Tag Archives: heirloom

It All Started With Seeds

Saving various types of lima beans and their names and stories

I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.

The Importance of Seeds

Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.

Sharing saved seeds at a seed swap

On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.

However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.

Seed Saving Initiatives

Grandpa Ott’s morning glory

Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.

Seed Savers Exchange

German Pink tomato

Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its 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.”

The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.

To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”

The Seed Exchange

Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.

Field crew harvesting beans

Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”

There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”

SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.

Trial beds at Heritage Farm

Seed Savers Exchange Projects

Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.

Heritage Farm

The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.

All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

How to Save Seeds from the Home Garden

Blackberry lily seeds are easy to find and save

As your plants flower and set seed and your fruit ripens on the vine, think of what you would like to save for next year. Saving seed can be easy and cost effective. In addition to saving seed to plant in your garden next year, you can give away seed packets as gifts or participate in seed swaps.

In order to save seeds, you have to separate the seeds from the fruit and dry them completely. If you strike a seed with a hammer and it shatters or if it snaps cleanly when bent, the seed is dry enough. When they are this dry, store in a cool, dark place in jars or put in envelopes. Always label with a plant name and date.

There are two methods for separating and cleaning the seed depending on the plant. Use the dry method for seeds that are in dried flowers, dried husks, or dried pods like beans, peas, grains, okra, marigolds, cone flowers, calendula, dianthus, basil, mustards, lettuce, kale, dill, fennel (any member of the carrot/dill family and the brassica/broccoli family). Use the wet method when the seeds are imbedded in the fleshy fruit, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, and eggplant.

Dry Method of Saving Seeds

Usually the plant has more than one flower head, each with their own timeline of flowering and setting seeds. During the summer, when the individual flower head has dried or when most of the seeds appear to be dried, cut the seed head and put in a paper bag. Cut when the stalks are brown at least an inch down from the seed head. Label the bag with the plant name and date. Continue to cut and save this way until you are ready to separate seed from fruit.

with nasturtiums, the flowers drop off and the seed will grow and become prominent months later

Some flowers, such as nasturtiums and four o’clocks, have a single flower that blooms and drops revealing a seemingly empty calyx. Soon though a seed will grow and become more prominent, making it easy to separate and save.

Beans and peas are fleshy so you can cut when the pod has become leathery or yellow and not completely dry. Let it continue to dry off the vine on a cookie sheet until the seeds rattle in the pods. For peppers, it is important to let the fruit ripen to the last color stage (many progress from green to red). For the cool season lovers such as greens (lettuce) and brassica family members such as kale, mustard, pak choi, cabbage, and broccoli, let the plant bolt (flower). Then cut and put in a bag.

Many seeds are also beautiful such as these Tiger beans

In the winter, when I can’t go outside and garden, I gather all my bags and sit down at the dining room table. I put the seed heads on a white dinner plate or a cookie sheet to make it easier to see the seeds and prevent them from rolling off the table. By this time, the seeds and husks are completely dry and I simply pull apart the seed from the husk on the plate. If it is easy to remove, like marigolds, I put the seeds in a glass jar. If it is a fine seed with a lot of husks, like pak choi, I thrash it around in a large paper bag so that the seed falls to the bottom. I pull out and throw away the stems and pods and dump out the seeds on a cookie sheet. I separate further on the plate or I use a sieve. If the seed has a lot of chaff, I continue to separate seed by screening with a sieve. Eventually I work my way down from large grocery bags to small jars.

Wet Method of Saving Seeds

For this method the fruit has to be very ripe. For pumpkins, squash, and melon, simply remove the seeds and rinse the stringy fruit parts off with water, straining with a colander. For eggplant, cut into cubes and cover with water for a day, stirring once. Squish the seeds out and clean off with water in a colander. If there are remaining seeds, repeat the process the next day to get the rest out. Put clean seeds on a cookie sheet and let dry.

Pumpkin seeds can be saved or eaten

For cucumbers, scoop seeds out and put in a jar. Add water and stir every day for 2 days. Strain to remove seeds and let dry on a cookie sheet.

For tomatoes, squeeze or cut up the flesh and put into a jar. Add enough water to be able to stir the mixture and to create volume for the pulp to separate from the seeds. I keep my jars in the kitchen out of direct light and stir daily for a few days. The tomatoes will ferment and will look gross but this process separates the seeds.

After a few days, the heavy seeds will sink to the bottom and the lighter seeds and pulp will float to the top. Skim off and throw away the top layer. Keep the heavy seeds, they are the ones that are viable. Keep adding water, swishing until the good drops down and the bad surfaces, and skim again. Keep doing this until the water is clear with good seeds at the bottom. Pour the mixture into a sieve and put the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry area, out of direct light. Every few hours, stir around until dry. You want them to dry quickly at this point in time because the moisture left on them may induce them to germinate. Once they seem dry, let them sit for several weeks until completely dry and then store in a glass jar.

Open Pollinated versus Heirloom Plants

When saving seeds, it is important to know if your plant is open-pollinated or a hybrid. If they are open pollinated, then the next generation will be the same. You will get the same plant with the same characteristics such as flower color or flavor. Heirlooms are open pollinated so you can save seeds of heirloom tomatoes and grow the same tomatoes each year.

If the plant is a hybrid, it was produced by crossing two genetically distinct parents. The hybrid was bred to have desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or better flavor. In seed catalogs, hybrids are often referred to as “F1”s – filial 1 hybrid. If you save the seed of this plant, the next generation may not retain the same desirable characteristics. You will get the same type of plant, but the plant may not be as tasty or not be resistant to a disease.

Try these simple methods to save seed for your own home garden or to give as gifts. Consider saving seeds for seed swaps with friends or local seed swap events.

Growing Burpee’s Tomatoes and Heirloom Tomatoes this Summer

Labor Day Weekend Haul of Tomatoes

I have always grown tomatoes from seed, simply because I like to grow plants from seed. Tomatoes are particularly easy, they germinate fast and are easy to grow. Each year I start different tomato seeds indoors under lights and end up with many to give away. My family of four loves fresh tomatoes in the summer so I grow at least half a dozen tomato plants in our Virginia backyard.

This spring, a representative from Burpee Home Gardens asked if I would like to grow several tomato plants that Burpee was going to introduce in 2018. I was intrigued. Since I have not bought tomato plants in years, I thought it would be interesting to see the difference between these hybrids and my plants. Burpee has been selling seed for over 140 years but they also sell plants and they offer both heirlooms and hybrids for some of their vegetables.

I had already started the heirloom Marglobe (determinate slicer) from a source other than Burpee (Burpee also sells this) and Chianti Rose (indeterminate beefsteak) from seed when Burpee had contacted me. In May, I planted my seedlings and Burpee’s plants, each with a 6-foot tall post. Deer came through once or twice in early summer so I was left with the following from Burpee: two Gladiators (indeterminate paste), two Oh Happy Day (indeterminate junior beefsteak), and one Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster (a determinate slicer and a cherry together). I also had two Marglobe and four Chianti Rose plants.

Heirloom Chianti Rose tomato

My two heirloom tomatoes are plants that have been grown from seed for generations. Heirlooms are usually passed down and have a story connected with them or are a family favorite. I could save the Marglobe or Chianti Rose seed, plant them next year, and get exactly the same type of plant. The Burpee plants are cultivars that have been bred to have particular characteristics. I could save the seed, plant them next year, and get tomatoes but they would not retain the same desired characteristics that Burpee had selected (usually disease resistance). Except for the annual deer visit, I don’t have a serious disease/pest problem in my garden with my plants.

Heirloom Marglobe, a determinate tomato plant

I do grow a combination of determinate and indeterminate tomato plants to space out my harvest. Indeterminate plants grow, bloom, and fruit over and over again until frost so you can harvest tomatoes throughout the summer. Determinate plants will stop growing when fruit sets on the top buds so the tomatoes ripen at the same time in a window of a few weeks.

As the summer progressed, I watered all the plants often with a hose, fertilized a few times, and strung the branches to the post with yarn (leftover from kids’ projects). This year, however, I felt that I had to keep stringing the tomatoes, more often than in the past. Every weekend I was stringing up the Gladiator and the Oh Happy Day plants to the stake and then having to string the branches up so they would not fall down. These two in particular were growing fast, with many branches and more weight. My yarn was becoming an aerial infrastructure just to keep branches up. My heirlooms were growing well but not as robust or as branched as these Burpee plants.

Burpee’s Gladiator paste tomato plant

In mid-August, I had harvested about 2 red tomatoes from the two Gladiator plants, which had about 10 green tomatoes on each plant. Gladiator is the first paste tomato plant that I have grown and it is firm enough for sandwiches and salads, not as wet and messy as the slicers or beefsteaks. Traditionally, paste tomatoes are used for pasta sauce and for dehydration so I plan to use these in our pasta sauce, chili, and bean stew. I would definitely use a cage next time; one stake is not enough. This particular type was bred to resist blossom end rot, which rarely occurs in my garden, but I did not see it on these plants.

Burpee’s Oh Happy Day with red tomato

The Oh Happy Day gave me a couple of red junior beefsteak tomatoes early in the season, which we used in salads and sandwiches. Anything that colors up early in the season is a plus in my book. In mid-August there were about 20 green tomatoes on each of the plants. This plant was very vigorous and again, I would use cages next time. The fruit clustered together, making it easy to simply twist a ripe one off the vine.

The Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster is a combination of a small cherry tomato, a yellow indigo, and a determinate red slicer. Although I planted these in the ground, I would recommend planting in a large container on the deck. The plants are only a few feet tall and would make a great conversation piece on the deck or patio. It would also make it easier for people to see the pretty yellow indigo tomatoes. By mid-August, I harvested about 10 yellow indigos and a red slicer but there were about 5 green slicers and a few more yellow indigos on the plant.

Yellow Indigo cherry from Burpee’s Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster plant

In mid-August, the Marglobe had a dozen green tomatoes on each plant. The plant seemed to be okay with the stake, it was not as heavily branched or as “viney” but then it is a determinate. Marglobe has very pretty fruit, red and round like a ball.

The Chianti Rose plants had about five green tomatoes on each plant. The Chianti Rose is not a pretty tomato, it is large and flattened, sort of an oblong beefsteak. It ripens to pink instead of red. Because the fruit is large, the plant bends under the weight. A cage would have been better, plus each plant took up a lot of space.

I have to confess I rarely have pests or diseases with my tomatoes so I did not notice any difference between Burpee’s plants and the heirlooms in this regard. I did notice that the Burpee plants had more vigor and growth so it would have been best to use cages for the Gladiator and the Oh Happy Day plants. They were large plants with many branches and more tomatoes than the Marglobe and Chianti Rose.  If I had to do it over again, I would have put the Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster in a container. All of the tomatoes tasted good and it was great to learn that the paste tomatoes could be used for sandwiches and salads as well as pasta sauces. I am sure Burpee will have these plants for sale at the local garden centers next year.

Next year, grow tomatoes in the garden or in a container. Nothing beats their fresh taste — summer in a bite!

Oh Happy Day grows in clusters, easy to pick

Epic Tomatoes, Epic Stories: Learning How to Grow Tomatoes in Virginia

Epic_TomatoesLast Sunday I had the good fortune to hear Craig LeHoullier speak about tomatoes at Green Spring Gardens, Alexandria, VA; part of the annual Harry Allen Winter Lecture Series. Armed with a PhD in chemistry, Craig used to work for a pharmaceutical company and always grew vegetables as a hobby. In 1986, bored with nursery-bought tomato plants, he tried starting heirloom tomatoes from seed and developed a passion for growing them.

That same year he joined the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. SSE members receive the annual SSE Yearbook, akin to the toy-filled Sears Wish Book that used to come out every Christmas. The Yearbook has over 13,000 types of seeds, 4,000 of which are tomatoes. Craig started growing these obscure types and corresponding with other gardeners who also shared “hand me down” tomato seeds.

Currently, Craig resides in Raleigh, NC, with his wife Susan who also was at Green Spring Gardens. In addition to growing heirlooms, Craig researches old types, collects old nursery catalogs, and exchanges seeds with other gardeners. For 10 years, he organized the Tomatopalooza, an annual tomato tasting event.

In his talk, Craig explained the history of tomatoes and how there were very few varieties up until the mid-1800s when the process for selecting desirable traits changed. Since then more types have become available so that now there are so many types, it’s hard to choose. He suggested considering two criteria:  first, hybrid, heirloom, or open pollinated; and second, indeterminate, determinate, or dwarf.Craig

Hybrids, he explained, are “a cross between two parents” and are bred for a particular characteristic. “Hybrids are good if you want maximum yield or you want to avoid a disease or if there is one that is so good, you can’t live without like ‘Sun Gold.’” Saving seed from a hybrid may not give you the same desired characteristics. With open pollinated types, the saved seed will produce successive generations with the same characteristics. Heirlooms are a type of open pollinated where the plants “have stood the test of time or have a story associated with them.” For him, an heirloom pre dates 1950 which is when Burpee produced the hybrid Big Boy. Thereafter, seed companies focused on selling hybrids. Open pollinated may or may not be heirlooms depending on how long people have grown them.

The second criterion depends on space. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow so tall they need staking but they produce wonderful fruit all season long.  The vast majority of heirlooms are indeterminate because the gene for short growth occurred around 1920. Determinate plants are “tomato machines,” they produce crop quickly, can be grown in pots, and may need short stakes or cages. Harvesting time is condensed but yields are great enough for canning or sauces. Dwarfs, his new project, provide the best of both, since they grow at half the rate of an indeterminate but bear fruits gradually with great flavor. Dwarfs are open pollinated but not heirlooms yet, they have not been grown for generations yet. He has been growing his dwarf plants in 5-gallon containers in a soil-less mix and they get as tall as 3 to 4 feet.

Craig described his dwarf tomato breeding project where he wanted to grow a container size plant that produced good tasting fruit. He started to work with Patrina Nuske Small in Australia and between the two hemispheres were able to combine two growing seasons in one calendar year. In 2006, they created a collaboration of more than 100 amateur gardeners across the world to produce new but stable dwarf varieties. To date, about 60 varieties have been produced and are sold through a few, small seed companies.

Craig illustrated how he grows many different types of tomatoes from seed at his home, using only fluorescent lights – he does not have a greenhouse. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, he recommends planting deep into the soil, “any part of the plant that is underground will root,” and mulching to prevent disease. Plant about 3 feet apart: “Spacing is important to increase sun and air circulation to prevent disease.” Watering from the bottom also is important to prevent diseases. He has many containers on his driveway full of fresh, soil-less mix every year – he does not re-use the mix in the containers in order to prevent diseases. He concluded his talk by briefly describing straw bale gardening, common tomato diseases, and saving seeds from fresh tomatoes.

I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Craig genuinely wants to help people learn how to grow great tasting tomatoes. Afterwards, he spent time answering questions and signing his two books, Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (both published by Storey Publishing). Check his website, http://www.nctomatoman.com or http://www.epictomatoes.com, for his lecture schedule and information on growing tomatoes.