The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Seed Sources: Let the Seed Hunting Season Begin!

As is typical for me on a drizzly day when I am looking for ways to procrastinate, I have been thinking about next year's garden. There is no better time than a cold, rainy day to sit inside by the fire thumbing through seed catalogs, either of the paper variety or in the vast seed catalog of the internet.

I came across this amazing list of heirloom seed sources while searching for heirloom pea varieties that we could grow for dry split peas. It's a detailed and dense listing of seed sources, including quite a few I had never heard of. One exciting example: The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center -- a nonprofit organization that preserves Southern Appalachian heirloom varieties. Don't let their very low-tech-looking website deter you from exploring their bean catalog and checking out their articles on Southern Appalachian heirloom seeds. They apparently steward more than 300 bean varieties, including quite a few "Greasy Bean" varieties!

This is the sort of thing I get fired up about. If you can't relate to excitement over greasy beans, consider this: some experts say there is no commercial source for genuine heirloom greasy beans. Greasy beans are a distinct type of bean with a long Cherokee heritage. They have been a staple of the Southern Appalachian diet for countless generations and still maintain cult status in the mountains of western North Carolina. There are varieties specific to certain hollers, families, and communities that have never been grown outside those small circles. Bean seed experts and mountain old timers will tell you that true greasy bean seed is only available through seed swaps, passed from hand-to-hand by gardeners and farmers, and from people and organizations dedicated to preserving family and community heirloom seeds from this region.

I love growing Southern Appalachian heirlooms, particularly varieties that can be traced back to the indigenous agriculture of what is now western North Carolina. These are plants cultivated by pre-colonization Cherokee people and their ancestors in these mountains for thousands of years.

On a practical level, these varieties have an advantage in my North Carolina mountain garden because they are cultivars that evolved over generations to thrive in this particular spot on the planet, with its specific climate and conditions. On a more abstract level, it feels like a restoration or a homecoming of some sort to grow these seeds in this place. These are plants that came from here, and that were treasured, cherished, valued as part of the living wealth of communities in these mountains for thousands of years. Planting them in the soil of the Swannanoa Valley, where people have grown food for thousands of years, just feels right.

If you are growing in the Southeast, I recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as another a great source of heirlooms from our region. If you're growing elsewhere, find the old timers and seed stewards that are saving seeds that came from the place you live. Wherever you find your seeds, if you've never saved seeds before, consider saving seed from at least one plant in next year's garden.


jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Ordered greasy beans from this source (Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center) last year and was hugely pleased with the result. Very flavorful!

abby jenkins said...

thanks for all the great resources.
I was just out planting some bulbs today in the rain, dreaming of how they will appear next spring surrounded by their new brothers.

Nance said...

Now, what can I grow on the SC coast? Thanks for your sources. Perhaps I'll get cracking; if not, I'll garden vicariously through your wonderful blog.

Milkweed said...

Thanks, ya'll -

Nance, Southern Exposure has some varieties that would be great for the SC coast. And try asking around at farmers markets to see if anyone has seeds to share with a local history!

Abby, I keep thinking one day I will have time to plant bulbs other than edible ones. Someday!

And Jack, thanks for reading as always! You're ahead of me on the greasy bean curve!

PS: love your profile picture, Nance.