A Historical Seed Map

graphic for the Library Seed Bank projectOk, so the posting here has been sporadic, and I apologize for that. I've been busy with planting the seeds for the Library Seed Bank. Did you catch what I did there ...

So, here's the update.

The indiegogo project isn't go going, That's because I haven't been pushing it. Please take a look, and if so inclined, please share it with folks you know. The reason I haven't been pushing it is, there's a lot of other things happening, and I'm one person here.

I'm thrilled, well actually over the moon, about this idea I have of a seed map. The idea is this, I'm going to map old seed companies and research what they were offering at the local level. There is no better reflection of what was grown locally than what the local seed sellers offered to the public. To quote the 1945 Agricultural Almanac by John Baer's Sons, Inc., Lancaster, PA;

The seed catalog is therefore a current encyclopedia of gardening, revised and brought up-to-date each year. Some are so complete as to be the prefered reference books in agricultural schools.

I had this idea before I came across this almanac in a used book store. When I read that, I knew I was on the right track. This map will provide a detailed historical record for the Library Seed Bank. The libraries who participate will have guidance to find the seeds of local varieties if they still exist. This map will free, and openly available for everyone. There will be an app coming out this too.

I will doing research at the Smithsonian Institute this summer! They have an extensive collection of seed catalogues that don't circulate, and are viewed by appointment only. I have a contact with a senior research librarian there, so that's exciting. My daily work contract is up in a month so the timing is fortuitous.

Already this project has inspired a teacher  to establish a seed bank at his school. His class this fall will help me with the seed map.

The plans for the first seed bank at the McGowan Memorial Library are moving along. There is a big craft show on September 21, 2013. It's a tradition for many, and draws a big crowd. I will be there doing a soft launch of the seed bank. And yes, I'll be giving out seeds.

The mayor of nearby town is very interested in the idea of a seed bank as community outreach through an arts organization in his town. This is good. It's always a benefit when the mayor likes an idea.

I have an idea to tie in tasting with the heirloom vegetables I grow as a way to demonstrate to people the value of heirloom seeds. Slow Food International says it's all starts with a taste. And it truly does. They inspire me, and I do agree with that statement. Give someone a taste and you have their attention.

This is all coming together organically, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So, after all the impressive progress is noted, here's the big plug at the end to help support the growth of the Library Seed Bank.

If you have old seed catalogs, or if you know of local seed companies, please let me know. You can leave a comment, or use the contact form.


Catalog Reading and Garden Planning Tips

catalogue coverPlease welcome my guest blogger for today. Stephen Scott, a co-owner of Terrior Seeds. Stephen writes a thoughtful and interesting post about planning a garden.  Perusing the newest crop of seed catalogs while engaging in some garden planning is a favorite pastime of gardeners everywhere during the cold, short days of winter. It is an excellent way to take your mind off of the often drab and dreary days that separate the last harvest from the first plantings. Seed catalogs can be much more than a pleasant distraction and fodder for summertime daydreams. They can help you with your upcoming garden planning by helping to visualize succession and companion plantings while arranging the palette of colors in the most attractive ways possible.

You can get started in one of two ways, with neither being right or wrong. Some prefer to sort through the catalogs first, circling what interests them and what standbys are always planted. Others will use different colors for vegetables, herbs and flowers to make organizing and planning a bit easier. The other approach is to put down an initial plan of the upcoming garden on note or graph paper, using zones or areas to show what types of plants go where. Others will use different colors for different plants to determine where everything will go. These initial plans are easily changed and updated as the planning process moves forward and the new garden starts taking shape. Once the plans is solidified, our Garden Journal is an excellent tool to help keep track of your progress this year. It is free as a download.

Remember to try something new each year, while keeping the foundation of what works going in your garden. This way you can experiment with new things and see what works and fits within the framework of what you already have established without risking losing too much if the new variety doesn’t make the grade.

If you want to try saving seeds – or you already do – make that part of your plan, where to plant those items for isolation to prevent possible cross-pollination and make the seed saving process as easy as possible. Pay attention to wind patterns and think about how you will isolate them, either through time, distance or exclusion. Time isolation just means planting those varieties you’ll save seed from either earlier or later than others of its type so that blooming and pollination don’t happen happen at the same time. Distance is easy – how far apart are you going to plant? How much space do you have? Can you use the front or back yard on the opposite side from the garden for planting? Exclusion is a physical barrier that keeps everything out including insects, meaning you might have to hand-pollinate that item.

While working on garden planning pay attention to the number of days to maturity for a variety and how that will work in your climate. Look at where you are wanting to locate it when reading the size and height descriptions, especially if it needs shade or full sun. Succession and companion planting can make a small or medium sized garden produce like a small scale farm, producing enormous amounts of veggies from a deceptively small space. Think about how much you or your family likes particular veggies, and plan on doing some succession planting this year. Examples of varieties that take well to succession planting are beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach and radishes, but there are others as well. Just give your plants a bit more space to accommodate succession planting alongside companion plants.

When deciding on how many plants you’ll need, seed counts are in the variety headings and in each singular variety description, as well as on the website. We are working on getting planting instructions up on the website for each variety, but each packet will have detailed instructions on the back.

Look at the colors of your garden and plan a rainbow to grow the aesthetic and nutritional benefits of different colors. Plant a few red, yellow and orange tomatoes with yellow, purple and orange carrots as companions. Use red Chicory with green Kale and rainbow Swiss chard. Pole beans in different colors partner extremely well with corn.

Plant some of the vining plants like Red Malabar spinach along the garden fence where it won’t take up space, but give you lots of great tasting heat tolerant spinach substitutes for your summer salads. Melons and squash are happy planted in corners of the garden where they can sprawl along the fence or even over and out without being in the way. Another approach is planting them in containers outside the garden where they have all the room needed and are out of danger of being stepped on.

Look at the hot and long season varieties or cold and short season ones on the website for more ideas of what works well for your climate. Use these as a start and experiment to refine into a basis of what, exactly, really works in your garden. This will take time if you are just starting out, but you might be surprised at how much you have figured out if you’ve been growing a bit, even if you haven’t thought about it just this way! Read the descriptions carefully, as we’ve worked hard to try and get good information into them to help you.

Flowers are an often overlooked, but essential component of any serious vegetable and food garden. They don’t just belong in the realm of the flower or landscape gardener! Flowers attract pollinators (not just bees) that greatly improve production in the garden; are nursemaid plants for smaller, more tender ones; are core ingredients for some incredible teas and bring a delightful aroma that soothes and grounds you. Our flowers are notated by Annual, Perennial, Biennial which depends a lot on climate zones but will allow you to do some accurate planning for where they fit in best. Some of the best ways to get started using more flowers in and around your garden is with one of our mixes, especially created for drylands, humid climates or to spread some serious fragrance in your garden.

You should have some good ideas starting about your garden this year. Spending some time during the colder times in planning will help you to create a masterpiece that will grow some incredibly tasty treats to enjoy with your family and share with some lucky friends and neighbors.

Nature Reveals the Truth

white flower photo For a while now, I've wanted to write about sourcing good seeds. I'm relatively new to the seed game. This is my third year. By looking at a tomato seed, you have no idea what variety it is, if it's authentic organic, or how fertile it is. Trust is a paramount when sourcing seeds. Seeds are a commodity, and like all commodities, they are bought and sold.

Last year, I came across a source for Goose Creek Tomatoes. I read that it's a rare variety, and there was story about the origins. Without question, that combination peaked my curiosity so much, that I had to grow it. Later, I found out about the questions concerning the veracity of the story.

From Tatiana's TOMATObase;

  • There is some controversy about the origins/dating of this tomato, as tomato experts know that there were no 'smooth' tomatoes available in the early 1800s.
  • There is also a lot of controversy about the fruit color, whether it is supposed to be red or pink.

Goose Creek seeds are hard to find, but I found a source on eBay. I ordered them right away. They were expensive as far as seeds go, fifty cents a seed to be exact. Since seeds are a commodity, and in a market driven economy, scarcity is factor in price.

When the seeds arrived, they were in a small, clear plastic envelope with a handwritten label on it. A slight pagne of skectipsism came over me. Now, for small seed collectors, having a preprinted package is expense that might discourage them from the important role of seed collecting.

A preprinted package though, is no gurantee that the contents inside, match the content printed on the outside. That's what the white flower told me last week. It provided the truth of what was inside the package of Zucchino Rampicante, a vining zuchinni and pumpkin, that I ordered this year.

I was SO looking forward to this variety. A massive vinning zuchinni with large bottleneck fruit that can be either a summer or winter squash, is a maddness that I embrace whole heartingly.

It would be trellissed with long red  asian string beans. A living Jackson Pollock painting perhaps, with the distinct contrast in foligae, flower and fruit between these two varieties.

Alas, that won't happen this year. While I was admiring the lush foligae of the vine, I saw a white flower. I found this odd, squash and pumpkin flowers are yellow. The flower I saw had expired, but I could tell it was a brilliant white.

So, I went to the Google and presented my case, white squash bloom. The verdict, I have either a birdhouse gourd, or an apple gourd. Lucky me. I don't like gourds. I don't get them, nor do I want to. Evidently though, this year I will have no choice.

From what I could find, these two varities of gourds come up consistently id keywords search for white squash flower. They are grown for a variety of craft products, and they do have some interest to them.

Mistakes happen, and I trust the source where these gourd seeds came from. They are passionate about heirloom varities. I had some iffy results from some other vendors this year. It was the first time I ordered from them. Other first time vendors I had good luck with. It's a matter of trial and error, and following your gut. If your not sure, don't order from them. If your fortunate enough to have a local seed vendor, with local seed sources, buy from them.

The Goose Creek tomato seeds I ordered were fine, and so were the Tiger Melon seeds I ordered from that eBay vendor last year. The other melon seeds not so much. This year, the pepper seeds I ordered from different vendor resulted in some fairly week plants across three varities. But I also didn't start a large number of each variety, so it's a tough call.  The  organic San Marzanno seeds I got from the same vendor are doing tremendous, so it's kind of a balance.

Not every seed from every plant is going to be a blue ribbon winner. I have noticed though that some vendor's seeds have a high germination rate, consistent with what's noted as the standard rate for that variety, while others not so much. This is also all the more reason to learn about seed collecting. You can get to see where your strong plants are, and you can collect seeds from a wide variety of fruit.

The Goose Creek tomato is very tasty, and the green tomatoes are a very light shade of green, almost a translucent white. Very pretty to see.  They were a lot like the Box Car Willies (BCW) I grew last year. Almost strikingly similiar. The BCWs were a lot later though, and thanks to a hail storm, which destroyed the BCWs, I couldn't do a tatse test.

I love that fact that a white flower told me a story this week. It goes to show that no matter what, storytellers tell their stories. And, on a blog influenced by Thoreau, that is as much about storytelling as gardening, how fortunate that this story was told by my garden?  The wonder of it all.


From Seed Room to Showroom, An Eyewitness Account of My Last Post

In my previous post, Big Boxing the Seed Collector, A Slight Time Line, I painted a time line with some very broad strokes. One of those strokes, about how Levittown, NY and the start of preplanned suburban communities, laid down a line that my family followed. In 1965 there were race riots in south Philly at a high school there. South Philly is the southern area of Philadelphia, PA where my family was living. The suburbs beckoned. My father made the decision to move his family out of the city. It just so happened that a friend of his knew of this community that was being built in southern NJ. It was a complete community. Three styles of houses for families to choose from, a elementary school, a playground, a tennis court, a community pool, a golf course, an apartment complex and a very small mall of 5 small stores, and anchor in the form of small convenience store.

Our community was the third to be built in this township, and too many more were planned. We were out in the country. While our community was built on a old farm, there was plenty of farms left that still needed supplies. Orol Ledden and Sons was in the next town over, and was a place that local farmers got their supplies and traded stoories in the Seed Room. Yes a Seed Room. And a rather large one.

There were rows and rows of drawers along two walls that were the equivalent of a card catalogue in library. There were wooden barrels full of onion sets, and a large counter with a scale. Now imagine a wide-eyed and curious kid in a room that was treasure chest full of seed packages and seed sets, along with farmers talking about their crops. It was a great place. I loved being there. I was fortunate to have experienced this as young child because as I grew up, so did the suburbs. And the seed room was turning into a storage area.

There was rapid growth in the area in which we lived. Farms went to the highest bidder. Fields of crops turned into cookie cuter plots of suburban culture. Barrels of onion sets turned in prepackaged bags of grass seeds. The drawers, which had seed packets on the front of them to identify their contents, slowly lost their identity as the need for seeds turned into a demand for seedlings to plant.

It was a sad process to watch, but what could a former city kid do? After all, I was there because of the the dynamic that was changing Leedens on the local level, and the massive, national shift in social living. The experience I lived and witnessed, started about 15 years after the broad strokes that I painted the time line with. The canvas of the time line was the life that I was living.

The seed room is now a showroom for carpets, and hardwood floors. It's an appropriate metaphor for what Vanishing Feast is all about.

Big Boxing the Seed Collector, A Slight Timeline

Another plot twist, another piece of magic. I had a hunch to look up the word heirloom. I'm kind of a geek about words. I have the same dictionary on my shelf that I've had my whole life. I don't remember my life without it. It was published in 1965 when I was 5 years old. I've read through most of this dictionary in the course of our life together. It has served me well, and will continue to do so. So I went to my old friend and found that there were only two meanings given for the word heirloom, neither of which included plants. I went online where I found the current definition that does includes plants. I set off to find out when the meaning was changed to include plants, at least in the Merriam Webster's dictionaries.

I started an etymology search, and found that in 1949 heirloom plant came into lexicon of America. The hunch morphed into intrigue, and curiosity took over. I googled Levittown, and found this, from the Levittown Historical Society:

Then, in 1949, Levitt and Sons discontinued building rental houses and turned their attention to building larger, more modern houses, which they called "ranches" and which they would offer for sale at $7,990.  All a prospective buyer needed was a $90 deposit and payments of $58 per month.  The Levitt ranch measured 32' by 25' and came in five different models, differing only by exterior color, roof line, and the placement of windows.  Like previous Levitt homes, the ranch was built on a concrete slab with radiant heating coils.  It had no garage, and came with an expandable attic.  The kitchen was outfitted with a General Electric stove and refrigerator, stainless steel sink and cabinets, the latest Bendix washer, and a York oil burner.  Immediately, the demand for the new Levitt ranches was so overwhelming that even the procedure for purchasing them had to be modified to incorporate "assembly line" methods.  Once these techniques were put into action, a buyer could choose a house and sign a contract for  it within three minutes.

Two seemingly random events in the same year and I knew a good story was unfolding in front me. As I have written before, when you frame you life in the context of the stories you loved as a child, you can see how narrative develops. And this project demonstrates that.

Enter the next hunch, shopping malls. The first commerical shopping mall was opened in 1950:

On April 21, 1950, the Northgate Shopping Mall opens at NE Northgate Way at 5th Avenue NE in Seattle. Planned by developers Rex Allison and Ben B. Ehrlichman (1895-1971) and designed by John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), it is the country's first regional shopping center to be defined as a "mall" (although there were at least three predecessor shopping centers). The stores face "a wide shopping walkway, probably to be known as the Mall or Plaza, in which no vehicles will be permitted" (The Seattle Times). The parking lot is quickly found to be insufficient for the number of shoppers attracted by the Bon Marché and 17 other specialty stores.

Continuing on this fork in the road, remember I started out to find when the meaning of the word heirloom changed to include plants in Merriam Webster's dictionaries, I next went to processed foods. Processed foods have been around for a very long time, and I focused on commercially processed foods. I found that the first TV Dinner was developed in 1953. Next, I had to see when the first coast-to coast-televsion broadcast.  That was 1951.

In four years time, the phrase heirloom plant started to be used in America. The suburban planned development was being launched, regional shopping malls were coming into vogue, television became a coast-to-coast delivery vehicle for information, and complete, frozen meals were now commercially available from commercial food processing companies.

The suburban, big-box retail business model was being seeded by the direction of society. Meanwhile, the tradition and lifestyle of the seed collector as source of sustaining the food supply was being marginalized. Society was moving away from the local, and into regional, and national mindsets. The dynamics of food was changing with the growth of commercially processed foods. Television allowed visual advertisement of perfection and connivence in way that never could be with print and radio spots.

Society changed, and the value of a diverse seed collection seems to have gotten lost in the process. Things are changing though:

Sales shot up 100 percent in 2008 at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a Missouri-based garden company that stocks 1,200 vegetable varieties, and the last two years have brought 20 percent annual growth, said the company’s owner, Jere Gettle.

And that's a good thing. Now that the current defintion of heirloom includes a third meaning relating to plants:

Definition of HEIRLOOM 1: a piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance of real property

2: something of special value handed on from one generation to another

3: a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals

I hope with this project to connect people with the value of seeds and plants. They represent the people who collect them, and plant them, as much as any other piece of property.

Words have meanings for a reason. As society changes, so does it language. It's interesting to see how far ahead of the curve the language was in 1949 when heirloom plant came into being. We can see now the massive shift that happened in society. And with that shift, the definition of heirloom now includes plants. This was not the case in 1965 as my faithful friend, my dictionary,  can attest to. The value in the third meaning of the word heirloom, which is a bout plants, needs to be elevated in society. It's that concept that I hope to accomplish.

Seeds, The Divine Inspiration of Mother Nature

Seeds Seeds are amazing. Amazing in it's true intent, not like it gets tossed around today to express something that is done very well, or brings about a level of joy or excitement. A seed is divine inspiration provided by mother nature. 

A seed brings nourishment, taste, aroma, texture, sound and visual stimulation. It's a source of life. A source that sustains life. Seeds are an essential part of existence, and have been for every generation of that has inhabited the earth. As I work through this story of Vanishing Feast and focus on the tangible result, a source of food, it's equally important to raise the awareness of seeds. If it wasn't for the seeds, we would all vanish.

Seed saving, a necessity for many generations, is a tradition is equally under threat as the plants are. The two can't be separated. No seeds. No plants. No life. Living in our suburban, consumer, big box culture, the ease of purchasing plants removes the public from the seed saving tradition. It puts the power to sustain life and varieties in the hands of business, not people.

As part of this story, seed saving will be an equal focus as the plants and vegetables. To separate the two would be disingenuous. Thanks to the dedication of seed savers who realized exactly what's at stake, a lot of the diversity of plants has survived. Some have vanished, and that's truly unfortunate. With the progress of technology, and the direction of society, we have been foolish in many ways, brilliant in others. Part of what I want to focus on here is to elevate how essential seed diversity is, and honor their purpose for being. With out them, our being will vanish.