Follow in Your Grandfather's Gardening Footsteps
Why not try something a little different this year? Plant some of the same seeds your great-great grandfather may have planted. Where can you get such jewels? They're easy to find now, thanks to the Southern Seed Legacy (SSL) Project.
The SSL Project began as a three-year project funded by the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE's southern office is at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences campus in Griffin, Ga.
The SSL Project's original goal was to preserve the diversity of Southern seeds. The project was led by UGA anthropologist Bob Rhodes and has received recognition from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for its efforts in maintaining agrodiversity.
Bringing Seed Savers Together
"Over the first three years, the project established a database of people who save seeds or want to save seeds," said Gwen Roland, information specialist for the Southern Region SARE program.
"The people in this database who provide seeds for the collection also bank their memories," she explained. "They describe how they remember the plant being grown, what it tastes like and any cultural information."
Memory banking involves more than just whether it was planted in hills rather than rows or that it needs a lot of water.
"It's more like how it was used in a holiday dish or other information that places it in a cultural setting," Roland said.
Contributors to the database come from across the southern states. One of the first contributors to the seed bank was 82-year-old Ernest Keheley of Marietta, Ga. He donated a host of heirloom seeds including Big Boy Bean, Blue Goose Bean, Hastings Cornfield Bean, Hercules Pea, Pink Eye Pea, Rattlesnake Bean and Red Ripper Pea.
In addition to his seeds, Keheley donated his memories that are attached to each variety and his tricks of the gardening trade. One of his tricks is a seed mixture of Hickory King Corn, Hastings Field Corn and three or four bean varieties. He says planting this mix is more efficient and the pole beans eventually climb up the cornstalks and use them for support.
More Than Just a Package of Seeds
Now that the project's original funding period is over, the database will keep running as a private entity. Through annual $10 memberships to the SSL network, gardeners get a quarterly newsletter, heirloom seeds to plant and discounts on SSL events such as the annual seed swap.
"There's also a wonderful teacher's kit available that guides teachers through introducing students to heirloom seeds and interviewing seed savers," said Roland. "You can also get a field manual for collecting and documenting seeds."
Roland cautions that joining SSL and getting heirloom seeds from their seed bank shouldn't be a hasty decision. "The seeds come with a commitment," Roland said. "If you go into seed saving, you have to be willing to follow through."
The Seeds Come With a Commitment
Recipients of the seeds must agree to keep detailed records of their plantings, including photos of the crops' performances in the field and in the kitchen. The grower also agrees to pass along a third of the harvested seeds to another gardener, give a third back to SSL for the seed bank and keep a third for their own enjoyment.
"This ensures the heirloom varieties will continue to multiply and be passed along," said Roland who joined the seed savers group this year. "I just received my first packet of Red and Back Field peas and I'm actually a little nervous. These seeds can be traced back to the 1800s, and suppose my guineas eat them!"
Aside from the historical aspect, what's so special about heirloom seeds? "Many of these seeds are open pollinated varieties," Roland said. "People grow them for a variety of reasons such as flavor or the ability to withstand adverse growing conditions."
Roland says most seed companies shy away from heirloom seeds, but there are some seed companies who specialize in them. "Heirloom seeds aren't patented," she said.
For more information or to join SSL, write to Southern Seed Legacy, c/o Agrarian Connections, 10 Legacy Road, Crawford, Ga. 30630 or visit the SSL Web site at www.uga.edu/ebl/ssl.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)