Keeping Heirloom Seed History Alive at Landis Valley Museum

The Heirloom Seed Project gardeners at Landis Valley Museum carefully grow more than 200 seed cultivars once grown by the Pennsylvania German community.

| Fall 2016

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.

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