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Heirloom Vegetable Gardening

Jere and Emilee Gettle seek out heirloom seeds from around the world, then put their discoveries to the test in their Missouri garden.

Most people travel the world in their twenties to find themselves. Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle, now 30, went to southeast Asia and Central America sleuthing for seeds. "My friends and I would buy fruit at the markets," he says. "We'd open it right there or take it back to the hotel to get out the seeds."

He's had this seed obsession since he was in his early teens, collecting different kinds from catalogs and traders. In 1998, at age 17, he printed his first Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. The timing was good: The heirloom-seed trend was just taking off. His Missouri-based company built a following, largely by word of mouth, and people from around the world now send him small envelopes; for example, he's been receiving seeds from an Iraqi man who is concerned that many old varieties have been lost since the US invasion. Sometimes, the seeds come with a detailed description of the variety, but more often, there are just a few words on a scrap of paper—"Melon, has rich sweetness" or "Grandmother's favorite bean." Jere tests them in his garden, and if the seeds are worth saving—if they have an interesting history, are easy to grow and produce something especially delicious—he'll grow enough to sell. His Baker Creek catalog and its website, rareseeds.com, offer more than 1,300 different varieties of seeds from more than 70 different countries.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Comstock
© Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seed exchanges are nothing new. "George Washington used to trade seeds with people from China," Jere says. "Obviously, it was harder to communicate back then, but it's a very old practice." Fueled by vegetable-worshipping chefs and the growing DIY food movement, Jere and his wife, Emilee, have expanded their business well beyond their pocket of Missouri. Two years ago, they opened a store in an old bank in Petaluma, California, in part because they wanted an excuse to get out of Missouri in the winter. At the same time, they received a letter from the owners of the Connecticut-based Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continually operating seed catalog in New England, asking if the Gettles were interested in taking over the business. In 2010, they bought the company, which sells seeds that thrive in the northeastern United States, including some that can be traced back to the pre–Civil War era.

Back in Missouri, there's Bakersville, an old-timey village they created near the Ozark Mountains as an outgrowth of the Baker Creek catalog. Complete with livestock, an apothecary shop and staff dressed like 19th-century homesteaders, the town feels like something out of a Little House on the Prairie book. (Laura Ingalls Wilder's house-turned-museum is only a few miles away, in fact.) In October, the Gettles will release their first book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, with fast, practical tips geared toward "people used to reading Facebook," Jere says.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Radish
© Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Despite the Gettles' embrace of all things old (they, too, wear the occasional piece of pioneer-style clothing), the couple throw themselves into current controversies. In their catalogs, on Twitter and really wherever they get a chance, they rail against the use of hybridized and genetically modified seeds with the battle cry "Fight gene-altered Frankenfood!" These seeds, using "newfangled technology," as Jere calls it, are bred more for hardiness and disease resistance than flavor and nutrient density. But what also scares the Gettles and their supporters is that many hybrid and GMO seeds do not reproduce properly. They force farmers to buy new seeds each year and, potentially, obliterate the tradition of passing down seeds from generation to generation.

The Gettles are particularly concerned about places where old seeds are truly endangered; in parts of the former Soviet Union, for instance, many heirlooms are preserved only by elderly gardeners in remote locations. The genes in these seeds could be valuable: For example, the olive-green Malakhitovaya Shkatulka tomato, sold in the Baker Creek catalog, grows in Siberia and stands up well to the cold.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Squash
© Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Although they have access to so many heirloom fruits and vegetables, the Gettles tend to cook with whatever is ready to pull from the garden. Often they end up blending a few different varieties of vegetables together. For example, when Emilee makes her grandmother's pickley potato salad, she sometimes mixes blue potatoes with a yellow variety so the result tastes earthier. Versions of her fluffy Chinese steamed buns made with Asian greens and curried-rice-stuffed sweet peppers are often on the menu at the vegetarian restaurant in Bakersville. That might seem out of place in a 19th-century Ozarks village, but it's just right for a couple of young activists who have traveled the world to find seeds.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Cook's Guide to Saving Seeds

Jere and Emilee Gettle's forthcoming book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, outlines the easiest way to save seeds. Here are five things to know.

1. Save Only Heirlooms

Also known as open-pollinated varieties, heirloom seeds can be passed down for years; hybrid seeds usually don't reproduce properly.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: Tomato
© Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

2. Choose the Most Desirable Plants

Look for useful traits (for example, great flavor or early ripening) and keep seeds from ripe and healthy produce.

3. Learn the Quirks of Saving Different Seeds

Pepper seeds can be scraped out and dried; beans can dry while still in the garden in their pods; tomato seeds are best when they are soaked for a few days until they ferment before drying.

4. Clean, then Dry

Spread well-cleaned seeds on newspaper or paper plates and let dry for several days, stirring occasionally. If it's humid, use a fan to speed up the process.

5. Store in a Cool Place

Seeds will last for at least 3 years (and up to 10) in a dark, cool and dry spot.

video Video: Garden Tips and Recipes


Ideas for Fruits and Vegetables

Published August 2011
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