Heirloom Gardener Blogs >

Heart & Sole Food

Heirloom Corn, The Criminal's Choice

I was robbed. Under cover of darkness, the gang attacked. Masked bandits carelessly rifled through my belongings, pillaging and breaking, leaving little untouched in their destructive wake. To make matters worse, I think they enjoyed the assault. Judging by evidence left at the crime scene, they probably danced as they carelessly plundered what I worked so hard to produce. Daylight revealed the devastation, but by then, the bandits were long gone.

corn destroyed

Davis corn, decimated

Adding insult to injury, the crop I grew was a special corn, produced from seed shared with me by a fifth-generation seed saver. The Davis family corn, multicolored and delicious, grows in the northwestern corner of Caldwell County, North Carolina, the same geographical location where this crop thrived for more than 100 years. My planting was well on the way to maturing when a pack of marauding raccoons attacked, leaving the heavy ears stripped of tender kernels and the tall stalks bent at the waist.

raccoon

Barely visible in right bottom corner, a telling tail of a robber

This tale began with a gathering of gardeners, seed savers, agricultural extension agents, and public library personnel. We met and exchanged ideas and plans for establishing a lending seed library for our community. Similar entities exist throughout the United States, but Caldwell County, with five, six, and seven generation seed savers, presents a unique opportunity to continue a tradition of passing along special food and flower crops to future generations. As one of the lucky ones to inherit seeds from my grandparents, passed to me through several generations, I accept the obligation to preserve these special life forms and do all in my power to ensure their health for future generations. When I received the Davis Corn seed, I pledged to grow a crop and return seeds to the Caldwell County Seed Library to allow others to grow this special corn. Little did I know, when I tucked the small envelope of seeds into my bag, the fate that awaited the heirlooms.

Outwitting, combating, and confusing predators is the organic farmer’s plight. Successful rewards are delicious, chemical-free produce. Farming failures include withered plants, decimated crops, and low yield. Year to year, it’s a crap shoot. Roll the dice and predators overlook a crop, resulting in a bountiful harvest. Another season, every eating machine known to man (and plant) shows up, leaving nothing behind but compost. Such is the farming life.

Fortunately, my crops include several of my grandparents’ seeds, passed to me by many generations of Caldwell County growers. I will share those special seeds with our newly established seed library, in hopes other gardeners will continue growing these geographically acclimated, hardy crops. Mountain White Half-Runner beans, pumpkins, summer squash, white cucumbers, peanuts, local tomatoes, and other vibrant plants will thrive in community gardens, thanks to my grandparents and ancestors who saved and shared those special seeds. While I lament the loss of Davis corn seed, I celebrate heirloom seed varieties I harvest and pass along to future growers.

seeds

Granny's Heirloom Seeds

Remember that story about Jack? The boy who traded his family’s precious cow for a handful of bean seeds? Those beans grew into vining stalks that led Jack to treasures and adventure. Heirloom seeds are like Jack’s beans. They connect us to history, to imagination and to sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Plan to include heirloom seeds in your next garden planting and reap the rewards of continuing tradition and imagination, along with palate pleasing flavor.

Meanwhile, I continue to mourn the loss of Davis corn, but accept my place in the food chain and remain grateful for the opportunity to trial this special seed, repeating the gardener’s optimistic mantra: “There’s always next year!”

Saving Miss Lucy

She’s quite the lady.  Strong and productive, even when adversity strikes.  Also, she has one of the biggest hearts around.  Miss Lucy is her name.  Well, it’s not her real name, but since the man who introduced her to me calls her Miss Lucy, I do the same.  Although she is a relative newcomer to my garden, Miss Lucy, a tall vining heirloom tomato, produces abundant, beautiful fruit and she seems to thrive when her neighbors wither in drought or drown in heavy rains. 

Miss Lucy pounder

Through the patchwork quilt serendipity that connects heirloom seed savers, I exchanged emails with Arty Schronce, an agricultural specialist in Georgia, who saw a story I wrote about growing black peanuts.  Arty’s father, Gordon Schronce, who lives in Iron Station, NC, grows black peanuts and supplies seed to companies, including the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  Mr. Schronce and I corresponded and I was thrilled when he sent some special heirloom seeds to me.  Along with white cucumbers, seed for a pink oxheart tomato was tucked in the package.  Mr. Schronce said he received the seed from an elderly woman, Miss Lucy, who grew these lovely tomatoes for many years.  In honor of her, Mr. Schronce called the tomato the “Miss Lucy.” 

A tall plant, Miss Lucy usually outgrows six-foot cages.  Abundant fruit sets on her strong limbs and ripe tomatoes often weigh more than a pound.  Smooth pink skin and richly colored, juicy flesh are trademarks of Miss Lucy.  With few seeds for the size of her fruit, Miss Lucy is an excellent slicing tomato and a sandwich made from her fruit is the ultimate summer treat.  Because she consistently produces in a variety of growing conditions and because she is delicious, I select a few of Miss Lucy’s most perfect specimens and harvest seeds to save for future planting.

Although there are many methods for saving tomato seed, I find the following to be most successful for me.  If you have a favorite heirloom tomato in your summer garden, harvest some seeds to grow next year.  With that first taste of next-generation fruit, you will happily welcome back a friend. 

 Miss Lucy seeding

Saving Heirloom Tomato Seeds

1. Select perfectly ripe, even overripe, heirloom tomatoes. (Hybrids, such as Sungold, will not produce the same fruit, so they are not desirable for seed saving.)  Choose fruit with best-specimen characteristics and avoid any with large cracks, signs of blight or blossom end rot or other undesirable traits.
2. Use a sharp knife to make an incision in the fruit or tear it apart with your fingers, to avoid damaging seeds.
3. Squeeze the flesh surrounding seed pockets and allow seeds to fall into a glass container.
4. Add enough water to cover the seeds by about an inch.
5. Agitate the contents with a spoon or your finger

Miss Lucy seeds in glass

6. Place the seeds, in the glass with water, out of direct sunlight for a day or two, agitating the contents a few times. (Note: sunlight triggers germination, so it is always best to keep seeds out of bright light until you are ready to plant.)
7. Pour water and seeds into the bowl of a fine mesh sieve. Rinse seeds completely, removing any particles of fruit.

Miss Lucy seeds in sieve

8. Place seeds on a glass plate with a small amount of water.
9. Allow seeds to completely dry and store in a paper envelope, small plastic bag or recycled medicine bottle.
10. Be sure to label the seed variety!

Miss Lucy seeds on plate