Step up to the Plate: What's a Turnabaga?

Step up to the Plate: What's a Turnabaga?

At Seed Savers Exchange we sometimes lovingly refer to our collection of 103 turnips and 81 rutabagas as “turnabagas.”  Confusion reigns over these crop types; many turnips in our collection are actually rutabagas. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that a common name for rutabaga is Swedish turnip. Botanically, however, the two are different species. Our favorite example of this confusion is the ‘Westport’, or ‘Macomber’, turnip, or as it’s known in the Heritage Farm Collection, Turnip 8. 

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Step up to the Plate: Our Mystery Squash

Step up to the Plate: Our Mystery Squash

Philip Kauth, assistant curator, and Steffen Mirsky, horticultural technician, make up the Seed Savers Exchange Evaluation Team.  The Eval Team is the division of the Preservation Department that keeps detailed records of more characteristics than most people know an individual variety can have. Their work helps us differentiate between the varieties in our collection and describe them clearly in the Yearbook. This is the first in their new blog series, Step up to the Plate, a monthly profile of a variety that stands out to the evaluation professionals. 

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Seed Savers Exchange Members Evaluate the Collection

Seed Savers Exchange Members Evaluate the Collection

Each year Seed Savers Exchange members from across North America trial garden varieties from SSE's genebank collection. They send us reports on performance and taste qualities, and photos of the varieties growing in their gardens and harvested in their kitchens. Read on to find out some the results we've seen and some of the varieties we've tested.

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Evaluating Heirlooms with 2014 Conference Attendees

Evaluating Heirlooms with 2014 Conference Attendees

Part of the evaluation process (and arguably the most fun) involves Tasting Trials. Aside from SSE Members who participate in the Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN), the Evaluation Program has not requested public participation in the Taste Trials up until this point. Sixty-five participants at the 2014 Conference and Campout gave us detailed rankings and notes about 4 snap beans, 5 carrots, 4 collards, and 11 kale.

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An Afternoon in the Preservation Lab

An Afternoon in the Preservation Lab

The Preservation Lab at Seed Savers Exchange was buzzing with activity on this Friday afternoon in February. With about 13 full-time employees whose specializations range from germination testing to seed storage and everything in between, there's always something interesting happening in the Preservation Lab.

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Preventing GMO Contamination in Your Open-Pollinated Corn

Preventing GMO Contamination in Your Open-Pollinated Corn

Corn (Zea mays) is what we around here consider a ‘promiscuous pollinator.’ That’s because it is an outcrossing, wind-pollinated crop. Because corn relies on wind to carry pollen from the tassels to the silks, the light pollen grains may travel a few miles before finding and pollinating a silk. Your neighbor’s corn can therefore very easily pollinate yours, making it tricky to save pure seed from your open-pollinated corn.

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Varietal Evaluations: Carrots


The Preservation Department at Seed Savers Exchange works hard to maintain the rare collection of heirloom varieties we've acquired from farmers and gardeners over the past few decades. In order to keep this collection alive and well, our staff carefully plans and implements grow-outs to evaluate the varieties and regenerate seed stock. As part of this evaluation process, staff take meticulous notes about the characteristics of each variety when grown out. These photos document the evaluation process of a few carrot varieties (Daucus carota) after harvest, although evaluations of each variety really begin with the seed before it is planted.  

Carrot Evaluations




Freshly harvested and cleaned carrots.






Taking Photos




Horticultural Technician Steffen Mirsky takes portrait photos of the harvested varieties.






Data Entry




Detailed information is entered into a database for each variety on such characteristics as color, shape, length, and weight, as well as other criteria.





Carrot Scan



Varieties are then scanned and archived with the collected data.





Raw ‘Jaune de Doubs’ Carrots




The carrots are sliced to analyze interior characteristics and for raw taste-testing (picture: 'Jaune de Doubs').






Steaming Carrots



The carrots are steamed until tender. The steamed carrots are tasted and evaluated for culinary use.





Cooked ‘Amstel’ Carrots


Summary descriptions of each variety are written for the SSE Yearbook, with the hope that these descriptions will encourage gardeners to take the seeds from our collection and put them in their gardens and on their dinner tables (pictured: 'Amstel').



Please consider becoming a member of Seed Savers Exchange to support these preservation and evaluation efforts. Along with many other benefits, SSE members are able to access thousands of rare and unique heirloom seeds offered by other members in our annual Yearbook. Seed Savers Exchange also offers seeds from our vast collection in the Yearbook, allowing members much more diversity to choose from than what's available in the commercial catalog. In 2013, Seed Savers Exchange is offering 2,431 different varieties in the Yearbook for members to request. Join us today to help conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage.


Join SSE

Located six miles north of Decorah, IA, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of heirloom seeds.  Seed Savers maintains a collection of thousands of open pollinated varieties, making it one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States.  For more information, go to



Garlic Escapades

Garlic Scape in the Field

Whether blended in a soup, pickled in a mason jar or baked in an omelet, eating is the best way to utilize scapes, a farm and garden byproduct of garlic. Seed Savers Exchange is conducting its first ever evaluation of over 300 garlic varieties in its production garden this year, which means harvesting a lot of scapes for scanning, as well as to ensure the garlic bulbs are adequately plump and ready for replanting in October. Looking out across the half-acre field waving with crowns of silvery green, these several hundred varieties may appear identical to the untrained eye, but in fact differ considerably in size and shape. Many are uniform in their likeness (streaking brown leaves as some had matured early), still others display anthropomorphic qualities unique to their row: one variety like a sumo wrestler, squat and thick, while another resembles the stern form of a lawman. Taken together, the melded identities of Allium sativum are a chorus of opportunity for SSE to learn more about this species (and its flowering appendage) in the Allium genus.

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Our trial field includes both hard and softneck garlics. For those of us new to garlic varieties, softneck garlic doesn’t produce scapes, and generally isn’t as hardy (hence the cognate of its opposite, the “hardneck”), but, it does store better and mature quicker. The bulb size of many hardneck varieties is improved by removing the scape—its flowering stalk which eventually produces bulbils and flowers—hence getting “plump and ready for October." Some varieties, however, don't mind if you leave their scapes on until harvest time, such as those in the Turban group. It just goes to show – the more we learn about each variety’s characteristics, from planting to harvest, the more we’ll understand their preferences, personalities, and how best to make use of them.

Here’s a quick primer on Preservation’s Field & Lab Plant Evaluation

Any characteristic that has a genetic basis is recorded in evaluations at SSE, which, specific to garlic, includes observing and measuring:

1. leaf color 2. leaf posture 3. stalk height (or pseudostem) 4. scape shape (if applicable)

Everything is recorded into Preservation’s database—the hardneck scapes are harvested and scanned into a digital format—and staff can glory in the perk of free scapes for eating!

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Garlic taste tests to follow… meanwhile, check out some of these intriguing recipes, and keep us posted on your favorite uses for scapes!


Garlic Visit the online store to purchase our certified organic seed garlic today. Over 10 varieties to choose from-- They will sell out!


Check out this slide show and cheat sheet for planting your garlic.

2013 Conference Preview: Evaluating Heritage Poultry

Jeannette Beranger and Alison Martin will be at the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout representing the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They will be teaching a workshop titled Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding. We asked them to fill us in on what to expect from their workshop.

Young Chicken from SSE's Heritage Poultry

Backyard Chickens Are Back!

By Alison Martin, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

Alison Martin

Look around you: more than ever, chickens are showing up in back yards or being incorporated into sustainable farms.  No matter the size of your flock, a question that comes up each year is “which of these chickens should I keep as breeders for next year?”  Our workshop, Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding, will give you the hands-on skills and knowledge to make those decisions.

For those of you who don’t know us, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) works with farmers to conserve heritage breeds of livestock and poultry.  Like heirloom plants, America has lost many of the breeds that were important in times past.  In fact, in 1976 organizers of a Bicentennial celebration at Old Sturbridge Village in New England had trouble finding animals that would have been on the farm in 1776.  The more they thought about it, the more this bothered them, and together with concerned breeders and scientists, they formed the (then) American Minor Breeds Conservancy.  In the 36 years since, we haven’t lost a breed!

Unlike Seed Savers Exchange, ALBC doesn’t sell animals.  For one thing, they’re harder to gather and store than seeds!  We do facilitate participatory conservation.  Like Seed Savers Exchange, we help breeders network with each other so they can share and exchange breeding stock and best practices.  Our Master Breeder project documents the wisdom of long-time breeders, and passes that along to new breeders.  We have restored productivity to breeds that have been neglected, and brought other breeds back from the brink of extinction.  All this and more conserves agricultural biodiversity and maintains options for farming.

Jeannette Beranger

The time is right for heritage poultry and livestock.  Many have regional adaptations and history that fit right in with the local foods movement.  Farmers are discovering that their hardiness and thrift make them a wonderful fit for small farms, and consumers who care where their food comes from are discovering the benefits of rich and diverse flavors.  And heritage animals complement heirloom seeds well, as you’ve probably seen at Heritage Farm.

Jeannette and I are excited about our first visit to the SSE Conference and Campout.  We want to meet with you and hear about your homesteads.  And we want to share our experience – between us we have more than 50 years experience with poultry!  This year we helped Seed Savers Exchange source some excellent Buckeye chickens, and that’s what we’ll be evaluating in the workshop.  The birds selected as breeders will be banded, and at the end of the season they will go to the winner of the Mother Earth News Heritage Chicken Giveaway!

If you would like to learn more about Buckeye chickens, chicken assessment, or ALBC, check us out online at  See you in Decorah!

Conference Webpage