I still recall the excitement and anticipation of planning my very first real garden in 1981. My wife Susan and I, recently married, learned that graduate students at Dartmouth (where I was mid-degree) could pay practically nothing for a community plot in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, just a few minutes’ drive from our residence.
Seed Savers Exchange was in its infancy at this time (a mere six years old) and still unknown to me. With an infant, studies, and laboratory work—not to mention my wife’s job as a nurse —taking up much of our time, that first garden involved planting seeds and seedlings found at a local garden center. We filled the rich soil in the 10- by 20-foot rectangle with squash and corn, tomatoes and peppers, and beans and flowers with familiar names like ‘Better Boy’ and ‘California Wonder,’ both hybrids. Tending and harvesting the garden kept us delightfully busy; provided needed relief from work, child rearing, and studies; and greatly enhanced our meals. We loved it, and we became hooked on gardening.
We repeated the West Lebanon community gardening experience the following year, adding a few indoor-started seeds purchased from the typical large seed companies. Starting one’s own seedlings is a tremendous enhancement to the gardening experience, as the options for what to grow increase exponentially over what is found in garden centers. In 1983 we relocated to Seattle, where we squeezed just a few types of plants into the postage-stamp lot of our rental home. Our 1984 garden was hand dug, large, and located in a most hospitable climate in eastern Pennsylvania; it was prolific and yielded tasty food, yet it was starting to take on an element of sameness—red tomatoes and green peppers, high on hybrids and low on diversity.
Reading a copy of the wonderful gardening magazine Gardens for All in 1985, I learned about Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), an organization committed to preserving our horticultural genetic heritage that had been started by Kent Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy in Missouri a decade earlier with a tiny newsletter involving seed trades between a small handful of gardeners. By the time I joined, in 1986, the organization’s thick Yearbook offering thousands of varieties of non-hybrid seeds provided an endless journey for gardeners inclined to explore and preserve. I sent in my payment, the Yearbook arrived, and my adventure began.
I am lucky to have a full set of SSE Yearbooks, and, out of curiosity, I recently paged through that initial Yearbook offering by Kent Whealy to see what sorts of things were the first to be traded and discussed. The listings, I noted, focused on just tomatoes. Barbara Douglas of California offered “tomatoes,” while Al Scarpa of New York offered a plum tomato that “runs true year after year.” Dr. Mary Alice White of New York wanted to share a large, pink, delicious tomato that she had been growing for four years, and Kent himself, then living in Kansas, offered ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes. Joyce Risner of Michigan noted that she kept a large collection of tomatoes. Nancy Barton of Pennsylvania also had ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes to share, and Judith Guffey of Arizona offered to share seeds of a “cherry tomato.” All in all, 30 gardeners were listed in that very first version of the Yearbook. The most familiar name to me was James DeWeese of Ohio, who later offered a large yellow-and-red tomato called ‘DeWeese Streaked.’ The next issue, from 1976-77, had 138 people sharing seeds—an increase of more than 100 listers in just a few years. One fascinating listing is of a delicious tomato that stays green when ripe, offered by a gardener in Maryland.
I actually had no idea how the dive into heirloom-veggie growing, seed saving, and sharing would hijack my life, putting me on a journey that continues to this day. I began very slowly—in 1986, my sole request was for a wonderful bush green bean called ‘Fowler,’ obtained from seed saver George McLaughlin. The onslaught of tomatoes began the following year: I made eight requests, including ‘Persimmon,’ ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ ‘Yellow Brimmer,’ ‘Pineapple,’ and ‘Brandywine.’ The joy that began with receiving and planting the seeds sustained itself through germination, planting, harvesting, and seed saving. Watching the ripening of tomatoes that were not the standard red inspired wonder, and tasting the exciting and varied flavors was positively addictive.
I practiced, then honed, my seed-saving technique and then listed varieties to share. Requests poured in. By 1990 my tomato-seed collection approached 500 different varieties. Gardeners finding out about my heirloom-tomato passion started to send me their own local and family treasures, none more special than the unnamed “purple” tomato whose seeds appeared in my mailbox unrequested and unexpected in 1990. That tomato, which I named ‘Cherokee Purple,’ seems to have found favor with tomato lovers the world over, for which I am simply humbled.
As I type this blog post, it is 2018, and 32 years have elapsed since joining SSE. Collectively, the Yearbooks in my office are like one big horticultural bible and hold priceless information. So many aspects of life are different—the profusion of seed companies (large, medium, and small) that offer heirloom varieties . . .the paradigm shift from writing letters and making phone calls to sending emails and social networking . . .the passing of so many of the foundational members of SSE . . .the continuing explosion of non-hybrid varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs from which to choose. My own gardening journey has evolved from planting large annual gardens full of heirloom varieties into a much smaller, all-container or straw-bale garden with far less room to use for variety research and seed saving. I’ve added the titles of gardening author and lecturer to my life, as well as begun using wonderful heirlooms to create new open- pollinated, useful varieties (our Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project).
I also worry about some things—the challenge of continuing to grow the relevance and reach of the Exchange, the apparent reduction in the number of active seed savers maintaining large seed collections, the aging of gardeners in general without the growth of young gardeners. To anyone who has yet to embark on the type of journey that I described, I implore you to give it a try. Grow something unique, wonderful, and non-hybrid. Learn to save seeds. Share those seeds with fellow gardeners—join SSE and list your seeds on the Exchange. Experience the wonder of receiving and fulfilling seed requests, knowing that you are playing the most important part in ensuring that spectacular varieties stay alive and available for decades and centuries to come.
Craig LeHoullier is a gardener, author, and educator in Raleigh, North Carolina. Author of the books Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales, he is the co-host of Tomatopalooza annual tomato-tasting event and a co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project. Visit Craig’s website.