Margaret Hester photo
Sow True seeds
Carol Koury, co-founder and owner of Sow True, mans a booth at the Organic Growers Conferenc held this March at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.
Carol Koury and Peter Waskiewicz were neighbors, then friends, and are now business partners who share a vision of regional sustainability. Together, they’ve started Sow True Seeds, an Asheville-based seed company specializing in open-pollinated vegetable and flower varieties for the Southeast.
Sow True is working toward the regional sustainability of WNC. Both Koury and Waskiewicz are passionate about saving seeds, and teaching others about the value of saving seed.
“Economic and ecological sustainability is intertwined,” Waskiewicz says.
“We have so many fewer varieties of food than our parents and grandparents had,” she says. “Something like 93 percent of American food product diversity has been lost since 1900.”
Seed saving is important on both a commercial and home scale to ensure a wide, diverse gene pool, Koury says, and to prevent catastrophes such as the Irish potato blight. About 1 million people died from famine after fungus attacked the potato crops starting in 1845. The problem was a lack of genetic diversity—the few types of potatoes being grown in Ireland at the time lacked resistance to the fungus.
“Broadening the gene pool is a big reason to keep diversity,” Koury says. “Not only because we also have better things to eat as a result.”
To that end, Sow True Seeds only sells open-pollinated varieties. Many companies sell hybrid seed, which, it should be pointed out, isn’t inherently evil. Far from it. In fact, many hybrid varieties are bred for resistance to disease and for good taste. The problem with hybrid seed is that one can’t be sure what he or she will get if seeds are saved and replanted because the plants have been bred from two distinct “parent” lines. That’s not the case with open-pollinated seed.
“There is no product we sell that you cannot save the seed and plant it the next year,” Koury says. “We want you to be able to save the seeds.”
Waskiewicz says it isn’t practical for the home gardener to save every variety of everything they grow, but that he hopes people will save at least two or three types a year. By saving seeds, one not only becomes a part of history, one helps to ensure the future.
Keith Nicholson, who lives in Franklin, N.C., started saving seed soon after he and his father planted a pumpkin patch together. Hooked on gardening at age 9, by age 12 Nicholson was saving different varieties of peppers. He initially was simply fascinated by the curious names. Who, Nicholson wonders aloud, could resist growing something called “sheep-nose” peppers? Then to discover one could grow them all over again the next year, and the year after that, just by saving seed? A passion was born, and Nicholson has saved seed ever since.
Today, Nicholson teaches workshops across Western North Carolina on how to save seeds, particularly heirloom varieties. His best advice for beginners is to take a little time and learn the basic nomenclature of seed saving. Seeds that are most suitable for saving are called open-pollinated. This means they will be true to their parents, unlike hybrids, which are the first generation offsprings of two distinct varieties. The seed of hybrids are sometimes sterile, but more often than that, the problem is they don’t breed “true,” Nicholson says.
That element of uncertainty in hybrids can be fun if one is into surprises or new discoveries. But for beginners, the best way to start is to save seed from one’s favorite plants, picking ones that are easy—such as peppers, beans, and of course, tomatoes.
When buying seeds for the garden to grow plants for seed saving, Nicholson says look for hints in key words such as “old-timey” and “heritage.” Chances are, these seeds are open-pollinated varieties suitable for the home seed-saver.
Flip through Sow True Seeds catalogue and one will find old favorites such as Kentucky Wonder Bush beans and Pink Brandywine tomatoes. But one also will find cut short Greasy beans and long Greasy beans, Southern Appalachian specialties. Right now, Sow True Seeds is focusing on “commonly grown food crops,” Waskiewicz says, but in a few years the company will add medicinal plants and more.
Koury, CEO of Sow True Seeds, began her career as an advocate for animal protection and later became a financial advisor and activist for women’s health and the environment. She learned to garden from her father and grandmother.
Waskiewicz started working for a certified organic seed company in New Mexico in his early 20s, and then co-founded the Sustainable Education and Resource Center in that same state. In 2000, Waskiewicz moved to Western North Carolina and operated SouthEast Ecological Design, a green building and permaculture design firm.
A couple of years ago, Koury and Waskiewicz put their skill sets and passions for gardening together to form Sow True Seeds, which today consists of five full-time workers and about 15 part-time employees. The company currently offers 370 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, plus bulbs and tubers.
Randy Gogolin of Sylva, N.C., who makes his living as a nurseryman, specializes in growing spring starts for gardeners, and sells his plants at farmers markets in WNC. Gogolin loves teaching new gardeners about how to save seed, and is never too busy at his market stand to stop and chat about his profession and his love for seed saving. Teaching others how to save seed isn’t creating unwanted business competition. In Gogolin’s view, it’s helping to ensure the sustainability of a region.
“I’m scared of Monsanto,” Gogolin flatly says. “They buy up rights to seeds, and then pull them off the market.”
Monsanto is a company known for vigorously defending its patents of genetically modified (G.M.) seeds. The seeds, which include U.S. food staples such as certain varieties of soybeans and corn the company has developed, resist the Monsanto-owned herbicide, Roundup. This means farmers can easily spray for weeds without killing their cash crop. It doesn’t stop there, however: Monsanto requires farmers to agree not to save seed from the Roundup Ready crops, and has filed numerous lawsuits against those accused of having done just that.
Monsanto has gone even further than that, however. What Gogolin fears more than G.M. seeds is a more recent move by Monsanto to control distribution of conventional seed. Six years ago, Monsanto bought Seminis, a company that had about 40 percent of the nation’s vegetable- and fruit-seed market. Since then, Monsanto has quit producing and selling some of the varieties, meaning they are lost to home gardeners and farmers unless they’ve been saving seed.
Gogolin believes people living in each community, each region, must work together to create seed banks of locally adapted seeds. In this way, no matter what happens to conventional seed companies, we all can be assured of future growing seasons and of being able to produce our own food.
Keep things simple when begining seed saving, Gogolin says. Start by growing plants for seeds that don’t cross easily, such as the peppers, tomatoes and beans that Nicholson also recommended. For those plants that do cross easily (meaning wind, bees or other insects move pollen from one plant to another, “crossing” the various plants), Gogolin says just grow one variety of cucumbers, for instance, or a single type of corn.
If using this technique, make sure neighbors’ gardens aren’t too close, or plants will simply be cross-pollinated by theirs. How close is too close? That’s a tricky question. Sometimes one just has to do the best he or she can, Gogolin says.
Corn pollen, for instance, is light and easily blown about by wind. Most experts recommend at least 250 feet between varieties. But tomatoes rarely cross, Gogolin said, and beans are slow to cross, too, meaning isolation among varieties isn’t as critical.
Gogolin’s good friend and fellow plant lover, Cathy Arps of Sylva, agrees in regional sustainability when it comes to seed saving. She wants new gardeners to understand that generally speaking, the best seeds to save are from those vegetable plants that grow easily in a particular region.
“If they grow well here, they grow well for a reason,” says Arps, who with husband Ron has operated a small CSA (community supported agriculture) in Jackson County for many years. “We’re trying to get the point across to people that those plants are adapted to the area and to the climate. That’s very important.”
To that end, Arps helps organize a seed swap each year at the Jackson County Farmers Market. This generally occurs in the fall, the prime time for seed-saving activities. Farmers swap seeds, home gardeners swap seeds, and in that way, everyone who participates helps protect and preserve treasured varieties, Arps says.
Christine Bredenkamp, a horticulturist for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service who works in Jackson and Swain counties, has seen interest in seed saving burgeon in recent years. So much so, this former Sygenta Seeds plant geneticist now offers courses in basic seed saving for area gardeners.
“We talk about types of plants that are easy for cleaning and saving seed,” Bredenkamp says.
Seed saving does have some drawbacks, as Bredenkamp and others are quick to point out. The plants must stay in the garden from planting time until seeds are produce—that can represent almost the entire gardening season. Additionally, seed should be saved from plants that demonstrate positive traits, which means the more one has to pick from, the merrier. So the seed saver must dedicate both time and space in the garden.
There are a few tricks, such as growing only one variety a year, as mentioned previously by Gogolin. Also, one doesn’t have to save seeds from every variety every year— save enough in one year for two plantings, for instance, and there will be more space available for harvestable growth. This does require good note taking and planning, however.
When it comes time to save seed, there are three basic attributes to look for: resistance to disease, good production and great taste.“It is kind of sad, because you don’t get to eat the very best of the best,” Arps says. “Those are the very ones you save.”