The Art of Heirloom Seeds
The Independent / Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:19 am
GREENUP, Ky. – Seed saving is a tradition as old as agriculture in the southern Appalachians.
Families have preserved and passed down their own cherished varieties of beans, squash and tomatoes from generation to generation for hundreds of years by carefully preserving their own seeds.
It is a tradition that has been fading slowly along with the family farm, but one generating renewed interest. A group calling itself the Tri-State Area Seed Savers is hoping to jump-start heritage seed-saving efforts locally with a seed swap in the spring. The swap will take place at a yet-to-be determined location in Greenup County.
Greenup County resident Kristi Ruggles, president of the Boyd County Master Gardeners and owner of the Potting Shed inside the Common Ground Shoppes at Heritage Station in Huntington, planted the idea of an old-fashioned seed swap earlier this year with Kenny Imel, president of the Greenup County Kentucky Farm Bureau and owner of Imel’s Greenhouse.
Together, the pair are organizing the event and are seeking both experienced seed savers as well as those interested in planting heirloom and heritage varieties, who are willing to try their hand at seed saving. With harvest season in full swing, Imel and Ruggles are encouraging individuals to plan ahead.
“If people would save more than what they normally save to share, that would be great,” Ruggles said. She anticipates the seed swap will grow with time as the word gets out and people cultivate more plants to save seeds for the swap.
Her ultimate goal is to create a local seed bank, where enough locals are cultivating and saving varieties of vegetables that have a long, established history in the area. Seed banks selling heirloom and heritage varieties are popping up across the world, but Ruggles wants to make sure varieties from this corner of Appalachia are saved and distributed, too.
“Basically, what we want to do is preserve the seed that we got,” Imel said. “A lot of things have become genetically modified, and it is destroying the gene pool of the older varieties.”
In addition to being unaltered by genetic modification, Ruggles and Imel say many of the heirloom plants cultivated from local seed are simply better suited to the region’s growing conditions, including being resistant to diseases that plague crops here.
“If it’s been growing in our area for hundreds of years, it’s probably a good seed to grow in our area,” Ruggles said.
“You’ve got a legacy behind this,” Imel agreed. “That is what the heritage seeds are all about. Some of these folks have had these seeds ever since they moved to this area. People have been raised on these and fed their families with them. If they didn’t save the seed, they wouldn’t have had money to buy seeds.”
“We’re saving them to make sure they don’t get lost,” said Bill Best, who runs the nonprofit Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea. Best, who’s published a number of articles and books on seed saving, has been collecting and saving seeds through the center for more than 15 years and has gathered more than 600 varieties of bean, tomato and squash seeds grown throughout the southern Appalachians.
“It’s sort of the nature of Appalachian culture that they take gardening seriously and seed saving seriously,” he said. “I think as soon as the Europeans settled in the mountains and were given the seeds by the Indians, they began saving them and passing them down. I think the stories are just as important as the seeds. Every bean has its own story.”
The oldest seeds he has documented, a variety of greasy bean, have been in the same North Carolina family for more than 250 years, dating to before the American Revolution.
Best praised the local initiative, saying he hopes it inspires a new crop of seed savers.
“Most of the seed savers are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, but a few young people are beginning to catch on to it now and beginning to take it seriously,” he said, noting the demographics of savers has been shifting for some time.
“Most of the seed savers until the 1960s were women. The larger seed savers now are men that were brought into it by their mothers, grandmothers and great-aunts,” Best said.
One of the best-known local seed savers is Kevin Scaggs of Greenup, who fits that description almost perfectly. Scaggs, who grew up on a family farm on Whetstone Road, was raised by a family of seed savers. His mother, he says, “mostly passed it down,” but others, including his grandparents, father and a cousin, Harlan Scaggs, also influenced him and taught him to save seeds.
He, like his ancestors, saves seeds for the most practical of reasons: He likes to eat some varieties of beans and tomatoes better than others.
“All these beans have different flavors. These here (half runners) are just a good green bean, so I saved the seed,” Scaggs said.
In recent years this practice has made Scaggs a bit of a one-man Greenup County seed bank. He has about 16 varieties of beans and heirloom tomatoes with local roots, most of which have been given to him by people who have learned one way or another he likes to collect seeds.
He recounts how he came to have each variety as he shows off glass jars of seeds he’s already put up for next planting season. There are the “yellow hulls” given to him by the grandson of 98-year-old Art Boggs. “I’m not sure where he got the seed,” Scaggs said. “I’m not sure if it was Magoffin County or what, but he’s the one that brought them into Greenup County, the first ones that we know of. And they were in his family.”
Another variety, the Don Virgin Greasy Bean, was given to Scaggs by Virgin’s son, Kyle. “They are a small pinto bean. He wanted me to grow them in case he lost his seed so we’d have some to fall back on. We’ve been kind of sharing them,” Scaggs said.
Then there’s the Pearl Carter bean, which was given to Scaggs’ cousin, Harlan Scaggs. Named for Harlan’s mother, the beans have been in the family since 1926. The “long half runners” were given to him by Mike May. “I think he got these seeds off David Allen, and these seeds are supposed to be over 100 years old,” Scaggs said.
Other varieties he grows don’t have names. “This here is a bush bean, my neighbor gave them to me, called them a bush bean,” said Scaggs, pointing out a particular bean drying out in his Greenup garden. Splitting it open, the pod produces light purple and pink beans.
Scaggs is most famous, however, for his collection of tomatoes. There are Pineapples and Cherokee Purples, Black Cherry Tomatoes among other heirlooms. Varieties include the Carie Claxon Yellow, named in honor of former Greenup County Judge-Executive James Ervine Claxon’s mother. The tomato seeds, given to him by Larry Eastham, are a particular favorite of Scaggs, along with a pink tomato that’s been passed down in Eastham’s family for years.
Not all the seeds Scaggs raises have local roots. He’s ordered plenty of varieties online he continues to grow year after year. “I only saved the seeds of the ones I like,” he said.
Scaggs doesn’t sell his seeds or his produce. He gives them away to anyone who asks, stops by or shows interest. But don’t thank him for the seeds. If you do, according to the old timers, the seeds won’t grow. “Just appreciate them,” Scaggs said.