and also dropped some names of other companies whose catalogs we ought to be browsing.
Read along as you listen to the January 25, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
a q&a with laura parker of high desert seed
Margaret: Hi, Laura. So I have to say, I love that quote on your homepage, the Mexican proverb. It says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Laura: [Laughter.] Yes. Yes, it’s such a beautiful image, and so powerful. Seeds are so powerful.
Margaret: So how long ago did you found High Desert Seed, and where are you located? Just give us a little quick sort of position, context.
Laura: So I founded High Desert Seed in 2015, and we are in the Uncompaghre Valley in Colorado, on the western slope at the base of the San Juan Mountains, and I grow on my farm at about a little over 6,000 feet in elevation.
Margaret: It’s family land, is that correct? Did I remember that correctly?
Laura: Yep, it’s a family operation. I lease from my family and live with them, and they’re amazing support to me.
Margaret: So you also say on the website, High Desert Seed dot com, that you specialize in seed that is regionally resilient and then quote, “Seed with a sense of place,” and I love that. So tell us why regional matters when we’re talking about choosing seed and using seed.
And obviously I should say the disclaimer. I’m in the Northeast, but there’s a couple things I want to order from you and over the years I’ve grown things from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and all kinds of crazy places around the world actually, but more as fun and extra goodies, not as my main crops, which I try to pick regionally adapted seeds.
Laura: Well, every bioregion has unique quirks, and seed is unique and it can adapt to whatever region it’s taken to. For instance in my region, we are known for really intense sun, big temperature swings. We have a 20-degree on average difference from day to nigh, and very short seasons, as well as different soil and winds and that kind of thing. As well, I have increasingly drought conditions.
So it’s seed that really is in a place for a long period of time and selected to thrive under those conditions is going to be more robust, and it’s really what we’ve had traditionally until about World War II, when we started in with hybrids and really seed started to be…. Farmers were not saving their own seed stock as much, and we’ve lost that art of saving our seed in our regions.
Margaret: So for generations, farmers had saved the bean and the corn and the this and the that, and it was because seed is alive and adaptive like any other organism to its conditions, over generations it adapted to those local conditions like the ones you’re talking about, which are very distinct. And that seed might not like growing up if I planted it in my garden, which is much, much, much rainier and lower elevation and much more humid in the summer and so on and so forth. It’s going to be a bit of a shock to its system [laughter].
Laura: Yes. Yes it can be and that’s actually what inspired me. Watching my mother growing up, who had come from West Virginia, try to adapt to growing a garden at 7,000 feet on our ranch, and really struggling. And that was my first insight that there are varieties that are just so much more robust in these conditions, in the high-altitude environment.
And I never thought I’d be able to grow a watermelon where I do and I have found watermelons that thrive here.
Margaret: Ah! Now do you find the addresses on your customer orders extend beyond Colorado and the wider sort of high desert, like the Intermountain Region and elsewhere? Do you find people from other places are discovering you and ordering your seed as well?
Laura: I do, but it’s been really beautiful to see that the majority of our customers are in the Intermountain West, but we’re sending seeds all over the place. And certainly we’re a marginal growing region, so things selected for our environment are likely to really thrive in longer seasons, more gentle climates as well.
Margaret: So they’re super-resilient, they’re like the size-XL, the XR, extra-resilient [laughter].
Laura: Yeah, I think so.
Margaret: So they’re all open-pollinated. You grow them if not in a certified organic… And by the way, I think it’s true that you grow some there and you have a small network of like-minded people, seed farmers in your area, who grows some of them, and so it’s a little bit of a collective of where it comes from but it’s all local, yes?
Laura: Yeah. Yeah, I’m trying to build more of a seed network. It’s really important for diversified farmers to get in to growing seed again.
Margaret: Right. So let’s talk about some of the… and like I said I already have my list of what I want [laughter], but let’s talk about some of the things. I mean you, some of these smaller—it’s so exciting for me over the last, especially the last 10 years to meet so many more of these newer or smaller regionally focused seed companies with farm-based growing and so forth and that are following organic practices if not again, if not certified literally.
Because a lot of times you guys are just adopting these varieties that otherwise would be lost. Nobody would care particularly because they’re not the big money-making hybrids, right?
Laura: Right. That’s really so important. I think in our community we’re very excited about having more and more regional seed companies because we believe in really maintaining that biodiversity. And for me, I really feel like it’s important going into climate change that we have all the tools in the toolbox that we can possibly have as we’re looking at a crazy, erratic environment.
Margaret: Yeah. So what do you, I know what I want to ask you about—that eggplant from India, that’s some beautiful thing. I don’t even know how to describe it, but you have so many things that I’ve never seen before.
Laura: And so it has that green mottled skin, and by happenstance I brought it to Colorado and it’s just wonderfully early and productive variety and it has the sweetest, creamiest flesh when it’s cooked.
Margaret: So that’s interesting that it would be an early… it sets early considering it’s from India, which I would think of as a longer season, yeah?
Laura: Yeah. I’m not sure quite where it originated from, but it was an amazing find.
Margaret: Cool. And I asked about the toothache plant—Spilanthes is the genus [photo above]—but what the heck is that [laughter]?
Laura: So the toothache plant is, it’s a really, it’s got little gumdrop flowers that are like almost bull’s eyes, there’s different circles within it. And they’re a medicinal herb as well, and when you pop one in your mouth, it has this numbing effect. And it’s really potent as for gum health and also as an adaptogen, but it’s a really cute little ornamental plant as well.
Margaret: How big is the plant? It’s an annual is it? Is it an annual?
Laura: Yeah, it’s about a foot around when it’s full-grown, yeah.
Margaret: O.K., O.K. So what other things are you excited about. I could just go on and on [laughter], but I wanted you to tell us what you’re excited about or working with that you’re featuring?
Laura: One of the most exciting varieties for me right now is the ‘Paiute Gold’ tepary bean [below]. And tepary beans are actually their own species [Phaseolus acutifolius]. They’re not a common bean, and they have this incredible… They’re probably the world’s most drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and heat-tolerant bean plant.
Laura: Yeah, and they’ve been known to, with one big summer torrential rain pour, to grow, flower and set seed all from that one rain. And the variety that we have is the ‘Paiute Gold’ tepary and it’s really, is a gift from the Paiute people, who grew it along the Colorado River through Utah and Nevada, and also the Tohono O’odham people. And basically my experience growing it, one season I was babying it along and I’m like, “Oh, it’s not blooming. It’s not doing anything.” It looked all healthy and everything, but it was only until I took away the water that it actually went to seed. And it’s-
Margaret: Oh tough love, tough love [laughter].
Laura: Yeah, well it needs it, so it’s really developed for just growing with the summer rains and using very, very little water, and has apparently an amazing network of a root system underneath it. Anyway, it’s just an amazing variety that has so much potential as we’re, in Colorado, facing much more frequent droughts. Looks like a drought coming up this next season. But this variety is also really delicious and kind of a nutty and hearty bean that holds it structure when it’s cooked.
Margaret: So we grow it and then we dry it and we use it as a dried bean?
Margaret: O.K., good. You have a couple of orachs and that’s not something that I know a lot about, although I do see them in recent years in various catalogs. You have a ‘Red n’ Green’ one [below] that’s so gorgeous I almost just want to grow it for its gorgeousness.
Laura: [Laughter.] Yeah, it’s quite a looker. It’s a beautiful kind of magenta with a sheen of green, and it’s what I call, some of us call it mountain spinach.
Laura: Because it’s quite like the texture of spinach, and you can cook it just like spinach, but it’s tolerant of heat. So here, when we go from really cold to the heat overnight, it seems like in the summer it’s really hard to grow spinach through the season. So it’s actually a really wonderful alternative for that. It’s also three times as high in Vitamin C as spinach; is it has really wonderful nutritive properties.
Margaret: Oh, and is there a part of the season that it works well in, that orach works well in? Or is it, I don’t know how long it is to harvest, how long it takes and so forth.
Laura: Yeah, so you can start it in, probably even in early or late spring, whenever really. You can start at any time of the season. And then once you get it going you can just keep pulling leaves off of it for a good probably month or two really. And then it’s going to start to bolt and go to seed. It’s actually one of those plants that you kind of want to watch. If you let it go to seed, you’re going to have it forever in your garden, which might be a good thing.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. I have some of those Laura, how did you know? Calendula is like that for me here in the Northeast, I don’t know about for you if Calendula is like that. Not in a horrible way. Perilla, the shiso plant, a kind of Asian herb, is definitely like that in a big way. Dill of course, yeah.
Laura: Yes. I just started working with Perilla, it’s such a beautiful one.
Margaret: Yes. So you have a quinoa that you’re working on, too. I’ve never grown quinoa, but tell us about that.
Laura: Yeah, so quinoa is my obsession. It’s my first breeding project that I undertook and early on before I started High Desert Seed, I got as many varieties of quinoa as I could possibly find at the time and threw them all together and have been really selecting this variety for our conditions over time. And quinoa is just such a fun plant to grow. You can grow it just for the leaves and eat the greens. And they do have, almost spinach-y taste, but then you do taste the quinoa flavor a little bit coming through the greens.
And then it grows these tall plants that have a panicle where the seeds are blooming. And the coolest thing happens in the fall is it’s kind of a maybe a boring green plant at first, but when the fall comes the whole plant infloresces and turns neon colors, even in the seed head and everything. It’s just such a fun plant to grow and really we’ve seen it adapt so quickly. It’s such a plastic, in the biological term, plant. It just has quickly transformed. The first time I grew it, my plants were barely a foot tall and now they’re taller than I am.
Margaret: Oh my goodness.
Margaret: [Laughter.] That is plastic and we don’t mean plastic plants people, fake plants to bring in and decorate your tabletop with. But plastic as in genetically elastic, sort of.
Laura: Yes, exactly.
Margaret: And what about that pepper whose name I can’t even pronounce, but it almost sounds like it’s from India or something. I’m going to butcher the name if I try to say it, so, Siren…
Laura: So the ‘Sirenyvi’ pepper? Which I’m probably butchering the pronunciation as well.
Margaret: Maybe we should spell it for people listening, is S-I-R-E-N-Y-V-I, yes?
Laura: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s a beautiful purple pepper, which that was a big qualm of mine of not being able to find a purple pepper that really produced peppers in my area. And this, the ‘Sirenyvi’ is amazing. It fits the bill and it’s also this triangular-shaped sweet pepper that has these beautiful striations on it. So it’s a deep, dark purple, it’s kind of light lavender striations.
Laura: And then it turns to a deep purple-y red as it fully matures and gets even sweeter.
Laura: But it’s probably one of the earliest to really set on and really produce a large quantity of peppers, and it’s just one of my most recent finds of peppers. And I love peppers and I’m just super excited about that variety.
Margaret: It sounds beautiful, too, besides delicious.
Laura: Yes. Yeah, beauty and also tastes are really critical to me. If it doesn’t taste good, why grow it?
Margaret: Absolutely. And speaking of purple, that purple barley, I don’t… Again, it’s not something I’ve ever grown barley, but you have a purple barley. So the seed is purple, is that the idea?
Laura: Yeah, ‘Dolma’ is the variety that I’ve found, and being connected with the regional seed companies, I was first introduced to purple barley from Adaptive Seeds. And ever since then I’ve been kind of obsessed with it, and just on a mission to try as many purple barleys as I could. And I finally was gifted this variety, and it just totally blew all my others away. It apparently originates from Tibet, and had been being stewarded by a company called Thumbs in Idaho. And it’s got these purple greens and it grows beautiful plants and doesn’t lodge. You can actually produce-
Margaret: Tell us what lodge means.
Laura: … in like a 10-by-10 foot space, about five to 10 pounds of barley green.
Margaret: So tell us what lodge means, you farmer you [laughter]?
Laura: Oh, yeah. So it’s referring… Lodging is when the plant falls over into the dirt and makes the grain, unusable, unharvestable.
Margaret: And it’s resistant to that behavior?
Margaret: Yeah. So I want to spend our last three, four, five minutes, something like that—you know a lot of other farmers, like-minded farmers, regional seed farmers and from your various work and from conferences and who knows what. Tell us some other ones that you have an eye on at the moment; that you’re excited about?
Laura: So I’m actually going to focus on ones in my own region, and one of the companies I’m most excited about are my friends over at Grand Prismatic Seed Company. They’re over in Utah, just over the border from me and they’re so awesome. They’re specializing in a lot of dye plants, as well as an amazing array of wildflower seeds, in addition to some more traditional garden seeds.
Another wonderful company is Snake River Seed in Idaho. And they’re actually a cooperative of growers and have an amazing collection there and they’re just really a model for me also to try to bring more farmers, diversified farmers that aren’t necessarily growing seed, but into seed growing—which is so critical.
Another company is Wild Mountain Seeds, and they do a lot of high-altitude breeding. They really specialize in very unique tomato varieties.
Laura: And they’re growing at like 8,000 feet. And in addition to them, there’s also another high altitude company called High Ground Gardens, and they’re over in Crestone, Colorado.
Margaret: That’s one I don’t know.
Laura: Another really interesting one is Lineage Seeds, and they are really creating an heirloom to take through the generations. They sell all their seed in these ceramic seed pots.
Margaret: Lineage Seeds? O.K., that’s again, another one new to meet. Grand Prismatic and the dye plants has caught my eye a number of times and I knew about them, and yeah.
I want to ask you before we finish up, and I want to just say to people, we talked about some oddballs from your catalog, from High Desert, but you have great selection of marigolds and lettuces and mainstays of things that are wonderful as well. And as you point out, you have customers in various places and you’re a really tough place and if it grows there, it may do well in more gentle spots as well [laughter]. But marigolds and what other flowers? Couple of other flowers that you love like that?
Laura: Yeah, let’s see. What is my most favorite flower at the moment? I love the Paper Moon Flower, probably because I love seeds, but it is a Scabiosa or a pincushion flower, so it sends out light blue little pincushion flowers, but then it very quickly forms a seedhead, and it makes the most dramatic, they’re just like little whiffle balls [laughter; photo above]. Just a long-lasting flower you can have in your house forever, the seedheads.
Margaret: Oh, a good one. Yes, yes. And a good description actually too, whiffle ball. So Laura Parker of High Desert Seed dot com in Colorado. I wanted to thank you for making time. I know you’re swamped, because this is the busiest time of year and it’s an exceptionally busy year ahead for seed companies everywhere. So I wish you the best, and thank you for making the time. I hope we’ll talk again.
Laura: Well thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity.
(Photos from High Desert Seed, used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 25, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).