Save Our Seeds! Grumpy Speaks Out at Monticello

August 11, 2013 | By | Comments (2)

Thomas Jefferson’s iconic vegetable garden at Monticello is sacred ground — the South’s first test garden. Photo: Steve Bender.

One of the hottest trends in gardening today is growing heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flowers — the plants we remember from childhood. But what if seeds for those plants disappeared forever? It could happen if we let it. How to prevent this is what I’ll be talking about at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello this September 6-7.

For thousands of years, farmers had basically one source for the seeds they planted — the seeds saved last year’s crop. These seeds were necessarily well-adapted to the particular areas those farmers lived, though they might not thrive 300 miles away. And so the world enjoyed a bounty of genetic diversity and crops like ‘Cow Horn’ okra, ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato, and ‘Country Gentleman’ sweet corn. Folks proudly dressed up their privies with tall spires of ‘Outhouse’ hollyhock.

Cherokee Purple tomato

‘Cherokee Purple’ is among the most popular of heirloom tomatoes today. Photo: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The Green Revolution
The 20th century brought big changes to the gardening world. Seed companies could ship hybrid seeds across country and all over the world. Hybrids (crosses between two or more varieties) had the advantages of bigger yields and adaptability to a wider range of growing conditions. So farmers started saving less seed and growing more hybrids. So successful were the new hybrids at increasing the world’s food supply that people called it “The Green Revolution.” So what’s the problem?

Answer — So many farmers turned to growing only hybrids that the number of local heirloom varieties of corn, beans, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. being grown dropped dramatically. Hundreds of varieties commonly grown in the 1700’s disappeared by the mid-1900’s. Everyone was planting the same thing — not because it tasted better, but usually because it grew faster, produced more, and shipped better, meaning it cost farmers and distributors less.

Growing the same thing is inherently dangerous, because if a new disease shows up that didn’t affect the heirlooms, a catastrophic crop failure could lead to famine. This is exactly what happened with the Irish potato famine. Potatoes come from the Andes in South America, where hundreds of different kinds are still grown. But the Irish preferred and planted just one kind — the “Lumper.” When an airborne fungus called potato blight arrived in 1845, the Lumper, having no resistance, turned black and rotted in the fields. And since most Irish depended on that one lumpy potato for sustenance, more than a million starved.

What We Can Do
It’s up to you and I to make sure that nothing like this happens again. The best way is save, share, and grow seeds of local heirloom varieties that international seed companies aren’t involved with. And that’s what I’ll be talking about at Monticello next month. It’s a fitting place, because its builder, Thomas Jefferson, was an enthusiastic seed saver and swapper. And thanks to the folks at Monticello, many of the crops he grew are available to you today.


Grow local, buy local. You’ll find lots of heirloom veggies and fruits at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival this September in Charlottesville, VA. Photo by Steve Bender.

I’ll be talking at the Grand Preview Dinner on Friday night, September 6. Joining me will be one of my heroes, Cary Fowler, founder of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. Carved into a frozen mountain on Spitzbergen Island about 800 miles from the North Pole, the Seed Vault provides a secure repository where any nation can store its irreplaceable seed varieties in perpetuity.

Only one person is happier about this turn of events than I. That would be Svalbard, my trusty garden gnome. He, too, is irreplaceable.

Svalbard the gnome

Svalbard has it covered. Photo by Steve Bender.

On Saturday, September 7, the festival really kicks into high gear with heirloom fruit and veggie tastings, a seed swap, tours of the gardens at Monticello, vendors selling all kinds of local food and products, demonstrations of traditional farm activities, and lots of interesting workshops and lectures. Grumpy will be talking about Passalong Plants. Come by and I’ll sign your book.

Click here for more information about the Heritage Harvest Festival. Be there or be square!


  1. stephenia tyler

    thanx for info about bougainvellia; maybe i will finally get blooms:-)

    August 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm
  2. Arthur in the Garden!


    August 11, 2013 at 11:54 am

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