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tomato seeds--Long Tom-Barnes Mt Red-Cherry - BLOG

tomato seeds–l to r, Long Tom, Barnes Mountain Red, Cherry

Seeds aren’t always what we think they are. They are part of our world, which is always changing, so it is logical to think that seeds change over time, also. We can take great care to keep seed varieties pure, or mostly so, and then find out things happened that we didn’t expect. That’s life.

We can’t always tell by just looking at seeds how they will express themselves. Here are seeds for three varieties of tomatoes I am planting this year. One is a cherry tomato that is large by today’s cherry tomato standards, red, and has a real tomato taste, not sweet like the newer varieties. I used to grow these for restaurant sales more than 20 years ago. One variety is for Long Tom tomatoes. Long Tom is a very meaty variety that grows to an oblong shape weighing about 4 ounces. It is great for drying and has few seeds.

The third variety is for a tomato I call Barnes Mountain Red. It is a large red meaty tomato with great taste and good for all uses. A few years ago my daughter, Betsy, received seeds for Barnes Mountain Pink to grow out for a seed company. Unbeknownst to the seed company, the variety wasn’t stable and the seeds produced yellow, pink, and red tomatoes. The seeds for the pinks went back to the seed company with the instability noted. Betsy loved the yellows and saved the seed, wanting to work with it when time allowed. I am not big on off-colored tomatoes, but loved the red ones, so I saved the seed from some of those. I was happy they produced red tomatoes for me. (Many of the varieties in my garden have some sort of story connected to them.) Each of these tomato varieties is much different than the others, but you can’t tell that by looking at their seeds, except that there are always fewer seeds from the Long Toms and in this photo they look a bit darker.

You know that I have been working with cotton, specifically Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green. Betsy grows seeds for four seed companies and this year the seeds she agreed to grow for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange included Nankeen Brown cotton. I happened to be around when she opened the box of seeds she had received from Southern Exposure and had the opportunity to take a peek at the cotton, expecting to see dark seeds with no lint, otherwise known as naked seeds. To my surprise, they were fuzzy!

Nankeen Brown Cotton--SESE-Sunfield-BLOG

Nankeen Brown Cotton seeds–from Southern Exposure on left, my seeds (now called Sunfield Brown) on right.

I first grew what I know as Nankeen Brown in my garden in 2005 and saved the seed. I still have the seed container labeled 2005 in my stash. I didn’t grow them out again until 2011 when I also grew Erlene’s Green. There was eventually some crossing that I will tell you about when I write about my Cotton Project. Every year since, the darkest brown fiber had seeds that were naked. If the fiber was lighter brown, it had crossed with the green and the seeds were fuzzy. To my best recollection, I bought the seeds from Southern Exposure and even remember there was a story about a Nankeen shirt connected with that variety.

The folks at Southern Exposure are friends of mine, so I contacted them questioning what they had sent. Anything they could find on Nankeen Brown indicated it had fuzzy seeds. They didn’t start working with Sea Island Brown, which has naked seeds, until 2008, so I wouldn’t have gotten those seeds. Although I keep many records, including seed invoices, I can’t seem to find the file from 2005. What a conundrum! Until now I would have sworn I was working with Nankeen Brown and it had naked seeds. I don’t know what happened there, but life goes on. I am renaming my brown cotton Sunfield Brown, since Sunfield is the name of our very small farm.

Most varieties don’t expose themselves like cotton does. Visual inspection doesn’t reveal differences. Seed companies do their best to make sure the seeds you receive are what they say they are. I have heard stories about gardeners having ordered seeds that grew out to be different than advertised. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. The companies are dependent on their growers, who farm in a variety of areas, most likely with different soils and more or less a different climate than you are gardening in. I’m sure the growers work to ensure cross pollination doesn’t happen. However, anything can happen from seed, to plant, to seed that is distributed—and it does. Of course, this doesn’t explain what happened in the cotton mix-up. What a conundrum about that cotton.

We can get tied up in names of varieties, complete with detailed descriptions of what they will look and taste like and how they will grow. Personally, I don’t think the same variety of anything would grow the same in different climates and different soils, even within the same region. What matters most is how it grows in your garden. Discover what you want to produce, and experiment with varieties until you come close. Then save the seeds each year to have a strain of that variety that is acclimated to your soil, weather, and gardening habits. Seeds contain a whole history in their genes and you can bring out what works best for you. Then name it what you want. However it came to be that you grew that variety is your story and now you can give it a name.

coldframe seedlings--tomatoes-peppers-zinnias - BLOG

Peppers are coming up in front of the tomatoes in the coldframe.

So as not to be too far from what you started with, you might include the name of the original variety in your new name. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog carries a tomato variety called Roma VF Virginia Select, a strain of Roma VF that Pam Dawling developed at Twin Oaks Community near Louisa, Virginia. You probably know that peppers like warm conditions to germinate, but I have two pepper varieties that germinate well in the cooler soil of a coldframe—Ruffled Hungarian and Corno di Toro. I have not renamed them, but have been saving my own seeds and growing them in the coldframe for years. I donated seeds to my local seed library. I would love to see seed libraries stocked with varieties of seeds that are acclimated to their area and contain descriptions of what the local growers experienced. No matter what you call it, if it grows well in your garden, that is all that matters.homeplace earth

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Grant Olson, education coordinator of Seed Savers Exchange

Grant Olson, education coordinator of Seed Savers Exchange

Sunday (September 8, 2013) I attended the first ever gathering of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) members in the southeast region of the U.S. It made for a busy weekend, since some of us had been involved in the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello the previous day or two. In fact, that is why this SSE event was scheduled for this particular day, thinking that it would be convenient for folks who had traveled to the Heritage Harvest Festival. It turned out that the majority of the more than 85 people present showed up just for this. I don’t have any specifics, but I know that some came from afar. I should have paid more attention to the out-of-state license plates that I saw in the parking area, but I do know that some of the other states represented besides Virginia were Ohio, Maryland, and North Carolina. I’m sure there were more. This meeting was the brainchild of Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Ira’s passion is connecting folks with seed saving and everything it involves.

Grant Olson, education coordinator at SSE, gave a presentation about stories behind the seeds. There is a lot of talk about saving seeds and how to do that, but it is also important to save the stories that go with the seeds. That is part of our heritage. Preserving the stories is preserving our cultural history, besides the genetics of the seeds. Preserving the stories is a big part of what Seed Savers Exchange is all about. In addition, when you save a particular variety, you also preserve the cuisine that has developed around it. Seed Savers Exchange publishes a seed catalog that offers only a fraction of the seed varieties that they preserve. Many more varieties can be found in the yearbook that they publish each year. The yearbook lists varieties that are offered by members. Anyone can order seeds from the catalog, but the print copy of the yearbook is only offered to SSE members. However, a peek into the yearbook online is now available to everyone and can be accessed at https://exchange.seedsavers.org. If you are not a member you can see what’s there, but you can’t see who is offering it. A notice on this website indicates there will be a webinar on how to use the new online exchange on September 18, 2013. This new database is searchable by geographical area, variety, and other specifics. The webinar at http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Webinar-Archive/#yearbook shows how to use the print yearbook. Membership in SSE helps them continue their work. If you are not a member, a peek at the yearbook just might entice you to join. Members receive the quarterly publication The Heritage Farm Companion.

Edmund speaking to seed savers at Twin Oaks.

Edmund speaking to seed savers at Twin Oaks.

Member Craig LeHoullier spoke after Grant. He also mentioned reuniting people with their heritage through what we grow and eat. A big concern of Craig’s (and mine) is how to keep the momentum going in seed saving. There are too many accounts of long-time seed savers who are getting on in years, or their life has changed, and they need to turn over the responsibility of their seed collections to someone else. Seed Savers Exchange can’t do it all. Connecting more seed savers, such as with this meeting, and developing regional hubs would be a start for not letting these collections disappear. I have begun to do some research on seed libraries and believe they may be an ideal place to help fill this need. Of course, these efforts involve the work of many gardeners, such as you, to take care to follow the necessary guidelines to carry on the traits needed for each variety.

Irena explaining techniques to seed savers.

Irena explaining techniques to seed savers.

The afternoon was spent touring farms in Louisa County, VA. This part of the day was sponsored by the Virginia Association of Biological Farming. There were five farms on the list, but my daughter and I only made it to three. These were all farms that grow seed on a commercial scale for seed catalogs. First up was Twin Oaks Community. Edmund Frost showed us around the seed fields and cut open a watermelon that we ate on the spot. Our visit with Edmund was about seed saving, but if you would like to know more about how they grow enough food to feed the 100 residents of Twin Oaks, check out Pam Dawling’s book Sustainable Market Gardening. Pam heads up the food garden at Twin Oaks.

Ira in the flower garden at Acorn.

Ira in the flower garden at Acorn.

The next stop was Acorn Community, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Irena Hallowell was our tour guide, explaining seed saving techniques and encouraging us to sample things as we went along. Ira Wallace led us to the flower gardens and demonstrated saving flower seeds using seed screens. An added treat was seeing the progress on the new building being constructed at Acorn.

Alexis explaining the drying cabinet.

Alexis explaining the drying cabinet.

The last stop we had time for was Living Energy Farm, a farm being developed with the goal of being free of fossil fuel. It was a really busy day for them, managing tour visitors in the midst of laying cement block for the foundation of their first house on the property. Nevertheless, Alexis Zeigler , author of Integrated Activism, showed us the seed fields and their drying shed. The fan for the drying cabinet you see in the picture is powered by the sun. The farms we had to miss are All Farm Organics (no website) and Forrest Green Farm. At All Farm Organics William Hale grows grain, including rye and popcorn, for seed companies and makes compost on a commercial scale for his use and to sell. The diversity at Forrest Green Farm includes an educational component. If we had had time to get there, I believe we would have seen a demonstration on saving seeds from herbs.

It was a good day. We hung out with old friends and met some new ones. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a southeast regional gathering of seed savers. We need gatherings like this in every region. Most of us have a vision of how we would like the earth to be. Every bite we take and every action we make determines how the earth is used to produce our food. We are the creators of our future—a future that needs to include seed saving.Homeplace Earth

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