Saturday, January 3, 2009

Heirlooms in the Garden

I’m still harvesting potatoes and cabbages from the garden. (And I’ve discovered that Savoy cabbage is the cold-hardiest of the lot.) The garlic I planted a couple of months ago sent up green shoots and seems content. The garden is anything but dormant.

Nevertheless, this is a slow time for gardening and a good time to think about the planting season soon to arrive. I don’t need to be convinced of the value and wisdom in growing old-timey vegetable varieties. I just need to walk the talk more deliberately than I have in the past. That means ordering seeds now, rather than waiting until the day I need to plant.

Ethnobotanist activist Gary Nabhan edited what I consider one of the most beautiful, unique and significant books of 2008, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods. During his talk in Highlands last summer, he mentioned that the Southern Appalachian region, thanks to its natural and cultural history, is the single richest lode of food-crop diversity on the continent. I went online to tap into some of this abundance for my own garden and here’s what I found:

Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Berea, KY

According to the Center’s Bill Best, a foremost collector and curator of old-timey varieties, North Carolina has yielded up more of those heritage crops than any other state, with Kentucky coming in second:

Our total number of heirloom bean varieties continues to grow, now totaling over 400… The total now includes over thirty greasy bean varieties. We now have about thirty Appalachian heirloom tomato varieties and are also getting more each year. We specialize in Southern Appalachian heirlooms, but many of our best and purest seeds have come from many states where Appalachian people have migrated to for work. Many individuals living far from where they were raised held on to their family beans and regional beans as well and are often anxious to share them. Some states from which we have received beans include Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

For the year 2009 we have forty-one heirloom bean seed varieties for sale and ten varieties of heirloom tomato seeds. We also have one heirloom field pea and are offering a "bean medley" packet.

South Carolina Foundation Seed Association, Clemson, SC

We are very happy to offer seed of several non-hybrid vegetable varieties from the collection of Dr. David Bradshaw (Retired) Horticulture Dept., Clemson University . Professor, researcher, speaker and avid gardener, Dr. Bradshaw has been collecting heirloom varieties for many years. Most of the varieties in his collection are grown at the display garden area of The South Carolina Botanical Gardens, Clemson , SC. Guests are invited to visit the gardens when in the area. The garden lies 11 miles from I-85 via US Highway 76 and is open to the public 365 days per year from sunup to sundown. For more information call 864-656-3405. A portion of the funds collected from seed sales will be used to support Dr. Bradshaw's efforts.

For any gardener who loves language almost as much as food, the names of these varieties are delectable:

Shantyboat Butterbeans
Willow Butterbeans
Blue Tip Beans
Calypso Beans
Red Calico Butterbeans
Turkey Gizzard Beans
Rattlesnake Beans
Choppee Okra
Red Ripper Field Peas
Whippoorwill Pea

Appalachian Seeds Company, Burnsville, NC

We grow and sell an eclectic selection of plants, produce, seeds and minor breed animals. Our specialty has always been heirloom tomato seeds and heirloom tomato plants.

Again, what fabulous names for tomatoes:

Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red
Box Car Willie
Break O' Day
Garden Peach
Golden Delight
Jaunne Flamee
Jersey Devil
Mortgage Lifter (Grandpa Charlie's)
White Queen
Yellow Perfection

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, VA

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has become a tradition in its own right, offering more than 500 varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers, and other seeds.The catalog includes lots of historical information.

We specialize in heirloom seeds because we believe that people, vegetables, and the communities that encompass them will all be healthier if we step back towards the older system. There is a huge need for a return to this healthy way to live today. We believe that people as a whole will be happier and healthier if they grow their own produce or purchase their produce from small local growers. Moreover, people deserve that the varieties selected for this production be locally adapted and delicious. In the world of heirloom seeds and nursery stock, there is a huge wealth of such carefully selected varieties for every bioregion in the world. This is not to say that wonderful open pollinated varieties are not today being developed, but as a matter of principal and practicality, it makes a lot of sense to preserve all the work that has already been done.

The word "Heirloom" is not an officially defined word (as the word "Organic" is). In other words, it is left up to the people using it to state what they mean. When we state that a variety is an heirloom, we mean that it is an open pollinated variety developed before 1940.

I can say already that the challenge is not in finding the heirlooms, but in narrowing down my selections.

One other site can help immensely with locating hard-to-find vegetable varieties. Mother Earth News Seed and Plant Finder lets you quickly search the online catalogs of more than 500 mail order seed companies. All you have to do is type in the variety you're looking for in the search box, and you'll get a list of links to the companies offering the variety.

Finally, I note an article by James R. Vetero published in Agriculture and Human Values in January 2008. Here’s the abstract of The History and Survival of Traditional Heirloom Vegetable Varieties in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina:

Southern Appalachia is unique among agroecological regions of the American South because of the diverse environmental conditions caused by its mountain ecology, the geographic and commercial isolation of the region, and the relative cultural autonomy of the people that live there. Those three criteria, combined with a rich agricultural history and the continuance of the homegardening tradition, make southern Appalachia an area of relatively high crop biodiversity in America. This study investigated the history and survival of traditional heirloom vegetable crops in western North Carolina and documented 134 heirloom varieties that were still being grown. I conducted interviews with 26 individuals from 12 counties in western North Carolina. I used a snowball sampling method to identify individuals or communities that maintained heirloom vegetable varieties, and used the "memory banking" of farmers’ knowledge as a strategy to complement the gathering of seed specimens. Most of the varieties were grown and saved by home gardeners; beans were the most numerous. Results indicate that usually only one or two individuals in a community maintained significant numbers of heirloom varieties and that many communities have lost their heirloom vegetable heritage altogether. The decline of the farming population combined with a lack of cultural continuance in family seed-saving traditions threatens the ability of communities to maintain crop biodiversity. Some of the cultivars may represent the last (small) populations of endangered varieties.

James R. Veteto is currently a PhD student in Ecological and Environmental Anthropology at the University of Georgia. He has a BA in anthropology and English from the University of Georgia (1998) and an MA in Appalachian studies with a concentration in sustainable development from Appalachian State University (2005). He is interested in agricultural anthropology, ethnoecology, ethnobotany, agrobiodiversity, agroecology, and origins of agriculture. His work focuses on the documentation and preservation of southern Appalachian heirloom vegetable varieties. He has also worked as an organic farmer and garden educator.

I learned a lot from the article. "Greasy cutshort" beans are nothing new to me. I knew that "greasy" referred to the slick sheen of their pods, but I'd never thought much about the "cutshort" part of their name. Vetero explains that in some beans the seeds are so tightly packed in the pod that their ends are squared off (as opposed to the typical rounded seed shape). Thus, they're called cutshorts.

The full text of Mr. Vetero’s article is available online at:


Christopher C. NC said...

This is very good info to have. It inspires me to make a list and start ordering some seeds NOW.

My return to vegetable gardening last year with starts from the bigbox nurseries and seeds from the kindness of internet friends was very successful considering I was learning how to grow things in a totally new climate zone at 4000 feet in elevation. Already I want a greenhouse/coldframe so I can grow my own starts instead of the usuals from the bigbox stores. Getting locally adapted heirlooms seeds that are direct sown will be easier to accomplish.

This post will help in that endeavour.

GULAHIYI said...

I've been wavering over greenhouse vs. coldframe. I already have siding, roofing and lots of glass from patio door units, so I'm leaning toward a solar greenhouse in one corner of the garden, approx. 10' x 16'. If I go for it, I'll post some pictures. Anything to extend the season a few weeks in spring and fall can make a huge difference toward year-round food production. I went to a good workshop at Clemson presented by someone using grenhouses in Korea to grow watermelon 11 months of the year, so there's plenty of potential.

Good luck to you with the vegetable garden.