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In our grandparents' day seed saving was just part of gardening.
Store-bought seed, like store-bought anything, was a luxury for my Grandma. She could only afford to order what she couldn’t easily save- for instance, the seeds of biennial vegetables like carrot, cabbage, beets and kohlrabi. The whole community saved their garden seed back then. It was as natural to gardening as planting and harvesting crops. I helped my Grandfather pluck the seeds off his morning glories each fall and never thought I was doing anything out of the ordinary. The seed—along with the skills on how to save the seed—was passed down from generation to generation.
Over the years, this seed saving component of the garden has vanished and garden seed has become something you simply purchase each year from your favorite catalog or garden center. It is understandable, then, why new gardeners would not be aware of how their seeds were produced in the first place, and so the process is often perceived as somewhat mysterious.
Today, planning your garden for seed saving is really not that much different or any more difficult than it was back in the days of my grandparents. Some of my garden favorites like tomatoes, beans, peas and lettuce are self-pollinating crops that don’t readily cross, so they’re easy to save. Of course you must have non-hybrid varieties so the seed your harvest and plant will produce the same variety as the parent plant (read more about open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom seeds here).
This past year I was pleased to be involved in creating a new Seed Saving Collection for the Seed Savers Exchange catalog. This starter kit includes some of our popular varieties that could be grown side by side in one garden, plus step-by-step seed saving instructions for each crop type. I’m excited to offer a solution for all those gardeners who thought seed saving was somehow difficult. It’s easy to become a seed saver!
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
The first sentence in my book, Gathering, reads “I grew up knowing that you harvest horseradish only in the months with an “r” in them and that every day gets a “rooster step” longer after the shortest day of the year.”
I understood the horseradish part, but for the longest time I was never quite sure of my Grandma Einck’s observation. The stride of a rooster—especially our bantams—isn’t much to speak of; it’s more like a baby step. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand her wisdom. The shortest day of the year is December 21 (when the sun set this year at about 4:30 pm), but by the end of January it might stay light until 5:15 p.m. And of course, by the first day of summer, the days seem longer by a thousand rooster steps. One rooster step isn’t much, but a couple hundred rooster steps is the difference between a cold long winter’s night and a glorious summer evening. You can get a lot done with a few more rooster steps.
Grandma Einck’s insight has come to mind many times in my adult life. When folks ask, “How did Seed Savers Exchange get started?” and “How did we get to where we are today?” I tell them that it certainly didn’t happen all at once, but it did happen with the certainty of a rooster’s step.
I am especially reminded of this when I see the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook being compiled around this time of year. Our first six-page seed listing in 1979 was so small we printed our 29 members’ seed listings along with their letters in their entirety. The next year our group had grown to 142 and we printed the seventeen-page booklet on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine set up in an unheated back bedroom of our farmhouse. Today our members list more than 12,000 varieties in a 500 page book and we send it to more than 13,000 members. We also organize the listings for easy online access at exchange.seedsavers.org. Amazing to think of the growth in all areas of Seed Savers Exchange that has transpired with 40 years of roosters steps.
Solutions to problems like genetic diversity don’t have to all be complicated or large; they can be as bold or as small as you like. Just one simple act can make a difference. Plant a seed, save a seed, support your local farmers market, CSA or community gardens, and simply ask your grocer or restaurant about where your food comes from. These small acts, added together, will make a difference. Small is underestimated, small is a beginning; small can make an important contribution to your planet and family, even something as small as a rooster’s step.
Diane Ott Whealy is Co-Founder and Vice President of Seed Savers Exchange, the nation's leading non-profit seed saving organization. She wrote Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver to chronicle the organization's humble beginnings and growth into a respected leader in the grassroots movement to preserve our agricultural heritage.
Join Seed Savers Exchange and gain access to the world's largest seed exchange.
Our non-profit mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
Late this October, just as the cool weather came to Iowa, I was happy to get away and visit my daughter and her family in the Florida panhandle. My daughter constantly laments the fact that gardening in sand is difficult, and finding good organic produce is challenging and expensive. This year’s Iowa summer was cool, but the fall made up for it by graciously extending the growing season at least three weeks longer than normal. My garden was overflowing with organic heirloom produce as I was preparing for my trip.
The plan was to harvest overflow from my garden at Heritage Farm and pack as much produce as possible into three suitcases, the larger bag devoted to produce I would check at the airport. I began my gleaning by filling a large bag with yellow, purple, orange and red sweet peppers, then threw in a few of my favorite hot peppers. I added eggplant, squash, onions, garlic, ground cherries, gourds—including a spinning gourd for my grandson—green and ripe tomatoes, broom corn, and apples from the Historic Orchard.
The day of packing had arrived, a real challenge, and I was determined not to leave any produce behind. I zipped the last bag shut, impressed with my packing ability. However, I was amazed at the weight of my large suitcase as I trudged it out to my car. Along with it, I had two other very heavy bags, my computer, and my purse filled with a few chestnuts I’d found (for good luck, which I knew I would need). I sensed taking my luggage through the airport security was not going to be pretty.
Trouble at check in… my large bag weighed 58 pounds and would cost nearly $100 to check it through! Needless to say the suitcase had to lighten up. I opened the bag on the scale and asked the attendant if she thought “a spaghetti squash and some gourds could go into my carry on?” She replied, “No problem.” The scale finally read 50 lbs. and I was off to the security line.
As expected, my carry-on bag was suspect. I stood back and watched as more security was called over to look at the x-ray for a second opinion. I overheard one say, “it looks like a football.” I thought to myself that must have been the spaghetti squash. Then I heard what all travelers dread in the security line, “Who does this bag belong to? We need to open it and check the contents.”
The first question, “Are there any sharp objects?” I was a bit intimidated and felt full disclosure was necessary, so I told him – “maybe the spikes on a gourd?” He actually laughed and did not seem concerned. Another curious inspector asked, “Was that a football?” I answered no, just a spaghetti squash. She commented “This is a first. I don’t even know what a spaghetti squash is, and I’ve never seen anyone taking a squash through security.” I logically explained about my daughter’s vegetable deprivation and as she zipped the bag closed, she seemed to appreciate the situation and told me, “I wish someone would bring me fresh produce… you made my day!” Ha! If she could only see the veritable farmer’s market I had checked through at the gate!
My Florida family was grateful and my daughter commented, “Thanks Mom, if we only had Iowa soil, maybe I could grow some of this here.” Hmmmm, I wonder what kind of security questions I’d face flying with three suitcases filled with good Iowa soil!
Diane Ott Whealy is Co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “My Grandma always had ground cherries in her garden… She made the best pies and jam,” I’d be a rich woman. Ground cherries conjure up fond memories for me too, as we had them growing in my families’ garden for generations. We used them for jams, pies, sauces, or my favorite: husked fresh from the garden, still warm and sweet from the sunshine. However, there are folks who have never heard of or tasted this delicious fruit. Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)—not to be confused with tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) or Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)—are native to Central America. They produce a very sweet yellow-gold, cherry-sized fruit in a papery husk that drops from the plant just before they ripen. The heirloom ground cherry ‘Aunt Molly’s’ found its way to the Seed Savers Exchange collection and has been in my garden for years. These plants are part of my garden that seeds itself, and there are always enough fruit left on the ground to seed new plants.
My children loved ground cherries growing up and would inadvertently alert me when they were ripe. I’d find piles of light brown empty husks lying beside the plant or left in a trail leading out of the garden. My youngest daughter recently mentioned how she looked forward to them and that she was surprised how something so sweet was found on the ground—and in Iowa!
My Grandma Ott treasured her ground cherries for jams and pies. She would pick all she could before frost and store them in their husks under a bed upstairs. They would keep for months in that cool place and could be used fresh for special occasion pies in the winter.
While working in my garden these days, I un-wrap a husk and pop a golden cherry into my mouth to be reminded of Grandma Ott’s kitchen, her pies, and my children’s trail of empty husks leading out of the garden. One of the pleasures of preserving heirloom varieties is they are not only laden with beauty, diversity and flavor, but they hold the power to bring back emotionally-charged memories with their wonderful taste.
Grandma Ott’s Ground Cherry Pie
- 1 ½ quarts of husked ripe ground cherries
- 1 ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup flour
- ½ tsp. cinnamon
- Juice of two lemons
Mash about 2 cup of the cherries and add rest whole. Place in sauce pan with other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour into raw pie shell, dot with butter, a sprinkle of nutmeg and pinch of salt. Add top crust and bake in a 500 degree oven for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake till golden (about 40 minutes).
'Aunt Molly's' ground cherries are part of Slow Food USA's 'Ark of Taste'-- a catalog of delicious foods in danger of extinction. By growing, eating and promoting Ark foods we ensure they remain in production and on our plates.
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
Part 1: Springtime
"The Story of the Root Children" written by Sibylle Von Olfers was a book I read over and over to my children. Each spring I am reminded of this tale when my garden is bare, completely void of any life on the surface, with a tremendous plant source lying beneath—the volunteers.
Soon after the first spring rain and the soil warms I see evidence of life after winter, small sprouts all looking familiar and similar. The beauty and challenge of self-seeding annual flowers, herbs and sometimes vegetables is identifying them as volunteers. Over the years I have learned to recognize the plants by their leaves, the order in which to expect their arrival, and where they reliably decide to grow. I feel protective of these sprouts because they do not look much different than many weeds at this point. Most plants are photographed when they are blooming and mature, not when they are just little sprouts. Below are a few of these root children that I found in May while exploring my garden. Look for them coming to your garden soon!
I appreciate nature's perfectly designed vignettes, combinations not found in any book or ones I want to compete with... so I don't. I know 'Grandpa Ott's' morning glory will sprout and grow up the side of the barn, my 'Grandma Einck's' dill will volunteer in front of the 'Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate,' the calendulas are fine companions for any plants, 'Love-in-a-Mist' will scatter themselves everywhere knowing they can blend into any group and be just fine. Borage is in the strawberry patch, 'Outhouse Hollyhock' along the fence, and violets are usually blooming before I even get into the garden.
Visitors sometimes say my garden feels so natural… well it truly is, one that naturally volunteers itself.
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Check back to the blog throughout this summer and autumn for more posts and pictures of my garden.
Founded in 1975, Seed Savers Exchange operates an 890-acre farm in northeast Iowa where thousands of rare fruit, vegetable, and other plant varieties are regenerated and preserved in a central collection. Its mission is conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. For information visit www.seedsavers.org
Pep Rallies and Seeds
Recently I returned from speaking in Pennsylvania at a Slow Food Harrisburg Farm-to-Table dinner. Next door was Hershey. Milton Hershey’s legacy is remarkable and delicious, but the legacy he left that impressed me more than milk chocolate was the Milton Hershey School. The school was founded and endowed more than 100 years ago by Milton and Catherine to fulfill their vision of helping children reach their dreams. Today the school is a year-round home for 1200 children. I met with the school garden club who were very quick to point out they were there because they wanted to be, not because they were required. The story of how Seed Savers Exchange also began with only a vision was inspiring to them. Seeing the joy and hope that seeds bring to a group of students was just as inspiring to me.
I then traveled to neighboring Ben Franklin School where I spoke at a general assembly of the Math/Science Academy — an experience resembling a pep rally for seeds. I spoke for about 15 minutes and opened the floor to questions. Hands were raised all over and unfortunately time ran out before I could answer them all. Their thoughtful questions ranged from “Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable?” to “How do you save seeds from a banana tree?” (I’ll admit I had to look that one up!). Math/Science Academy teacher Judd Pittman later wrote, “Our students were really excited about your visit, which has also sparked a lot of conversation. The students have enjoyed looking at the catalogue and are excited about the seeds you left for the school garden.”
I am thankful to be part of an organization that offers hope and solutions. Witnessing the excitement of young people holding a pack of seeds for the first time and understanding the living connection of our past to the future is one of the most rewarding feelings.
Over the past several months I’ve identified with the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I’ve been speaking at seed guilds, seed libraries, seed banks, seed rallies, seed conferences and seed classes. But my audience hasn’t been limited to only seed enthusiasts and gardeners. I’ve found myself helping to restore the neglected bridge between seeds and food, culture, and society. Recently I returned from speaking in Pennsylvania at a Slow Food Harrisburg Farm-to-Table dinner. For many Seed Savers Exchange supporters, the connection between Slow Food and heirloom seeds is clear. We need to preserve our food crop heritage for future generations, and seeds are a vital aspect of this task. You can see all the wonderful SSE seed varieties nominated to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste here.
Soon I’ll be leaving for Boulder, Colorado to speak at the Slow Money National Gathering. Slow Money describes itself as a new kind of investing concentrated on replacing an economy based on extraction and consumption with an economy based on preservation and restoration. Our mission at Seed Savers Exchange is similarly focused on preservation and restoration. Slow Money founder Woody Tasch explains: "For someone who knows what diversity means, knows how important it is, this is a form of economic diversity... Taking those same principles and not just doing it with your seeds, but doing it with where your capital is going, where your money is being invested."
From Slow Food to Slow Money, slow seeds may indeed be the critical link that holds this and so much more together in our world.
Our mission is to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. www.seedsavers.org
Tom Knoche (OH KN T), 1938-2013
By Diane Ott Whealy
Kent and I first met Tom and Sue Knoche in 1981 when they attended the first Seed Savers Exchange campout in Princeton, Missouri. I recall how the first thing Tom said after giving affectionate hugs was, "I drove over 650 miles to get here! I have never met anyone in my life that I could talk to about my collection of seed. I always gardened with my granny and we saved seeds. No one else ever understood or shared my excitement."
Tom once said, "My grandma is going on eighty-nine years old, and she's said all her life that no bean was worth eating unless you had to string it first. A lot of the old folks say that about the string beans."
Tom was known as "the squash collector." When asked about his squash collection in the early 1980s, Tom said, "The squash that I've collected and that I'm the most concerned about are the large-fruited ones. These types are dying out so fast that there is no way they're going to be preserved if somebody doesn't take an interest in them. People want the little tiny handy size. Nobody wants to raise the large family sized types anymore. If I were to take some of my precious squash to our County Fair, there'd be no place for them. They have everything so categorized that if mine isn't a Hubbard or a Butternut or a Bush Scallop, there's no place for them. That's how bad things have gotten. And how on earth are young people ever going to know that there's anything different? I went to the State Fair for several years and tried to acquire seed from some of the growers. But there's so little interest that they don't even bother anymore to put the names of the growers on the specimens at the State Fair."
Tom and Sue were early members who truly loved Seed Savers Exchange. We cherish their spirit, enthusiasm and expertise that gave SSE the courage to move forward with our mission over 35 years ago, a time when no one else was noticing. John Swenson, another long time member, once had a wonderful description of those who have joined us over the years. "Of those who have contributed over the years," he said, "they become one of the sparkles on a gem." We will miss Tom's stories, but his spirit and seeds are very much alive in our organization. There is one sparkle on that gem that shines brighter today.
Over three decades ago Kent and I wanted to meet our early members to hear their voices. The last time I saw Tom was at the Seed Savers Exchange 2011 Campout. I am somewhat comforted knowing we recorded his voice and stories to be heard again by the new members of Seed Savers Exchange. Are there stories in your life that need to be recorded?
Tom Knoche speaking at the 2011 SSE Conference (part 1)
Tom Knoche speaking at the 2011 SSE Conference (part 2)
"I may not be a very big grower anymore, but I am thankful that I could contribute to the ongoing success of the Seed Savers Exchange."
These days, speaking of a “mailbox” might bring about images of our virtual mailboxes, not the charming metal containers at the end of our driveways. When Seed Savers Exchange began in the pre social media days of 1975, our members were older and living in rural parts of the country. They relied on these physical metal boxes to not only exchange hand-written letters but heirloom seeds as well. This unique club of seed savers referred to each other as “mailbox friends.” This week our 2013 Yearbook will be mailed out to more than 10,000 members—the 38th year in a row—to continue facilitating this connection between seed saving brethren. This Yearbook might well represent the largest private index of seed varieties in the United States.
While it is always a considerable challenge to compile the listings of more than 19,000 varieties from nearly 700 seed savers each year, one of the fun experiences is reading the many descriptions of varieties offered.
Passing by the office kitchen table on my way to get a cup of coffee a few weeks ago, two staff members were proofing the listings from the upcoming Yearbook and reading some of the anecdotes out loud. Christy was amused by an Iowa member who wrote, “In keeping with my penchant for selecting seed based on names (I buy wine the same way- don’t you?), ‘Little Brown Cat’ has joined my collection because, as my son observed, you really don’t see brown cats.”
Sarah said, “Listen to the history of the ‘Doloff’ bean.” First grown by Roy Dolloff in Vermont, he gave it to Hattie Gray who remembered walking with her mother to Burke Hollow and back to get the seed from him when she was a girl in the 1920’s. Hattie grew the seed for 60 years and gave it to Leigh Hurley who listed it in 1986. Today, 27 years later, five members are still listing the ‘Dollof’ bean.
Those hand-written letters are treasures which support Seed Savers Exchange’s belief that every seed has a story to tell. Whether you choose to utilize the yearbook as it always has been—through the print copy coming to your mailbox at the end of the driveway, or through the recently offered electronic version on our website, consider the people who have chosen to carry these varieties forward. Along with a check, send them a note of thanks in appreciation for preserving our garden heritage.
No matter the form of mailbox you use, we are thrilled to see Seed Savers Exchange members utilizing the Yearbook not only as a way to acquire and cultivate seeds, but relationships as well. As one member proudly told us this year, “In 2008 I contacted a SSE member in my area and we have been great friends ever since." Mailbox friends.
To learn more about the Yearbook and the additional benefits of becoming a SSE member, visit www.seedsavers.org/Membership/.