Every time I smell a tomato plant, the fresh, sweet, earthy aroma propels me back to my childhood, when Grandpa would send my sister and me out to his garden, and we’d pick the large, juicy fruits from the vine. When we’d haul them inside and wash them, their scent would waft throughout the kitchen. I didn’t love the taste of tomatoes, but I loved their smell, and nowadays, I love the memories they evoke.
Many people have a unique connection to the plants they grow, the food they eat, and the people they commune with in the process. Often, these memories begin with the art of seed saving. Seed Savers Exchange (“Seed Savers”) is an organization that puts these ideas into practice. A haven for rare and heirloom seeds, Seed Savers prioritizes the perpetuation of each plant, and also safeguards the story that comes with them. To them, the value of a seed isn’t only the nutrition of its harvest, but also the nostalgia and history that’s found in every sprout.
Every year, Seed Savers hosts a seed conference to celebrate just that: treasured cultivars, time-honored traditions, and memorable stories. People from across the country gather to learn and connect with other seed savers, and I got a front row seat to it all when I attended the conference in Decorah, Iowa, in 2019.
Joining a Growing Crowd
After seven hours on the road, I at last arrived at my destination: Heritage Farm, the headquarters of Seed Savers. Tucked away in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa, this 890-acre farm grows and preserves a massive collection of cultivars, and that weekend, dozens of people gathered there for the annual seed conference. We had a full schedule of presentations, activities, and tours planned for us.
The first night was an evening to socialize, and this included a seed swap. Under a tent near the visitors center, people set up tables and laid out dozens of seed packets. Some even brought extra items with them, such as collections of old, delicate catalogs. As I paged through them, I could hear people trading off seeds and talking about the stories behind them. Swappers get a little something extra that the usual seed packet purchases might not offer: They get an in-person narrative of the seed, receiving both the plant and its legacy in a much more impactful way.
Seed Savers also invited us to explore the gardens on the property. One garden, located between the barn and the visitors center, is one that Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers, created back in the 1980s. Each year, she opts for a whimsical approach to planting, allowing the plants to emerge wherever their seeds happen to fall. To her, this makes the experience even more delightful. The garden on the opposite side of the visitors center is Seed Savers’ “laboratory,” where growers test out some of their cultivars and invite visitors to smell and feel the plants. Here, plants are a little more organized, though each has its own way of growing, whether that’s towering on thick stalks, creeping up a trellis, or being manipulated to create a pyramid of sorts in the center of the garden.
Amid my garden tours that first night, I got acquainted with a few people: an Illinois couple who loved to talk about long-distance country biking; a Minnesota family whose kids were visiting Heritage Farm for the first time; a tea company owner who came to be inspired by the plants; and a new employee at Seed Savers who had lived all around the globe. We each pulled out mugs we’d brought for the weekend, filled them up with some warm herbal tea, and sat in a circle in front of a roaring bonfire as the sun set behind the hills. We swapped stories until the stars came out.
Seed Saving on the Farm and Beyond
Most attendees chose to camp in one of Heritage Farm’s orchards over the weekend. I also pitched my tent there, between two small trees. Friday was a humid, hot night, so everyone was a little bleary-eyed in the morning. But we all perked up when Saturday’s activities began. Seed Savers kept us busy, running us from one activity to the next. I began with a hayride tour of the grounds to see the ancient White Park cattle raised on the property. Then, I jumped into a seminar about an Oklahoma City-based program, Garden Groundbreakers, which is seeking to integrate gardening education into modern school curriculums. Not long into the presentation, we had to run for cover into the visitors center as a torrential thunderstorm hit the farm during lunch.
The sudden storm didn’t deter anyone from the rest of the day’s events. Once the first signs of sun returned, we resumed activities, albeit a little damper than before. In my next outing, I jumped aboard a van that took us up to Seed Savers’ Historic Orchard. In this quiet hilltop sanctuary, growers are preserving important apple cultivars — more than 1,200 of them. Lindsay Lee, one of the project’s founding members, took us on a tour of the orchard, and informed us that its purpose is less about fruit production and more about plant maturity in order to help preserve apple diversity. Each cultivar has a story of how it ended up there, and they all connect us to our apple heritage while paving the way for the fruit’s future.
Later in the day, I participated in a more interactive activity. Seed Savers’ staff didn’t just want to send us home with new information; they also wanted to utilize our taste buds. In the basement of a barn, a table was laid out as a taste-testing station. Heritage Farm’s staff had selected more than 10 plates of heirloom vegetables: vibrant carrots, fresh cucumbers, and juicy beets, spanning all colors of the rainbow. People crowded in and grabbed a score sheet before going down the table. At each plate, we were asked to evaluate the flavor, crunch, and texture of each vegetable and rate it based on the number scale suggested. We dropped our responses off with the staff so they could use our assessments to improve their cultivars.
Up in the barn’s main level, in a beautiful space with wooden benches, walls, and rafters, John Coykendall, a seed saver and Master Gardener at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, talked about his dedication to saving cultivars in the Appalachian region. I watched curiously as he got onto the stage without any notes, wearing a pair of blue denim overalls, and launched into an hour of seed storytelling.
Instead of taking notes while Coykendall spoke, most of us sat in rapt attention, simply listening to all the tales he could recount about his seed-saving adventures. They didn’t have any particular order, and sometimes Coykendall would pause to think of another story or talk with someone sitting near the stage before continuing. The casual air around his presentation reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to stories that, in their purest form, are best told through spoken word. It was at this point I began to understand that stories are connected to seeds, and that oral traditions help define a seed’s legacy, perhaps even its very survival.
After these intimate stories, it was time for the True-to-Type Challenge. This was a game where three people sat on the stage, with one contestant standing to the side. For each round, a rare cultivar was featured, and all three people told a story about how this seed was acquired. However, only one person was telling the truth — the others had made up their stories — and the contestant had to guess which was true. The extraordinary thing about it was that seed stories are crazy to begin with, as I discovered that weekend, so it was difficult for even experienced seed savers to determine the true tale. One story in particular was quite memorable from this game. It was about a type of garlic, and the true tale about it was told by John Swenson. Turns out, Swenson discovered it, and he believed he was one of the few people who had this unique cultivar. In fact, at the end of the game, Swenson announced that he was gifting this rare cultivar to the Seed Savers’ seed bank.
We celebrated Swenson’s 90th birthday later that evening over dinner. With our plates full of fresh, homemade food, we all learned more about this remarkable man. Swenson is a longtime seed saver; specifically, a hunter of alliums. To date, he’s donated 150 cultivars to Seed Savers’ seed bank over 30 years. If not for his efforts, many garlic cultivars may have been lost. At his celebration, a younger man stepped up and talked about how Swenson mentored him in the art of seed saving, as well as sparked his passion for garlic. I don’t know how long Swenson will continue to track down cultivars, but his legacy will endure with the next generation of seed savers.
The rest of the evening was full of celebration, complete with organic ice cream, music, and more garden tours. Before I left Heritage Farm, I purchased a bag of ‘Good Mother Stallard’ beans, which, in that moment, only attracted me because of their round shape and marble-like swirls. A few weeks later, I cooked them up in my apartment and mixed them with some rice and vegetables. They tasted just as described: robust, meaty, and rich. According to records, they were given to Seed Savers — along with 1,185 other beans — back in 1981. This particular bean dates back to at least the 1930s, but the cultivar’s story evolves with every person who purchases it. And for me, these beans now mark a memorable weekend that’ll live on every time I cook them up.
Our Legacy in the Seed
Humans create narratives, community, and meaning by sharing some of the most unlikely things, and this includes humble seeds. Tomato plants evoke joyful childhood memories with family, and now ‘Good Mother Stallard’ beans will remind me of the celebration of nature, community, and the stewards of plant perpetuation. Seed Savers carries on this tradition as seed savers, donors, and growers tirelessly work to preserve valuable cultivars, because they understand the latent stories that reset themselves each time a seed sprouts. The seed doesn’t just carry the plant; it carries us and our stories too.
Seed Sharing is Community Gardening
To get involved with seeds and stories, access SeedLinked, a complementary community organization to Seed Savers Exchange that was featured at the 2019 seed conference. Through SeedLinked, as they cultivate a plant, gardeners and breeders share collected information. SeedLinked makes the gardeners’ and breeders’ observations, breeding information, and knowledge of particular climates and land types publicly available, so others can choose the best seeds for their specific needs. The result is a transparent, communal database that can strengthen and benefit people, plants, and the environment. To join this growing community, visit here.
Jessica Mitchell is an editor for Mother Earth Gardener who loves to study and write about the interactions between plants and people. Follow her on Instagram @Jess_Mitchell95.
Attend Seed Savers Exchange’s 2020 Conference & Campout
In June 1981, more than a dozen avid seed savers gathered at the home of Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, co-founders of Seed Savers Exchange, for the first Seed Savers Exchange Conference & Campout. During that storied weekend, the group forged fast friendships, swapped rare seeds (and seed stories!), and sampled delicious food — including Diane’s special homemade lasagna.
This July 17-18, 2020, the tradition continues at Heritage Farm as Seed Savers marks its 40th Annual Conference & Campout on 890 scenic acres outside Decorah, Iowa. Join gardeners and seed enthusiasts from across the country to celebrate food, community, seeds, and gardening in two exciting days of education, networking, and good, old-fashioned fun.
Friday’s event-packed schedule features garden and farm tours, informative workshops, and the traditional potluck and seed swap. Saturday’s lineup includes expert speakers, even more tours and workshops, and a rollicking, foot-stomping barn dance. Sites for tent camping are available at Heritage Farm within walking distance of the events.
Registration is required for campsites, workshops held on Friday, and Saturday meals. For more information, visit their website.