Exploring the Diversity Garden

The onset of spring has us dreaming about the vegetables that will fill our gardens during the summertime. But it is difficult to imagine summer’s bounty when your pepper plants are two inches tall and your onion stems are so thin you can barely see them. So why don’t we take a walk around a summer garden?

Yes, I know it’s May, but let’s jump ahead a few months and savor the heat of mid-July while we tour around the Seed Savers Exchange Diversity Garden. We’ll stick our faces in aromatic marigolds, brush our fingers along the tops of fennel and pop tiny tomatoes into our mouths with abandon.

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The Diversity Garden in July, 2013.
The Diversity Garden in July, 2013.

We enter the Diversity Garden at Heritage Farm through a trellised arbor of vining flowers and beans over our heads. Suddenly, we’re inside an Italian culinary garden that features over 50 varieties of edible plants.

The middle of the garden is full of aromatic herbs, from ‘Dark Purple Opal’ basil to ‘Prezzemolo Gigante d’Italia’ parsley to rosemary, sage, and sorrel. Nine large ‘Thornless’ cardoon plants, nearly five feet tall, sprout like leafy fountains out of the middle of these raised beds.

On either side of the herbaceous heart of the garden there are rows of Italian radicchio, peppers, tomatoes and beans. Let the fuzzy tips of fennel tickle the palms of your hands as you walk past a bed of ‘Finocchio Romanesco.’ Pick a ripe ‘Cherry Roma’ tomato off the vine and sample its award-winning sweetness.

Strolling westward in the garden, we approach a green carpet of vegetables surrounded by lush walls of beans, rye and hops. This German-themed garden is full of hearty root vegetables such as beets, turnips, potatoes, carrots, radish, rutabaga and horseradish. Parsley, chives, onion, mustard and dill also play an important role in German cooking and are all represented here.

Keep an eye out for unique German varieties such as the ‘Schwarzwalder Ausmachbohne’ bush bean from the Black Forest, the ‘Giant Zittau’ onion that dates back to 1885, and the ‘Halblange Wiesse’ parsnip from the German biodynamic seed company, Bingenheimer Saatgut.

Diversity Garden map
Diversity Garden map

The other three sections of the Diversity Garden contain dozens more plant varieties that are tied to Korean, Mexican, and American food traditions. The Korean garden features many plants used in Southeast Asian cuisine, including bok choy, tatsoi, perilla, soybeans, cucumbers, cabbage, leeks, peppers, azuki beans and mung beans. The Mexican corner of the garden is filled with epazote, marigolds, squash, cilantro, culantro, peppers, chia, sweet mace, onions, tomatoes, and tomatillos. In the last section of the Diversity Garden, old American varieties such as ‘Madgeburg’ chicory, ‘Biwa Sitter’ cowpea, and ‘Red Inchelium’ garlic fill in the spaces between ‘Giant Southern Curled’ mustard and 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes.

The 150 varieties of seed being planted in these three dozen raised beds were sourced from 45 Seed Savers Exchange members through the Exchange, from our Preservation Collection, and from the Seed Savers Exchange Catalog. This year’s garden theme shows us not only how the act of saving and sharing seeds has helped preserve food traditions, but also the impact immigrants have had on the diverse culinary treasures we enjoy  in our gardens and on our plates.

To learn more about these unique varieties and to see the garden layout, explore the Diversity Garden virtually by looking at our Garden Planner, where you can see a detailed list of the varieties planted.   If you’ve enjoyed this tour through the Diversity Gardens, the next logical step would be to make a trip to Seed Savers Exchange this summer and see for yourself. For those who would like to taste some of the varieties mentioned, plan to join us this fall for a series of collaborative dinners with the Pepperfield Project that will showcase the rich culinary traditions represented here. Check back to our events page this summer for details. Thanks so much for taking this pre-season tour, we hope to see you soon!


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.