unusual seeds, with nate kleinman of experimental farm network

PARSLEY THAT WAS BRED not for its leaves, but as a root crop. Or a winter squash (above) with vivid green flesh, instead of orange. And perennial onions called potato onions that multiply. These are just a few of the wonders of genetic diversity I’ve been poring over in the new 2021 listings from the nonprofit seed cooperative called Experimental Farm Network, whose founder is here today to officially kick off seed-shopping season with me.

Last year, during catalog season, I was introduced to Nate Kleinman, who’s co-founder of Experimental Farm Network, a non-profit cooperative of growers, whose mission includes the core belief that agriculture can and should be used to help build a better world. I asked Nate back to my public radio show and podcast to widen our palette of possibilities to try this year from seed. Besides unusual varieties you may wish to make room for, he also suggested some other lesser-known sources whose catalogs warrant a browse.

Read along as you listen to the January 11, 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).

seed shopping, with nate kleinman



Margaret Roach: Hi, Nate.

Nate Kleinman: Hello, Margaret. Happy to be here.

Margaret: Yeah, so we’ll jump right in [laughter]. To give people the history of Experimental Farm Network, I’ll share the link to our chat last year, so they can dig a little deeper in the transcript of that show, so we don’t repeat ourselves. But very briefly, it’s more than a seed catalog; really it’s much more than a seed catalog. So what’s the quick elevator pitch on what you do?

Nate: We started in 2013, and our purpose is to facilitate collaboration on sustainable-ag research, and especially plant breeding. We are really focused on developing perennial staple crops to help with fighting climate change. Things like perennial grains, perennial oil seeds, perennial vegetables—and the seed company side is what funds our work. We don’t really reach out and seek grants and much in the way of donations. We’re really focused on being a sustainable, non-profit cooperative through seed sales.

We really rely on, exclusively on, selling seeds, and we do a number of other projects as well. We work on rematriation projects, returning seeds to the people from whom they came originally. We do quite a bit of food justice work, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we started an organization called the Cooperative Gardens Commission, which worked all of last year to provide free seeds to folks and to help facilitate resource sharing, to get people the resources they need to grow food themselves.

That continues. The collective that that is running Cooperative Gardens Commission is still going. We just released our 2020 report, a 44-page document on our website, Coop Gardens dot com. [Graphic below with seed donors shouted out.] EFN just released started our seed catalog the other day.

Margaret: Not that you’re busy or anything [laughter]. We’ll give the links to all of that, all of those different things, as I said.

I know I shouldn’t have in the introduction, probably even have mentioned that green-fleshed winter squash, because I think it’s already sold out. [Laughter.] But when I saw you post a photo of it on Instagram a while back, split in two, and there it was, and kind of looked like a butternut, but it was green inside, and I thought, what in the world? I think it hails from Guatemala or something, but it just spoke to me about, and that’s why I got back in touch with you. It just spoke to me about all these oddities and wonders of genetics and that you have these growers, breeders, selectors, curators, people caring for all those genetics. Tell us about some of the other wonders of the world that are in the catalog this year.

Nate: Thank you. We’re very excited about that one. We really just wanted to get it out there, and I can’t say I expected it to sell out in the first day. I knew it would be popular, but that exceeded all my expectations, and it is a truly beautiful, a beautiful squash.

This year, we released I think 146 things that we had never had in the catalog before. Some of them nobody has had in any catalog before, so we’re really excited about that. We have quite a few in the grains category this year, including a number of upland rices, or lowland rice that will grow in dry areas and in Northern areas.

We have a rice from Poland, another couple from Japan, one from Russia. We’re just thrilled to be offering these, because rice is really a great crop, and it’s actually something that homesteaders can grow on a relatively small scale and still produce a lot of calories themselves. [Below, an upland rice in the field.]

We’re very excited about some landraces and breeding populations, things that a lot of other seed companies are not going to sell because they’re not predictable. They’re not going to be uniform, but the diversity that’s in those varieties is critical to food security in the future. With the changing climate, we need to really double down on adapting as many crops as we can to our changing climate.

We have things like some beet mixes with a lot of diversity in there, including one that is a perennial leaf beet mixed population that came originally from a breeder in Ottawa, Ontario. We are very excited about offering some horseradish seed for the first time. That’s something that’s really pretty special. [Laughter.] Most people only grow horseradish from roots, and Luther Burbank very famously offered $1,000 to anyone who could provide him an ounce of horseradish seed, because he knew nobody would ever do it.

Margaret: I know. I was going to say, Nate, I think I’ve had my horseradish like 30 years, and I don’t even think I know what its seed would look like. It flowers every year, but do you know what I mean? I don’t even know its seed.

Nate: Exactly. They just, they produce very little seed, but once you get a few plants, once you get a few seeds, then you grow some from seed, the plant is more inclined to produce seed in the next generation. We were pretty amazed when we heard about this story and it’s just, it’s really quite awesome.

Actually, that’s another one that’s sold out really fast, but we’re going to have more of that next year, we hope. One thing that’s pretty cool is that somebody who manages the garden at the Luther Burbank House in Santa Rosa, California, was one of the people who put it in order on the first day for some of that horseradish seed, kind of taking it full circle.

Margaret: You have like a pink celery. You have a poblano pepper that’s been bred and selected for years by, I believe, a grower in Zone 3, Colorado, but it’s a poblano pepper. I think you call it an Alpine Poblano [laughter], speaking of terms that don’t really go together. I mean, all of these things, again-

Nate: That is a grower, Casey Piscura [of Wild Mountain Seeds] in Colorado, and they are growing some amazing things, doing some really fantastic breeding work. Peppers and just tomatoes, just some really beautiful things that we’re just thrilled to have in the catalog.

Margaret: There’s a huckleberry originally from Africa [below] that’s grown as a leaf vegetable. I mean, who knew, right?

Nate: Exactly. I’m super-excited about that one. A friend of mine is a farmer from Eritrea in Maryland, and she grows this as a vegetable. She grows a number of African crops primarily for people who can’t find these vegetables, but they’re culturally important and beloved. One of them is this Njama Njama, it’s called, and it is a garden huckleberry, but it is a beautiful leaf crop.

It produces tons of leaves and tons of berries, too, which do have uses themselves, and there’s so much diversity in that population. She’s gotten seeds from a number of different sources and pooled them all together. We think that there’s breeders out there who are going to have a lot of fun selecting from that population too, and it’s really a beautiful crop. These dark, dark purple berries. We found a few out in the field that make green berries as well, that ripen green.

There’s so many, like all of the diversity that exists in tomatoes, there’s a lot of that in some of these wilder species, but this has been domesticated and grown as a crop in Africa for who knows how many years.

Margaret: Last year when we spoke, we talked about other perennial edibles, like beach plum and passionflower, and rhubarb and plantain. You have a perennial onion that you’re working on, but from seed. It’s something I’ve heard of before, and I think Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, for instance, sells potato onions, which they’re loosely called, as bulbs in the fall, but you’re working with it from seed, yes?

Nate: Yes, and actually that has been our bestseller so far this year, but we have a lot of seeds, so we have not run it out of that one yet [update 1/8/21: seed ran out the day after we taped this show]. That’s from a grower, a friend of ours named Andy Hahn in Colorado. He was working with a population that was developed by a guy named Kelly Winterton in Utah. That was the Green Mountain Multiplier Onion, it’s called, and it is that it is a potato onion that is a form of perennial onion.

It somewhat resembles a shallot, usually a little rounder and stouter. They come in different colors. There’s yellow ones and white ones and purple-skinned ones. Potato onions used to be very popular there, in part, because they keep for a long time. They can be grown just like garlic, planted in the fall, and they’re incredibly winter hardy and just delicious.

They’re packed with flavor, but because they’re a little bit more… They require a little bit more work, like garlic does, it’s not something where you’re going to go to the farm store and buy a big bag of tiny little onion sets and put them out in your garden. You’ve got to do the work yourself and store them yourself. They’ve sort of fallen out of favor over recent decades.

But there’s an increasing interest in them, especially for people who are growing at a smaller scale. Chefs are really interested in them as well, but there’s just not a ton of diversity out there. We’re really excited to have this population from seed, and every packet you get is going to produce different-looking perennial onions. This one we’ve had for a couple of years, but we’re really excited to have a larger crop this year and to get as many people growing these as possible.

Margaret: If I sow the seeds late winter this year, and I plant them out, the seedlings out, will they bulb up by fall or will they take till a second year? What’s it sort of life cycle?

Nate: Well, the thing about the diversity in these is that they might do different things. Each seed might behave differently from the one next to it, but in general, most of these are going to produce a bulb their first year. If you plant them, if you start them early and then grow them through the year, you might be able to harvest a bulb by midsummer or late summer.

You might harvest the bulb by fall, and then you can store them indoors over the winter, potentially, and plant them out early next spring. Or you can just keep an eye on them and leave them in the ground. The summer heat is really the one time when you might want to bring them in, when you might have to bring them in.

In my experience of growing potato onions, that’s sort of the most challenging time, but I’ve had ones that I’ve forgotten about and left in the garden, and they’ve just stuck around.

Margaret: Cool, and some of the common names are hilarious for them. They call them sometimes mother onion or pregnant onion [laughter] or hill onion, because they get like a little aggregation of bulbs, don’t they?

Nate: Absolutely, and that’s actually the Latin name. They call them Allium cepa, which is the Latin name for onions in general, but then the variety is aggregatum, and that’s what they do, they aggregate.

Margaret: And then there’s that parsley root, and that is something I have to say, I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen celery root, obviously a lot of other root vegetables, but I’ve seen among… I’ve seen celery versus celery root, but what is this, and where did this come from?

Nate: Parsley root is really a fantastic vegetable. It’s been grown in Europe and the Middle East for a long, long, long time, but we just don’t have much interest in it here.

I actually am very lucky that the supermarket near me in Southern New Jersey has a really good produce section, and whenever they can get it, they actually get parsley root and offer it there as a vegetable, bundled up just like carrots.

Every time I see it, I buy one or two because I just love it. I love to eat them raw. I love to cook it up just like I would carrots or parsnips. The flavor to me is somewhat intermediate between a carrot and a parsnip, but it has its own distinct parsley flavor. It’s nutritious, and it has this real sweetness to it, and makes a fantastic soup. You can bake it in the oven. You can make little fries with it. It’s just a really a great vegetable.

The one that we’re selling is a Polish accession that came to us from Wild Garden Seeds in Oregon, Frank Morton’s company. It’s a wonderful landrace. There’s some diversity to it, but we’re really excited to get more people growing this and enjoying this wonderful crop, great storage crop, too.

Margaret: In this past crazy year, the year of madness, dry beans sort of became a thing. And to a lot of culinarily inclined people, they always were. I mean, I eat beans every day, and I’ve been cooking them for a million years from dry beans, but now they’re a hot commodity. But a lot of gardeners, even experienced gardeners who have grown green beans, have never grown dry beans. You have some standouts. Tell us about one of them.

Nate: We love beans. We absolutely love beans, and it’s hard to pick just one, but we offer quite a few this year, more than we ever have before. Absolutely beautiful beans, bush beans that can be grown on a large scale and harvested with a combine. We have a pole beans that work as a dry bean, beans that work as both a green bean and a dry bean, which is always great.

One of the ones that I want to highlight is the landrace dry bush beans, the Lofthouse Landrace dry bush beans [above]. This is a really diverse population from Joseph Lofthouse in Utah. They are desert-adapted. A lot of them are short-season, but the diversity in there is really staggering. You can see the pictures there at EFNseeds dot com. They come in just an array of colors and forms.

That diversity is so important. If you’ve had trouble growing beans, starting with something like that, that’s so diverse, it just means that you can start with a packet of seeds and what you end up with, if you grow them and save your best ones for two or three years, it’s not going to look like what you started with, but that’s O.K.

You’re going to have something that’s adapted to your garden and your climate. And beans, they really multiply exponentially. In just a couple of years, you can be producing pounds and pounds of food for yourself, for your family, for your community.

Margaret: Many times so far in this conversation, we’ve mentioned the word diversity, and we’ve talked about letting things go to seed and having your own sort of population adapted to your area, etc., like you were just speaking about. I guess we should just really quickly explain that’s how… And because you talked about your goal of an Experimental Farm Network in the beginning as partly to deal with climate change to face the rigors of climate change.

That’s how plants—by making a seed population, growing out to seed, reproducing sexually, and adapting within that new population, the next generation, the adaptations that can occur after generations and generations—that’s how plants for millions of years have survived the rigors of what’s come down the pike, right? I mean, that’s their way.

Nate: Absolutely, and farmers have played a huge role, and all of the crops that we grow are the result of farmers doing work and gardeners doing work, just saving their best seeds and selecting them. That’s how we have the amazing diversity of food that we have today.

We want gardeners to lean into that because this is not something that you needed degree in to do. Anybody can do this. We’ve been doing this as a species for 10,000 years now, and it’s really amazing to see the kind of things that have come out of somebody’s small patch of ground. A lot of the things that we’re offering are coming from small growers, small breeders, who don’t make a living at this. They pursue it as a hobby, but they’re doing some of the most path-breaking breeding work out there now, because they’re not beholden to some big corporation that’s paying their bills or a university that that is reliant on grant funding or government funding.

There’s the freedom out there to do what you want to do and to produce something that you think is valuable for yourself and for your community and for other growers as well.

We’re offering some things this year that really you just would never see from another company, like an F2 hybrid, that was just the next-generation seeds from a commercial F1 hybrid. It’s a savoy cabbage, and the seeds are going to produce a savoy cabbage. We know they’re not all going to look the same, but it’s going to work in your garden.

We’re selling seeds for a cross between one of our favorite squash, this incredibly diverse Nanticoke landrace [above] from the indigenous people on the Eastern shore of Maryland and Southern Delaware, that crossed inadvertently at our farm years ago with a Bolivian squash from a group called the Ese Ejja people in the Bolivian Amazon. The squash is called Jemi [below], and the first-generation where all these beautiful pink squash with light pink stripes on the side.

We have no idea what the next generation’s going to look like, and we couldn’t possibly grow out all the seeds to find out, but by getting them out there to people who knows what is going to pop up and in four or five, six, seven, eight generations, what new varieties are going to come out of these populations? We’re trying to free these seeds and get them out there and get as many people playing with them as possible.

Margaret: Yes. So tell us, then, let’s spend the last few minutes that we have… You know so many, you network so widely. Your experimental farm network is a collaborative cooperative non-profit. You have different growers participating, and you’re showcasing different people’s work. Then you also know a lot of people who have their own seed catalogs, and you’ve named a few of them, a few breeders and so forth along the way.

What are some of Nate’s people to look at, whether it’s for companies that have a social-justice focus, or what are some that we might not know about that you think we should go to their websites? I’ll give all the links. You don’t have to have all the URLs, if you don’t [laughter].

Nate: I love that question. That is one of my favorite things about being in this small-scale, organic seed movement is that we consider other seed companies our colleagues, not our competition. We trade seeds with them. We trade notes with them. We grow seeds for them. They grow seeds for us. It’s a really collaborative industry, and we’ve learned so much since we joined it just a few years ago. We only started as a nonprofit in 2014. We only started our own seed catalog in 2018.

But some of the ones that I wanted to highlight are Truelove Seeds, which is another company that’s based in Philadelphia. Our friend Owen Taylor, who’s a board member of Experimental Farm Network, started this company. Owen’s doing absolutely amazing work with growers from traditionally marginalized communities that are just so underrepresented in the seed world, but so many of the seeds that we’re growing come from people in those communities. The work he’s doing is really inspiring, and the seeds that Owen has available are just amazing. His catalog launches, I believe, Friday January 8.

There’s another company that is still pretty small, but is doing great work based in West Virginia. Our friend, Mehmet, runs a company called Two Seeds in a Pod that focuses on Turkish heirlooms. He’s a Turkish-American, just beautiful, beautiful seeds and fruit that I’ve never seen before. Watermelons with the most beautiful seeds you’ve ever seen, in addition to the fantastic flesh and sweet flavor.

We’ve started working down in Maryland with a group of farmers called the Ujamaa farmers group, and one of them is a man named Michael Carter Jr. The Carter Brothers is his farm project and they mainly grow produce, but they also have a small seed company. Those are in particular seeds that are from Africa and seeds that are popular in the African diaspora, some really, really cool stuff, moringa seeds and managu and edible celosia—beautiful flowers that also are grown for their edible leaves. Most people don’t know that celosia is actually a food plant in Africa.

Margaret: I had no idea, so if you have-

Nate: That’s a cool one, and I also just want to highlight the Cooperative Gardens Commission that I mentioned. We relied on donations from seed companies for all of the donations that we sent out. We had 257 seed hubs around the country in 41 different states. We sent free seeds to all those seed hubs, who further distributed them out to people in their communities.

We think we got seeds to about 12,000 gardens last year after just starting this organization in late March and starting to send seeds out in early May. We had about 20, 25 seed companies donated seeds to that, and all of those are… I can’t list them all.

Margaret: Well, Nate, I mean, we could just go on forever. I love it. I love the suggestions, both at Experimental Farm Network, as well as some of these others, and I hope I’ll talk to you again soon. You can keep teaching me, widening my palette, so thank you.

Nate: I would love to. It’s an honor to speak to you and to your audience. Thanks so much.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

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 11, 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).

    1. Lauren? says:

      Yipes the prices are very high! It would be nice if you sold tiny sample {affordable) packets, like Le Jardin des Gourmet, where everything is 40 cents! These are untouchable for many gardeners.

  1. Betsy says:

    Pink celery, be still my heart! I shouldn’t be this excited about this post, but it’s just what I need right now. I’ve been very frustrated by a certain large seed company that has been unable to serve it’s home growers for the last two seasons due to covid. Now I see there are so many options I didn’t know about and so many interesting new things to try. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      I know, Betsy — that celery! Many fun things and even if we don’t order anything, so good to see where smaller-scale breeders (not the corporate giants) are focusing their efforts and why. Fascinating.

  2. Margaret Manzke says:

    Great show, Margaret! I love the idea there are folks thinking about climate change, and how we’ll feed ourselves. Saving seeds is one of the best ways to provide for ourselves as the climate changes. Thank you.

  3. John Moore says:

    Your podcast with Nate of the Experimental Farm Network was wonderful! Thank you for broadcasting it. But more thanks to Nate and his colleagues for creating the many important initiatives. Darwin did not espouse “survival of the strongest”. He actually said that survival belonged to those who could best ADAPT.

    That, to me, if what EFN is helping us to do in the horticultural world. And, of course, they’re helping communities, and small businesses and you and me.

    I think I will go buy some seeds from them!

  4. Tibs says:

    I am confused. Why doesn’t bringing in seeds from outside the country raise the non native vs native issue?

    Are these perennial onions similar to the walking or Egyptian onion?

    1. margaret says:

      The ancestors of our edible onions (Allium cepa and all its varieties and hybrids) of farm and garden are probably from Asia somewhere long, long ago, but are now grown worldwide. When we talk about native and non-native plants, and the ecological impact of using one versus the other, we are usually referring to landscape plants (not to edible crops grown in a vegetable garden or farm setting). Almost none of our popular food crops are native to what is now the U.S., though some of the most popular ones grown around the world are from Mexico and Central and South America (corn, potato, pepper, bean, tomato…).

  5. Aileen Cotrone says:

    I truly enjoyed this podcast. This podcast will help many gardeners open their minds to new seeds. Keep up the great work you do because this how one can learn and be inspired. Cheers!

  6. Martha Berryman says:

    Thank you Margaret & Green Mountain! My master-gardener Papa (1899-1984) would have delighted in your work & catalog. He so enjoyed his 1/2 acre veggie garden, and especially bringing in the seeds of anything he found along the way, on the side of the road, a friend’s packet, or whatever the main seed nurseries offered. Papa grew “multiplying onions” all his life. To my 9-yr old self, asking if onions could also divide too? Bless Papa, he found some that did! I loved those Multiplying Onions, growing all in a tight bunch, their taste as well as their green bits, and always enjoyed giving them a tug when I would be sent out “to go pick supper.”
    Now I’ve found them again. Thank you!! Martha in Blue Skies Texas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.