Greeted by a cow’s moo, an old brown turkey and soon after by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s owner, Jeremiath Gettle, I knew I had recieved all the introduction to the 4th Annual Heirloom Garden Show I needed.
Gettle has been a gardener since he was 4 or 5. Encouraged by his parents’ gardening, he asked for his own garden space at an early age. He started Baker Creek Seed, named for the nearest body of water, seven years ago in the country a few miles north of Mansfield, Missouri, a small town best known as the setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s adventures in the “Little House on the Prairie” books.
On the warm August day I arrived, the festival progressed rapidly. A steady stream of cars soon began to fill the large field. Greeters directed the visitors toward the activities and collected names and addresses for mailing lists for the seed catalog. Musicians set up their chairs on the broad open air porch and began to play foot-tapping bluegrass music. The food booth opened for business, offering hot veggie burgers (served on homemade whole-wheat buns with all the fresh tomatoes, sweet onion slices and cucumbers you could pile on), crispy heirloom apples, cookies and canned, exotic fruit juices (including guanabana, coconut, mango, papaya, durian and tamarind).
Throughout the day, speakers presented information on seed saving, heirloom varieties, trends in agriculture and organic gardening. Gettle gave a lecture and slide show of his recent seed-collecting trip to Thailand, highlighting some of the exciting new heirloom seed varieties he would be offering in his next seed catalog.
Hooked on Seeds
A remarkable seed collector, Gettle travels anywhere he can find old-world seed varieties that are in danger of extinction. New hybrid varieties, the ones sold as “new and improved,” often are just that, but they can’t be reproduced by the home grower. If you buy a hybrid seed, you have to go back to the producer and buy the seed from them the next year. Heirloom seed, by contrast, can be saved from season to season from what you have produced.
Many of the older heirloom varieties have qualities too good to lose — tomatoes with stronger flavor, for example, and beans that produce over a longer season than hybrids. Many of our current hybrid varieties are developed with the commercial farmer in mind. For them, it’s important that green beans produce one large crop, which can be harvested all at once by machines. Commercial tomato growers want firm, uniform-sized tomatoes that ship well and look good. The home gardener wants varieties that produce throughout the season and have great flavor or longer storing qualities. Most gardeners like the fact that their seed can be saved from year to year, once they find a good variety.
Back at the garden show, cloth-covered tables hold displays of dozens of varieties of tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers and melons. There were white and yellow tomatoes, purplish-black ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes and white cucumbers in smooth and rough skin varieties. Gigantic long-keeping onions were in piles, as were striped melons from Thailand. Yard-long beans and grape-sized eggplants were laid out in attractive rows, showing the wide selection of all the old variety seeds.
The annual contests for the biggest tomato, the largest melon and the prettiest squash were underway, and growers had brought their best specimens. Attendees were encouraged to taste fruit and vegetables and comment on the flavors, comparing them to their favorite varieties.
Local businesses sold herb vinegars, essential oils and various herb plants. In booths on the lawn, vendors offered native wildflower plants, garden art, books, home baked breads and water garden plants. Farmers offered local honey, eggs, gourds, aprons, baby quilts and other hand sewn items.
Gettle said he was inspired by the Tomato Growers Supply catalog many years ago, and by Kent Whealy, of Seed Savers fame. He began collecting and growing old variety seeds to preserve them and to share information. With other interested growers, this year he began The Heirloom Gardener magazine to fill what he saw as a gap in information about heirloom seed. Gettle has found that people are increasingly interested in informing themselves about heirloom seed varieties and in saving their own seed from season to season.
Equal with the danger of extinction for animals, plant varieties can be lost as well. The beans that were passed down through many generations of my own family have, regrettably, been lost forever. It’s essential that we who love gardens preserve heirloom varieties, to make sure that the tomatoes with flavor, the beans with keeping qualities, the watermelons that produce the sweetest melons, and the calendula that blooms all season long, are saved and passed on to future generations.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company is preserving those reliable old varieties and more, in a very big way. Their collections are growing literally by the month. Some varieties Gettle is preserving and making available may well be extinct elsewhere in a very short time. He contracts with growers to produce volumes of seed for his store and catalog, insisting on quality control and inspecting the growing areas to insure that varieties remain pure. The biannual festivals attract people from all across the nation, showing visitors a charming, simpler way of life.
To learn more about seed saving, or about antique and heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs, visit Baker Creek’s website: www.rareseeds.com, or write at P.O. Box 70, Mansfield, MO 65704.
Better yet, plant some heirloom varieties yourself this year. Not only will you save money, but you will feel a sense of pride to be saving seed for future generations.
Jim Long is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion who writes and gardens from his home in the Ozark Mountains.
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