By Dr. Susan Hamilton
As a gardener, the early days of autumn remind me that our ancestors had to exercise extreme care when their gardens were done for the year. Only in relatively recent times have gardeners been able to receive seed catalogs in the mail or purchase seeds at their favorite garden store or website. Historically, seeds had to be preserved each fall to ensure that a life-sustaining crop could be planted the following spring.
Reasons to preserve seeds
Today, seed preservation is a popular hobby. Some preserve seeds because the plants came from their granddaddy’s garden. Some preserve seeds because the historic varieties are better suited for home use. And everyone who plants heritage vegetables claims they just taste better.
Although I, too, enjoy the flavor of old-fashioned beans, I have a friend who is absolutely passionate about specific bean varieties and about preserving heritage seeds.
Growing a passion for heirlooms
I first met John Coykendall several years ago when he volunteered to work in the University of Tennessee Gardens.
I quickly realized that he knew more about vegetable gardening than I did, so I asked him to be responsible for our heirloom vegetable garden.
John maintains seed lines that date back to pioneer days. From beans to field peas, corn, squash, pumpkins and, of course, tomatoes, John grows practically every vegetable and preserves its seeds. Often he plants theme gardens, such as a garden that re-creates those planted by the pioneers that settled Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. He plants one pumpkin variety whose seeds were a gift to the starving pioneers from sympathetic natives. The pioneers ate some of the seeds during the winter and planted the remainder in the spring.
Another of his favorite themes demonstrates a typical garden maintained by slaves in the Old South. Heritage selections of peanuts and okra abound.
Where to plant heritage varieties
A purist when it comes to seed preservation, John cautions home gardeners who plan to preserve their own seeds to grow one variety of a vegetable at a time and not to grow a heritage variety near modern selections.
“The problem is cross-pollination,” he says. “Once a seed is crossed, the original true-to-type variety has been genetically altered.”
To grow multiple varieties and maintain seed purity, John says you have to have lots of space. Lima beans need a distance of one mile in commercial plantings to prevent cross-pollination. Pepper and beans cross less readily, and in home plantings need to be separated by 620 feet and 75 feet, respectively.
5 Sources for Heirloom Seeds
If you like the idea of preserving history through your garden, John recommends you check out these online sources for heritage seeds:
• Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, is the standard in seed preservation. Seed Savers grows thousands of heirloom varieties in certified organic fields. (John has about 70 listings in their catalog.)
• The Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy, Richmond, Ky., collects and preserves heirloom crops and the sustainable agricultural practices of the middle-Appalachian states.
• The Southern Seed Legacy Project, managed by the University of Georgia, aims to preserve genetic diversity among the region’s crops.
• Seeds of Change, Gila, N.M., is dedicated to preserving biodiversity and promoting sustainable, organic agriculture.
• Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Va, emphasizes heritage varieties adapted to the mid-Atlantic region.