Mother Earth Living

4th Annual Heirloom Garden Show

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

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.

Getting Festive

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.

Heirloom Inspiration

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

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.

Continuing Tradition

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:, or write at P.O. Box 70, Mansfield, MO

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.

  • Published on Apr 1, 2004
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