Once Upon a Seed: Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa | Midwest Living

Once Upon a Seed: Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa

Any garden can grow living history when planted with heirloom seeds like those preserved and shared at Iowa's Seed Savers Exchange.

Flavorful memories

From this plot in northeast Iowa, stories grow. They are old family tales, rising from the earth in the shape of blooms and berries and tendrils. In this wooded, hilly region, a small rough field spreads like a rumpled blanket in a clearing. Vegetables assemble in rows, but loosely, like restless school children and with just as many personalities. Tall and narrow stands the 7-foot 'Reid's Yellow Dent' sweet corn that won a prize in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was developed in 1846 from seeds brought from Ohio.

Nearby dangle tan string beans ('Lina Sisco's Bird Egg') mottled with maroon. They come from a family who hauled them to Missouri in a covered wagon in the 1880s. Named in 1810 as one of the first snap beans without a string to remove, the 'Lazy Housewife' vines up poles. The orange 'Nebraska Wedding' tomato stands at the heart of a tradition of providing brides with tomato seeds as a wedding gift. All around beckons a cornucopia of varieties not readily found at retail.

"There's a connection to older plants," says Diane Ott Whealy, cofounder of Seed Savers Exchange, one of the country's largest nonprofit seed banks. She runs it from Heritage Farm, the 890-acre headquarters 6 miles north of Decorah. "There's a flavorful memory, especially with the tomatoes. We don't separate the seeds from the people. There's a history and a story to them."

Click ahead to read more about Seed Savers. Slides 4 to 12 feature a sampler of heirloom plants. Slide 13 has information on some of our other favorite stops in Decorah.

Seed Savers Exchange

Saving heritage seeds

Diane's seed story began in 1975 when she began saving and sharing heritage seeds--those passed down through families for generations. Inspiration came in part from a morning glory vine given to her by her grandfather and still clambering up her barn. Now the passion blooms all around Heritage Farms.

The main drive opens to display gardens, a visitors center and gift shop, which includes garden supplies and, of course, a buffet of seed packets. Sunflowers. Borage. Coneflower. Prairie blazing star. Bunny tails.

Trails wend through the woods to other garden areas, greenhouses, a herd of rare white cattle, and an apple orchard of thick, scraggly trees ancient in feel. They bear in a proliferation of red, orange, purple, green and brown. Some apples grow gnarled as potatoes; some waft a dizzying sweetness. The array brings home the point of how intriguing variety can be. Only about 700 varieties of apples remain of an estimated 8,000 in 1900.

Growing appreciation

Since Seed Savers began, more than 25,000 plants have been collected and more than 1 million seeds shared. Diane tells of her experiences in her just-released book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.

Part of Diane's mission is to get seeds into new hands and to grow an appreciation for them. She gardens casually and warmly, treating plants like family. Herbs, flowers and vegetables intermingle as though they happened to wander in and find a spot wherever. "Have you ever seen two flowers that don't look good together?" she says.

She often accents with celery, letting it go to seed (a common goal here). Clusters of cream-and-pink snail-shape flowers hide under a vine's arrow-shape leaves. It's not showy, but is subtly captivating. Thomas Jefferson, who grew this snail flower at Monticello, called it "the most beautiful bean in the world."

Old varieties can be like that: intriguing twists to today's plots. That circles back to the seeds. Workers set tables near gardens and carefully slice, measure and log tomatoes, then glean the precious seeds. A woman splits a beige squash, dips her hands into the goo, and plucks seeds like milky gemstones.

The greenhouses, orchards and fields--like living offshoots--surround the farmstead rooted at the core. Gilded in late-day light, 'Grandpa Ott's' morning glory deepens its purple glow against the red barnwood. The setting seems awash in timelessness: full of yesteryear; full of today; full of tomorrow. It is amazing, really, all that can be inspired by one simple seed.

Seed Savers Exchange is open free to visitors March-December (563/382-5990; seedsavers.org). The seed catalog - available online or by mail - includes a bounty of vegetables, herbs, and fruits.

Seed Savers Exchange

A sampler of old favorites: 'Five Color Silverbeet' Swiss Chard

Crisp stalks grow in an impressively clean, bright rainbow of hues.

Old favorites sampler: 'Grandpa Ott's' Morning Glory

The inspiration for Diane Ott Whealy to start Seed Savers, this plant is a self-seeding annual with purple petals and red inner star.

Old favorites sampler: 'Mammoth Red Rock' Cabbage

From 1889, these 8-inch red-veined heads are solid, can weigh 7 pounds, and consistently work well for cooking and salads.

Old favorites sampler: 'Amish Pie' Squash

From an Amish family in Maryland, the 5-inch produce is "one of the best processing pumpkins we have ever grown," Diane says. It's great for baking.

Old favorites sampler: 'Wenk's Yellow Hots' Pepper

Three-inch medium-hot wax peppers ripen from yellow to orange to red. They're good for canning.

Old favorites sampler: Snail Flower

This fragrant, annual tropical vine with corkscrew flowers can grow in containers.

Old favorites sampler: Yellow Onion

Seed Savers offers two heirloom Italian yellows: 'Borettana', which grows sweet, 4-inch, flat bulbs (good for kabobs); and 'Yellow of Parma', with large 1-pound globe-shape produce.

Old favorites sampler: 'Rattlesnake' Bean

This drought-resistant vine bean has purple-streaked 7-inch beans and exceptional flavor.

More heirloom edibles worth a taste

1. 'Queensland Blue' squash
2. 'Alma Paprika' pepper
3. 'Dragon' carrot
4. 'Bogatyr' garlic
5. 'Applegreen' eggplant
6. 'Bull's Blood' beet
7. 'American Tonda' squash
8. 'Black Hungarian' pepper
9. 'Jimmy Nardello's' pepper
10. 'Tolli's sweet Italian' pepper
11. 'Stupice' tomatoes
12. Thai sweet basil
13. 'Long Red Florence' onion
14. 'La Ratte' fingerling potato
15. 'Kerr's Pink' potato
16. 'Red Burgundy' okra

While you're in Decorah

In addition to beautiful bike trails, Decorah has memorable architecture and great restaurants. For information, contact the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/463-4692; visitdecorah.com). Some of our favorites include:

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum With more than 24,000 artifacts and 16 historic buildings, as well as a farmstead and country church, Vesterheim offers an engaging history lesson (563/382-9681; vesterheim.org).

Rubaiyat A seasonal menu, huge wine list and sophisticated entrees like citrus-rubbed salmon draw patrons to this 1865 downtown storefront (563/382-9463; rubaiyatrestaurant.com).

B&B on Broadway Victorian charm and modern-day luxury blend for a charming experience. From $100 (563/382-1420; bandbon broadway.com).

Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

Rubaiyat

B&B on Broadway

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