When cold weather has turned the ground rock hard, gardeners turn to seed catalogs to spice up their dreams of the warm season to come. Hitting mailboxes across the country in the dead of winter, the annual publications are where the garden begins.
Gardeners growing heirloom vegetables from seed have a friend in Jere Gettle. In 1998, at the age of 17, Gettle launched a seed catalog devoted entirely to heirlooms. Gettle's passion jumps off the catalog's pages with vivid photos and descriptions of produce and flowers—like the 50 heirloom tomato varieties categorized by color: green, orange, pink, purple, red, striped, white and yellow.
"Heirloom is a broad term," Gettle says, "but I would say it's an open or naturally pollinated seed that has been saved for 50 or more years. If it's not uniform, it's probably an heirloom. "In our garden last year, my wife and I had 20 varieties of lettuce. Our favorites are Lollo Rosso, a deep red frilly lettuce; Mascara, the brightest red lettuce I've seen; and the old favorite Black-Seeded Simpson with lime colored leaves. We also had carrots, peas, broccoli, radishes, onions, eggplant and cauliflower."
Gettle's seeds are available through his print catalog, online at rareseeds.com and at his 176-acre farm, Bakersville, in Mansfield, Mo. In June 2009, he opened a second retail space, The Seed Bank in Petaluma, Calif., where he sells seeds, gardening tools and books, and locally made jams, jellies and honeys.
Gettle's passion to collect hasn't lessened. He and wife Emilee visit markets, villages, roadsides stands and small seed companies to look for heirlooms when they travel. "People come to us and say, 'My grandmother used to grow this tomato. Can you find it?' I love to help them."
- To save tomato seeds, crush tomatoes and let them ferment in a bucket three days. The seeds will sink to the bottom. Pour everything else off, rinse seeds and dry them.
- To harvest squash seeds, harvest squash when it is ripe and hard. Wait one month and then cut it open and scrape out the seeds. Rinse pulp away and dry seeds well.
- To save lettuce seeds, wait until lettuces go to seed, put a pillowcase over seed head and shake off seeds.
- To save bean seeds, harvest bean pods, dry them and pull seeds out.
- Store all very dry seeds in cool or cold, dry conditions. Freeze or refrigerate seeds with packets of silica gel or powdered milk to keep them dry. The cooler you keep seeds, the longer they will last—4 to 8 years. Heat destroys them.
Story by Nancy Krcek Allen, a food writer in Maple City, Mich. To order a catalog, contact Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Rd., Mansfield, Mo. 65704, (417) 924-8917.