Mother Earth Gardener

Keeping Heirloom Seed History Alive at Landis Valley Museum

There’s a quiet farming village in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where time stands still. Here, life is a bit slower. Geese lead goslings past bank barns while oxen and draft horses graze in meadows edged in snake-rail fencing. Men in coveralls and women in gingham dresses and bonnets stroll down farm lanes and past mercantile windows. A few hundred yards away, the 21st century moves on in full swing as cars and heavy trucks thunder past on the Oregon Pike. This is the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. As you stroll through the collection of houses, barns, hotels, and outbuildings, the history of southeastern Pennsylvania unfolds.

More living history, nearly three centuries and three decades in the making, is not on display — it’s housed in a white Georgian farmhouse with green trim, and it’s stored in hand-labeled glass jars. This collection contains heirloom garden seeds you can grow in your own garden.

The Landis Valley Museum’s Heirloom Seed Project maintains more than 200 cultivars of heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers, and field crops, all donated from local gardens. “We preserve tools, buildings, and livestock — why not seeds?” says Joe Schott, farm and gardens manager (pictured here).

Heirloom Seed Project History

Since the mid-1980s, the project has protected an important piece of American garden history: the heirloom garden seeds of plants grown by German immigrants in and around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, prior to 1940. If that sounds remarkably specific, it is. Landis Valley Museum is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and culture of a group of German, Swiss, and French immigrants, often known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, who settled in Pennsylvania before the American Revolution.

The name has nothing to do with Holland, but instead refers to their shared dialect of German (Deutsch), called Pennsylvania Dutch. Even today, 300 years later, the language can be heard in fields and farmers markets, spoken largely within Amish and Mennonite communities.

Just like language, seeds must be used if they are to be preserved. The project grows each donated heirloom garden seed line in the museum gardens at least once every three years, more often for popular cultivars such as ‘Dr. Martin’s’ pole lima beans or Schott’s favorite tomato, ‘Mammoth German Gold.’ Growing cultivars regularly assures the seed stocks stay full and fresh.

The project relies on the efforts of numerous volunteers who keep the seeds growing in the museum’s gardens — the Seed House plot, the Brick Farmstead plot, and the Log Farm plot. Beth Leensvaart, retired project director, says that “without those wonderful gardening volunteers there would be no Heirloom Seed Project. Their faithfulness, their knowledge, and their hearts are what keep this project running.”

The Master Plan of the Heirloom Seed Project

Maintaining so many cultivars of heirlooms in a pure, unmixed state is “all a challenge,” says Schott. Each cultivar needs to be kept separate from other, similar crops. Some are easier to segregate than others — it all depends on their botany. Beans and peas can be grown side-by-side in a plot because the plants self-pollinate, often before the blossoms even open. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are insect pollinated, so the cultivars need to be kept separate from each other. Corn relies on wind for pollination, requiring even more isolation for purity.

Segregation during the growing season is managed by scheduled “grow-outs” in isolated plots. Gardeners carefully keep seeds separate and accurately labeled after the harvest. It’s impossible to look at tomato seeds and know whether they are ‘Pink Brandywine’ or ‘Amish Paste.’ Labeling is crucial.

During the grow-out, the gardeners watch for oddball plants, uprooting any that don’t match the cultivar description. This technique, called “roguing out,” may seem wasteful, but it assures the purity of the line.

Depending on the type of vegetable, a rogued-out plant isn’t a total waste. Many rogue tomato sandwiches have been eaten at the museum over the years, and the Landis Valley hogs love rogue beets and turnips.

Volunteers keep busy with plenty of maintenance work throughout the year. They cultivate each plot by hand, as rototillers don’t fit the historic scope of the museum. Plowing with horses or oxen isn’t an option because the garden beds are laid out in four-square raised beds. Every few years, the staff and volunteers replace the soil in these beds entirely, renewing and restoring organic material lost to plant growth and soil settling.

The best part about this work of growing local heritage, Schott says, is “getting back to flavorful vegetables with character.”

Other Heirloom Seed Projects

While the project is unique for a seed supplier, Landis Valley is not the only organization supporting heirloom history. At least 200 museums and historic establishments across the country also maintain seed projects. Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, and Museum of the Fur Trade also offer seeds for history-minded gardeners. Like Landis Valley Museum, which grows more than 90 percent of its own seed, some produce most or all of their stocks. Other organizations buy stock from Landis Valley and either repackage seeds under their own labels or sell them under the original Heirloom Seed Project labels.

Andrew Weidman maintains several antique small-fruit and tree-fruit plantings in Pennsylvania. He’s an avid seed saver, tree grafter, and plant propagator with an eye for heirlooms.

  • Published on Aug 2, 2016
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