You might be like a lot of gardeners these days who are eager to experiment with different varieties of their favorite crops. Well, the odds are pretty good that the unique variety you’re excited to try this year is available to you thanks, in large part, to this week’s guest. Diane Ott Whealy is the co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, and her passion has helped to preserve hundreds of varieties that might have otherwise been lost to extinction.
I’ve twice had the pleasure of visiting Diane at Heritage Farms in Decora, Iowa. It’s there that Seed Savers Exchange bases their operations, and it’s where they grow thousands of seed varieties to save and sell. If you’re not able to visit in person, a tour through the Growing a Greener World® episode my team and I filmed onsite is well worth your time.
Rediscovering the Past
Diane grew up on an Iowa dairy farm, and daily visits to her grandparents’ home nearby instilled an early love of gardening. Her grandfather was particularly fond of morning glories, and their canopy of vines and blooms was a favorite place to gather in the evenings.
So when Diane and her husband, Kent, began to plan their first garden, she asked her grandfather for morning glory seeds. That’s when she learned that the plants her grandfather had been growing for decades were descendants of seeds his parents had brought to America from their Bavarian homeland.
As she held the seeds in her hand, Diane felt a living connection to her ancestors. When her grandfather passed away a few months later, Diane realized that, if she hadn’t asked for those seeds, she would have lost a treasured connection to him and to a past that stretched for years into her family tree.
This realization really struck a chord with the Whealys. At the time, home gardeners were primarily interested in buying hybrid seeds, so most seed companies weren’t carrying many heirloom options.
Diane wrote a letter to Mother Earth News, one of the only publications of its time that focused on living sustainably. She asked if anyone else was interested in saving seeds and hoped to draw attention to the value of older varieties which were being lost. The heritage of family-grown seeds was disappearing when those varieties weren’t handed down to a new generation of gardeners.
The readers of Mother Earth News responded with enthusiasm, and the Whealys soon began receiving seeds from all across the country, accompanied by letters telling their history. The Whealys cataloged it all and took on the responsibility for keeping the seeds – and their stories – alive.
It didn’t take long for the project to take on a life of its own, and without any background in horticulture, the Whealys set their new-found passion to work, devoting all their time to the collection and preservation of heirloom seed varieties.
They formed a non-profit organization because they felt it was important that seed should never belong to one company but to the people. Without a business plan or budget, Seed Savers Exchange was born. It’s no easy task to begin a small business – especially a non-profit – but their determination and passion to protect the history and diversity of seeds overcame each challenge.
Sometimes, everything just seems to come together in a natural progression, and that was the case during the early days at Seed Savers Exchange. As people continued to send seeds, some began providing financial support too. One by one, the SSE team grew with talented and passionate new staff members.
Forty-five years later, Seed Savers Exchange is going stronger than ever and has helped to transform the seed market – revitalizing an appreciation for heirloom varieties. SSE has also served as the inspiration for a new generation of small seed producers and sellers.
Diane is a firm believer that any seed with a story is worth growing. What started as a hodgepodge collection of seeds stored in their freezer, has matured into a full-blown seed bank, complete with a computerized archive of the stories accompanying each variety.
One of their largest collections came in the early days, from another amateur collector – John Withee. During his own personal hunt for a bean variety enjoyed during his childhood, John had collected over 5,000 different varieties of bean seed. He sent them to Seed Savers Exchange to carry on his legacy. Today, his contribution is not only grown in gardens across the world but, also, memorialized in a display at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Diane soon found that many older gardeners had become collectors, and those collections kept rolling in for safekeeping in the hands of Seed Savers Exchange. Diane and team grew them all – first on rented land in Decora and then on Heritage Farms.
In the early days, visitors would gawk at the thousands of colorful varieties of heirloom species growing in the Seed Savers Exchange garden. After all, crops had become largely homogenized at the time. Most people had never seen a tomato that was green, black or striped.
The garden became a living museum, where visitors could come and walk among plants that hadn’t been grown – outside of a single-family garden or two – for decades.
After receiving more and more requests from gardeners who were interested in seed but not interested in becoming members of the Exchange, the organization began distributing modest one-page lists of what was available for purchase. These days, the Seed Savers Exchange catalog is full of unique varieties and popular for its beautiful format – complete with the photographs and stories that make it difficult to restrain yourself from buying more than you can plant.
Diane is always mindful and encourages others to remember that all of the options on display in the catalog are only available, because someone cared enough to send that variety to Seed Savers Exchange for preservation. Today, the SSE seed bank collection is over 24,000 varieties of heirloom plants.
A True Legacy
Not all the seeds sent to Seed Savers Exchange actually become part of their massive collection. Everything they receive undergoes a sort of validation process.
Someone with the organization spends time verifying the story and other information about every new seed contribution that arrives. If the variety is confirmed to be unique, it is assigned an identification number, and its history – or story – is cataloged as well.
The new seed is grown on Heritage Farms, and an ongoing crop record is maintained to ensure ongoing viability. Any variety sold in the catalog has undergone an in-house germination test to confirm that the seed is viable in that year.
There’s plenty of room to grow so much diversity at Heritage Farms. The property has expanded to 900 organically-managed acres. Thousands of varieties of seed are grown every year to maintain ongoing viability, trial new seeds received and produce enough supply to be available for members or catalog sales.
In the true spirit of one of their mottos – people, seeds & storage – the Seed Savers Exchange has also developed educational programs to share information on gardening and seed saving.
Diane says that the SSE roots are strong, and they grow deeper every year. The team remains focused on its mission to save genetic diversity and maintain our garden heritage. Fortunately, more gardeners than ever before are recognizing the joy of growing something with a storied past.
So if you stumble across a container of seeds in your grandparents’ basement or dusty cedar chest, I hope that you’ll take the time to investigate that tiny treasure and consider sharing with the Seed Savers Exchange. You just might be resurrecting a long lost variety that will become a favorite for a new generation of gardeners.
Is there a seed variety that has been passed down by your family? I hope you’ll share your story in the Comments section below.
Be sure to listen in to my conversation with Diane by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. She shares several more memories and other insights on seed diversity. In fact, I’d venture to say that this episode has something a little in common with time in the garden – it’s good for mind, body, and soul.
Links & Resources
Episode 004: Heirloom Tomatoes: Past, Present and Future with Craig LeHoullier
Episode 125: Saving Seeds: The Basics, the Benefits and Beyond
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Know if Seeds Are Still Good
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access!
Master Seed Starting – My newest online course teaching you how to master the art of starting your own plants from seed and seeding care! Registration closing soon, so don’t miss out!
Growing a Greener World® Episode 117: Seed Savers Exchange