Like a Vintage Store for Your Garden

Seed Savers Exchange started in 1975 as a casual "send me yours and I'll send you mine" project between eco-minded growers who saved seeds. It has evolved into a bulwark against the extinction of heirloom species. Seed Savers now stores thousands of seeds, sells seeds to growers and at retail, and runs several farms that grow heirloom breeds of produce and animals. Membership manager Shannon Carmody took the time to answer some questions for CHOW.

What are people buying a lot of these days?

Well, a lot of everything. Every year we sell more seeds. This year was bigger than last year, which was bigger than the year before. We usually sell out of garlic every year, too, and carrots were big for us this year. People liked the dragon carrot a lot—that's purple/red outside and orange inside, and it keeps its color when it's cooked.

Tomatoes are very popular, naturally, because what you can grow at home is so superior to what you buy in the stores. People like the colored varieties: purple, green. I know someone who runs an urban gardening program and she grows green tomatoes so people won't realize they're ripe and steal them. I'm fond of the Wapsipinicon, which is yellow and fuzzy like a peach.

What about lettuces?

I love the Forellenschuss lettuce; that's one you don't see in stores. It's a nice romaine with big leaves and it's very crispy, with good flavor and texture.

You have some interesting varieties I've never heard of in your catalog. Like prickly caterpillars.

You don't eat those; they're just funny ground cover. They get these little curlicues that people used to put in salads in the Victorian age to freak people out.

How long will seeds keep? Do they ever "go bad"?

Well, a tomato seed, in perfect storing conditions, can last close to 50 years. That time is variable, of course, depending on the seed, but basically keeping seeds cold and dry is the key. Seeds are living things; by storing we're just slowing down their metabolic processes. Eventually, a seed that's been stored too long is no longer viable.

So if the seeds are only viable for a certain length of time, how do you maintain your stock?

Eventually, you have to grow new plants and take seed from them. We have a gene bank here, so everything stored has a backup system. We have many thousands of types of seeds, so growing plants from every type every year is unrealistic. Many plants need a lot of space; sunflowers, you have to isolate them by two miles or else they might cross-pollinate. And then your seed is no longer pure; it's a hybrid, which is more unpredictable than an heirloom seed.

We used to grow on a ten-year cycle, growing each plant every decade, but now we're getting more scientific, and we are always testing our seeds. If we know, say, that this variety of apple seed usually germinates at the rate of 80 percent and the germination rate starts dropping when we test, we know it's time to grow that seed. If the rate stays steady, we can hold off on growing that one.

Why do you still make the directory of other growers with seeds available? Seems like it would take business away from you.

For one thing, most of the seeds we offer retail are for vegetables—things like the Brandywine tomato, that's a popular heirloom, things that large numbers of people can grow. But in the yearbook, we have 700 listed members with about 13,000 unique varieties of seed, so there are lots of specialized seeds, more interesting and unusual things. You can also find growers with heirlooms in your area, so the plants might have acclimated to the weather and the pests, and they might be more successful than something you bought retail that was less specialized. Our mission is to get rare seeds saved. However you get those seeds, if you buy them from a rack or if you trade with another grower, if the plants are getting grown, we've done our job. The seeds are saved.

For more on seed saving and heirloom vegetables, watch our Obsessives video with Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.