Until the late 19th century, all gardeners saved seed as a matter of necessity. Each year, they harvested seeds from the plants displaying the most desirable characteristics. A gardener might "select" the slowest-bolting lettuce plant, for example, or the longest-keeping onion plant, or the tomato plant that was the earliest to set flowers.
In time, this grassroots selection process yielded varieties well adapted to local climate and soil conditions and progressively more resistant to local insects and diseases. Most importantly, seed saving enabled gardeners to select for flavor. That's a priceless opportunity today, when hybridizers increasingly breed for qualities that have absolutely nothing to do with taste. Instead, they favor plants that can be easily harvested with big machinery -- unripe -- and ripened later, during shipping.
The first winter after we moved to this area, I did some scrambling to beg for some seed that had been grown locally for a number of years. My early favorite came from an older carpenter named Jim whom I met on a job site. He gave me a couple of dozen seeds for a tomato that he'd been growing in these mountains since he was a little boy. I asked the name of the variety, and Jim replied in his heavy Southern drawl, "I don't know, it's just an old-timey tomater that Granny grew up in Madison County." In spite of the blight, which took out several other, larger tomatoes, my Madison County Old-Timey (as I came to call it) performed very well. It was on the small side, but it set fruit early, had firm flesh and tasted great.
The seeds that Jim gave me were what are known as "heirlooms" -- seeds that get planted, harvested and saved each year so the selection process can continue. Over decades, as the best plants are annually singled out to be saved for seed, the variety more rigidly conforms to whatever that particular gardener is looking for. Though the process is basic botany, it is anything but scientific. More accurately, this simple attention to the characteristics that a vegetable gardener wants to perpetuate is culinary; in the case of flowers, it is aesthetic.
Like most gardeners, I read and experiment a lot. I am endlessly fascinated by the wheel of life that's turning under our feet in healthy soil, and I never tire of educating myself about it. Figuring out contraptions that modify the growing environment in the garden is great fun. And talking shop with other gardeners is always pleasurable. But what stirs me the most is hearing about heirlooms that others have created.
I guess it's the unassuming frankness of heirloom development that inspires me. An heirloom seed represents the efforts of an unconnected, grassroots network of people -- perhaps spanning many centuries -- who, in the midst of going about their daily lives, are slowly, year by year, helping make a better green bean or cucumber or squash. And all for the simple pleasure of enjoying better-tasting food. If you talk to old-time gardeners and ask about memorable varieties that they knew as children, you'll invariably hear about a specific veggie that some relative grew; and the memory is always strong, because it's linked to flavor. There's no such thing as an heirloom vegetable that doesn't taste great.
There are many tales of immigrants who embarked for America seeking new opportunities. Some of those folks came with little more than the clothes on their back, but even they had room to carry the seeds of vegetable varieties that had been in their families for many years. The descendants of those treasured seeds account for the bulk of the heirlooms in America today. Bringing seeds to America reminds me of those stories about people who rush back into a burning house to save family photos while letting the big-ticket stereo system melt. When push comes to shove, people save the things that are really important.
My own awareness of heirlooms stems from reading about Kent Whealy's preservation efforts. In the early 1970s, Whealy and his wife moved to the northeast corner of Iowa, where they immediately started their first garden. An elderly neighbor gave these rookies advice, encouragement and the seeds of three plants: a large, pink German tomato; a small, delicate morning glory with a red star in its throat; and a strong-climbing, prolific pole bean. Those seeds had come from Bavaria with the neighbor's ancestors four generations before. The old man passed away that winter, and Whealy realized that it was up to him to help those seeds survive.
He began wondering how many other families had seeds that had been handed down to them. And he wondered how often varieties that had been bred throughout a gardener's lifetime were lost after that gardener's eventual demise. So he started placing classified ads in back-to-the-earth and gardening magazines, and the response was overwhelming.
Whealy began growing out and cataloging seeds. His seed collection grew and grew, and he began asking friends to grow out some varieties every couple of years to help him maintain viable seed stock for storage. This grassroots effort spawned the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (Route 3, Decorah, IA 52101). For a $30 annual membership fee, you get the roster of members and more than 6,000 listings of mostly antique, open-pollinated varieties available by trading with other seed-savers. Members also receive 150-page summer and harvest editions, each of which is rich with plant profiles and histories of SSE's finest heirlooms, selected articles, interviews and news about genetic-preservation projects. There's also a Flower and Herb Exchange.
The remarkable thing is that seeds continue to make their way to America with immigrants. There are huge numbers of stories about seeds arriving on our shores sewn in the hems of clothing, or stashed in the linings of suitcases. It probably gives the USDA quarantine people migraines, but it's happening nonetheless. The SSE has seeds descended from those brought over on the Mayflower, as well as seeds brought over from Laos by boat people.
Whealy and his staff have ventured into rugged backwoods in the Smokies and the Ozarks and found treasure troves of varieties that have been saved and improved on for many generations. The Seed Exchange has also developed relationships with Amish, Dunkard and Mennonite gardeners. And slowly, very slowly, trusting relationships have been built with Native American traditionalists who have allowed the SSE network to increase the number of sacred and traditional seeds available.
There are other networks too. The Native Seeds/Search (2509 N. Campbell, No. 325, Tucson, AZ 85719) preserves seeds of native crops of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Closer to home, local herbalist Joe Hollis, who grows Chinese medicinal herbs, has launched the Permaculture Seed and Plant Exchange (3020 Whiteoak Creek Road, Burnsville, NC 28714), which focuses on saving tubers, seeds, roots, perennials and self-sowing annuals of useful species.
The incredible diversity of Nature gives gardeners constant opportunities to create their own heirlooms. And the wonderful thing about selection is that you can look at a plant and see what it is that you're saving. It doesn't take all that long to get the plant you want, either.
My pals Mike and Polly grow a garlic on their Rhode Island farm that came from a single oddball head Polly noticed. It contained seven large cloves, but none of the skinny ones you see so much in store-bought garlic. The resulting heads are small, but the extra-large cloves make this a very worthwhile variety to grow. That one anomaly garlic head was a needle in a haystack, but Polly found it because she was looking for unique and healthy seed stock for the next year's crop. And local gardener Je Widenhouse grows what he calls "Super Marizano" -- a gigantic paste tomato that he helped create by growing an old Italian paste tomato called "Marizano" and selecting for size.
It's the start of a new gardening season -- the perfect time to begin crafting your own heirlooms. Check the seed racks at your local supplier and buy open-pollinated seeds (many vendors even offer heirloom seeds). Then, as your plants grow this season, think about which ones are exhibiting the characteristics you wish to save. It's an easy way to become part of a grassroots tradition that stretches back thousands of years.