We were delighted to meet Ben Cohen of Small House Farm at the Ohio Valley Seed Swap this past spring. His focus on the importance of preserving biodiversity and building community spoke directly to our Slow Food hearts, and he was kind enough to share the following article with us and with you.
As we enter into the peak season of production of some of the easiest seeds to save – tomatoes. On August 12th, Vicky Tewes, swap organizer and owner of Thistlehair Farm in Big Bone, Kentucky, will be hosting her famous Heirloom Tomato Festival. We hope the following article and the upcoming festival will inspire you to save some seeds – right now, when the plant and seed health is at its peak – to trade next year, and enjoy with your own community in the seasons to come.
SAVING SEEDS by Ben Cohen
I’ve been saving seeds from my garden for a number of years now. It started out harmless enough… a handful of beans gifted to me by a friend. He said, “Grow these beans. Save the seeds and share them.” They were Cherokee Trail of Tears, a small black bean that grew on incredibly productive vines that reached heights that I never could have imagined… taller than our house! To this day, I still tell the story of those “magic “ beans and how well they grew. I also still share the seed with anyone that’s interested in trying to grow some themselves. In fact, I had the opportunity to share those seeds and their story at a number of events and seeds swaps this past spring. Many times I was there as a scheduled presenter, but sometimes as the average heirloom seed enthusiast, eager to have the chance to share seeds and stories with my fellow growers. One of the events was the Ohio Valley Seed Swap, which is where I met the awesome people from Slow Food Cincinnati.
When I do speak at these events, one topic I like to focus on is why it’s so important to save our seeds. While the ‘how-to’ aspect is certainly important too, more often than not, the question people ask me is why. Why save seeds from my garden when it’s so much simpler to just purchase them from the store? Or better yet, order them online and have them delivered right to my door! While there’s no doubt that seed saving requires a bit more effort than a few clicks on your keyboard, the benefits of saving your own seed are worth the extra effort!
To me, the number one benefit of saving seed is maintaining independence. And I don’t mean as just an individual but also as a community. Through community seed sharing programs, entire neighborhoods can become more independent in providing their families with healthy, responsibly grown fruits and vegetables. As the seeds we share continue to adapt to our climate and growing conditions, we can select seed for earlier, tastier, even more drought tolerant varieties… we choose which traits we desire in our gardens and then select for that. In the simplest way, we become plant breeders.
As seed savers we can also celebrate diversity. I often say that beans and corn are my favorite seeds to save, because you can see the diversity right in the seed. But the diversity of the garden goes far beyond just beans and corn! I often share pictures during my lectures of a very unique brassica, the Jersey Cabbage, also known as the walking stick cabbage. Originally from the island of Jersey in the English Channel , this member of the mustard family grows a stalk that can reach heights of six to ten feet.. Now that’s a unique cabbage!
Another benefit of saving your own seed is the preservation of history. This is probably my favorite part of saving seed. The stories and history that often come along with seeds are simply amazing to me. Take for instance, ‘Kermit’s Smoky Mountain Pole Bean’. A bean I was recently gifted that can be traced back to Kermit Caughron, the last man to have lived in the Smoky Mountain National Park. Or, the “6-Week Tan” bean, given to me by Bunny Ashby last year at the Appalachian Seed Swap. Her family has grown this early producing bush bean in their holler in Kentucky for over 100 years!
Whatever the reason that draws you to seed saving, consider giving it a try. There are many resources available online and at your local library to help you get started. If you’d like to drop me a line sometime to chat about seeds, I’m always available. I have plenty of seeds to help get you started too. While I may have started my seed keeping journey with only a handful of black beans, seeds multiply exponentially. And your love for saving them and sharing their stories will too!
Small House LLC