Many heirlooms were created in places with warmer summers and longer growing seasons. Growing heirlooms in our short season is a challenge. Growing them here will take a season-extension effort so they can be planted as early as possible in the spring and protected from frost in the fall. That means using some floating row cover and PVC pipe to cover the plants through the end of June and then covering them again in late August as the crop ripens.
Brandywine tomatoes are popular here for their incredible flavor. According to the catalog, the tomato was named for Brandywine Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and introduced to the seed trade by Johnson and Stokes Seed Co. in 1889. Brandywine is an 80-day tomato that will need protection to ripen.
Another one is Blacktail Mountain watermelon which was developed by Seed Savers Exchange member, Glenn Drowns in the 1970s in North Idaho. It is a 65- to 75-day melon that does well in cool nights down to 43 degrees. I’ve grown this one and if we get a hot summer it does well.
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One of the better catalogs for heirloom vegetables and fruit is the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit based in Iowa. For 45 years, the exchange has been preserving old varieties of seed from around the world and making them available to gardeners. It also maintains a seed bank to preserve the seed genetics and a forum where you can share your seeds. Check them out at seedsavers.org.
Speaking at last month’s Bioneers conference in San Rafael, Kent Whealy said the deterioration of rural economies is forcing young people off the land, leaving only elderly gardeners to maintain these plants. As this older generation passes away, these strains and their genetic heritage will be lost, unless organizations like the SSE come to the rescue.
(The SSE defines “heirlooms” as those seeds grown, collected and passed from generation to generation, as opposed to commercially bred hybrids whose seeds cannot be used again either because they’re sterile or because they may produce a plant that has little resemblance to its parent.)
The farm is a sanctuary where the organization can permanently maintain and display endangered collections of fruits, vegetables and seeds. The organization has also launched a traditional seed catalog with which you can buy seeds directly from the SSE, as opposed to buying them from the gardeners featured in the yearbook. More than half the seeds offered in the catalog are grown on the farm.
There’s a native Mexican lima, ‘Mecatlan, ‘ said to come “from the Totonac Indian village of Mecatlan in the state of Vera Cruz.” And, tellingly, the description for ‘Chicken Lettuce’ reads, “Please save the seeds and reoffer them; can’t find it listed anyplace [else],” summing up the essence of the SSE — if people aren’t growing chicken lettuce or those 254 varieties of snap beans, they’ll disappear.
Heirloom seeds must be grown and regenerated for the species to survive. You can’t simply store the seeds for posterity, because they’ll eventually lose their fertility and the line will die out.
And who cares if there are no photos? The descriptions for each seed are tiny little vignettes tracing its history. The listing for the ‘Alte Weisse Cottbus’ bean mentions that it came “from E. Germany, south of Berlin, around the town of Cottbus, my birthplace. Seed from my great-aunt Berta, 1960, in her family since about 1920.”
The SSE yearbook carries everything from amaranth to wheat, with Chinese cabbage, flax, peppers and rhubarb in between. The miscellaneous section, which starts with ‘Alexanders’ — “used instead of celery in the Middle Ages” — and ends with yucca, will keep you entertained throughout the long winter nights.