Dear Gardeners and Seed Savers,
The following poem hangs by my desk so I am reminded daily, in these troubling times, of the imperative to remember that “though all things differ, all agree.”
Windsor Forest — Alexander Pope, 1713
Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
Here earth and water seem to strive again,
Not chaos-like together crush’d and bruis’d,
But, as the world, harmoniously confus’d:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.
Welcome to the 2017 edition of the Solstice Seed Catalogue. After nine good years of devotion to promoting seed saving through this catalogue, it is time to move on to other pursuits. So this will be my last catalogue. Seed saving will, however, continue actively, it will simply go in a slightly different direction. I will continue to offer seed through the Seed Savers Exchange, I’ll attend seed swaps, give workshops, perhaps write. It has been my fervent hope from the beginning to inspire you all to save seeds in your gardens, to help continue the unbroken chain of preservation that we have been a part of since the beginning of domestic agriculture, and that has given us the wealth of vegetable and grain varieties we still enjoy today. We are the stewards of this treasure and we owe it to both past and future generations to continue the work.
Engaging in this work is more important now than ever. During the last year we’ve seen passage of the DARK Act, legislation which supersedes Vermont’s GMO labeling law and which—by making it cumbersome to get at the facts—prevents citizens from knowing which of the foods they purchase contain genetically engineered ingredients. I continue to encourage everyone to avoid foods containing GMO ingredients by purchasing locally, organically raised vegetables and meats, by supporting processed foods from manufacturers that have joined the non-GMO verified project, and by reading food ingredient labels carefully.
Of course best of all is growing your own. As long-time supporters of this catalogue will remember, all seeds offered here have been grown using organic methods right in my own garden. All varieties are open-pollinated, which means you can save your own seed from any variety and the offspring will come true to type. All have been selected for their ability to thrive in the Northeast. Many are rare, or not available commercially, or have interesting histories. All are exceptional in flavor, disease resistance, cold hardiness, and productivity.
The selection this year is slightly different from 2016. As has been my practice, I’ve let the seeds govern what’s available. That is to say that I will not simply include the most popular varieties, but will offer those that are most in need of growing out for fresh seed, have caught my interest, or are the result of successful trials. This means that even in this last catalogue there are a few tempting new varieties.
For a couple of years now I’ve been experimenting with dryland rice varieties. Dryland rice makes sense in a garden lacking the abundant supply of fresh water required for a paddy. The variety I’ve had outstanding results from is called Loto and originates in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. I first saw it growing in the Maggia Delta of the Ticino, the Italian language region of Switzerland, where it enjoys the distinction of being the northern-most rice cultivated in Europe. My starter seed came from the USDA, which sends about 5 grams of seed to fill requests. These approximately 100 seeds have increased, in this second year of growing, to 2 pounds of grain from 36 plants! In short, this is a highly productive, early-ripening cultivar, free of disease and undemanding in its cultivation. It grew in a moderately fertile ordinary garden bed and received no additional irrigation once it was established. I’m delighted to be including it this year and hope many of you will be interested in joining the effort to further the cultivation of rice in the Northeast.
The three Russian tomato varieties I wrote about last year continued to delight with extended crops of flavorful fruits. All three, Lyana, Ola Polka, and Skorokhod, are offered this year. These determinate varieties were excellent candidates for my experiment in succession planting in the greenhouse. Plants were started two weeks later than main crop tomatoes, and all produced fruit deep into the fall while remaining low enough to allow for easy covering for protection when cold weather set in.
On the seed saving front I continue to work on expanding my knowledge of how to save seed of the most challenging crops. This year’s “homework” involves growing Brussels Sprouts to seed. As many of you know, the hardest part of coaxing seed from biennials is that the plants need to be overwintered in a protected environment. Add to this the fact that brassicas require a particularly large population of parent plants to ensure the full genetic complement is passed on to the succeeding generation. My chosen variety is the relatively short Catskill. Plants started in mid-July reached the desired adolescent stage and were planted out in mid-August. On December 2nd, as late in the season as possible, 40 of the best specimens were trimmed of lower leaves and moved to the greenhouse. There they will remain, covered, till the ground warms sufficiently in spring for them to be planted back out for flowering and seed production.
Another project, and one that raises some anxiety for me, is the effort to preserve my favorite chard variety, Schnittmangold Gelb. I originally brought seeds of this variety back from Switzerland, where it is used in one of the most traditional dishes in the region my family comes from. It is tender of flavor but exceedingly cold hardy, and now it is beginning to wander off type. The leaves were originally smooth and very pale yellow-green, stems were pale green-white and very slender. I’m seeing darker green or more savoyed leaves, and wider, whiter stems. In an effort to preserve the original phenotype I started over 100 plants from my oldest seed and have moved the best examples into the greenhouse for overwintering. We’ll see, this may take a couple of years.
My enchantment with heritage grains continues and has helped suggest my new path. Over last winter I spent many happy hours absorbed in spelunking around the USDA’s Small Grain Collection in search of heritage winter wheats suitable for cultivation in the Northeast. Cross-referencing with the marvelous 1880s book by Vilmorin titled Les meilleurs blés (The best wheats), which gave exhaustive descriptions of outstanding wheats grown in France toward the end of the 19th century, I was able to request seed of many promising varieties from the USDA. All were planted this fall, and the challenge now is to be patient and keep birds and squirrels out of the field till the results can be harvested in 2017.
Over the last couple of years my correspondence with other grain growers worldwide has surged. Fellow gardeners have had a similar experience and the time has clearly come to create a platform where all those who are committed to reviving heritage and ancient grain varieties can network with each other. To that end a good friend and I have been developing a website dedicated to heritage grains and an associated “virtual seed bank” where farmers and gardeners can share seed, collaborate on trials, discuss projects, and learn from each other’s experience. Part of our mission is to identify worthy varieties and find avenues to return them to cultivation. Once again I exhort you to stay tuned, and please let me know if you are interested in being notified once we are ready to go public.
The question now, not only in my own mind, but in that of millions around the world, is where to go next. There will be no easy answer, but my hope is that we will, as a society, be able to look squarely at the global issues that face us and address them by going to the root of the problem rather than continuing to bat at the symptoms, by stepping up, each in our individual lives, and by making the changes that will matter.
Seed saving is not glamorous or flashy work. But it is profoundly fundamental, deeply satisfying, relevant, and helps build change from the bottom up. My heartfelt thanks go out to all of you who have supported this catalogue and have engaged in this work over the years. With wishes for peace and bounty in the new year and fulfillment in all your pursuits.