Skip to content

Lettuce Growout at Heritage Farm

by Kent Whealy, 1997

The seed collections at Heritage Farm have continued to grow rapidly in recent years, and now contain more than 18,000 total varieties.  At the end of 1996, our collections included:  3,511 beans;  645 corns;  193 cucumbers;  136 eggplants;  187 garlics;  836 lettuces;  426 melons;  934 peas;  1,213 peppers;  1,016 squash;  156 sunflowers;  4,090 tomatoes;  226 watermelons;  and smaller amounts of 67 other vegetable crops.  At that same time, Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard also contained 667 apples and 163 grapes.  And all of these figures were before receiving two large shipments of seeds during the spring of 1997 from the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, which contained samples of traditional varieties from the three collecting expeditions last summer to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, Russia’s Volga Valley, and the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine (see the three following articles in this issue).

During a typical summer at Heritage Farm, we normally grow about 2,000 varieties for seed, usually about 10% of our major collections:  300 tomatoes;  300 beans;  125 pep­pers (under screen cages); etc.  In 1989 we began taking documentary photographs and collecting data on most of the varieties being grown in the preservation gardens at Heritage Farm.  Each photo is taken on a 1″ grid, and the content varies depending on the crop being photographed.  For instance, documentary photos of tomatoes include a typical leaf, four views of the fruit (stem side, blossom side, side view, and a cut fruit showing the internal structure), and a label with the variety’s name and SSE #.  Photos of peppers include a branch of leaves with an immature fruit, three views of the mature fruit (whole fruit, fruit cut lengthwise, and a cross section), plus name label.  And so on.

A couple of years ago Heritage Farm became a “Listed Member” in Seed Savers Year­book, so that we can gradually distribute the unique varieties in Heritage Farm’s collec­tions to SSE’s members.  Heritage Farm only lists a variety if we have enough excess seed (beyond what we need for our storage purposes) and if no other SSE member is offering that variety in the yearbook (because we don’t want to compete in any way with our members).  Our goal is to eventually use the data being collected during the growouts to provide excellent descriptions for the varieties Heritage Farm offers through the yearbook.  The data taken at Heritage Farm focuses on traits that are impor­tant to gardeners and small market growers, such as maturities, appearance and produc­tivity.  We quickly found, however, that some of the data can vary greatly with the weather conditions from summer to summer.  As I said, we usually grow about 10% of each crop each year, so we are dealing with 10 different summers that can vary from severe drought, to the floods of 1993, to this year’s extended cool spring.

A few years ago I accompanied Nancy Arrowsmith, director of Arche Noah in Austria, on a couple of trips to the seed bank at Gatersleben in eastern Germany.  One of the many activities at Gatersleben that really impressed me was their extensive use of evaluative growouts.  For example, one year Gatersleben’s staff grew three plants of each of the 3,000 different tomatoes in their collection.  By growing the entire collection in the same season, they are able to take evaluative data and photos that actually mean something.  After such a growout, they know exactly what is in their collection.

During the spring of 1996 we attempted our first evaluative growout of a complete col­lection at Heritage Farm.  I chose lettuce, and more than 750 varieties were planted in Heritage Farm’s new greenhouse.  The growout contained four heads of each variety, set out in long rows.  For weeks, the weather cooperated perfectly – cool, overcast and drizzle – and the lettuce plants were absolutely perfect.  One evening a brief shower of hail damaged some of the small leaves – as I watched and gritted my teeth – but a week later the plants had completely outgrown any sign of damage.

My daughter Carrie and I came back from a trip to Russia at the very end of May, when the lettuces were starting to approach their peak.  I wish that every one of you could have joined me on my morning walks through that dew soaked, glistening, gorgeous display of genetic diversity.  There still hadn’t been any hot weather and almost no bolting, except for a few really weedy types that started running to seed almost immedi­ately.  The plant types varied from those weedy types, at one end of the spec­trum, to the most refined iceberg types.  There were less Romaines than I expected, just a few dozen.  Only half a dozen were speckled, and half a dozen others were an extremely frilly type I hadn’t seen.   The colors ranged from very light yellowish-greens to dark forest greens (and even a few odd colored gray-greens).  The reds ranged from the lightest pinks to the darkest maroons, with some of the colors appearing just on the frilled edges of the leaves while quite a few had solid-colored maroon heads.  Every conceivable leaf shape was there (oak leaf, arrowhead, deer tongue) as well as more blisters and frills than I’ve ever seen.  And all of it was glistening in the morning dew.  Wow!

Trying to achieve a steady level of consistency with our documentary photos has always been a struggle, due to the varying intensity of the light in the gardens (even when photos were taken under a draped bed sheet), as well as varying angles due to the pho­tographer’s height (most are almost straight down, but some are at quite an angle).  We have always used photographer’s gray cards for the background on which we drew a 1″ grid, so that the various shades of gray background on the finished photo would give an indication of the variations in color caused by the varying intensity of light in the garden.  Of course, that only shows  the range of brightness, not the trueness of the colors.  And, poor quality local developing has contributed significantly to variations in both bright­ness and color.

Last year we constructed a permanent photography corner in Heritage Farm’s barn.  The camera is mounted on (and rolls up and down) a square column, so that its height can be varied depending on the size of the subject.  Closeups of blossoms are taken on a small grid up very near the camera, at its lowest position on the column, and large shots are taken with the camera up near the ceiling and the watermelon or squash (for example) on a large grid on the floor.  I took a new photographer’s gray card to our local paint store, where their computer scanned and matched the flat gray exactly.  Then I painted a sheet of smooth plywood (three coats), and cut it into various sized rectan­gles.  Perma­nent “Sharpie” markers were used to draw the 1″ grids.  The larger grids have 6″ inter­vals marked even more darkly. The entire surface of the grid has to be permanent and washable, because cut tomatoes or washed lettuce heads can be really wet and have to be wiped off continually to prevent glare.

Twin flashes, aimed upwards, are mounted about 18″ below the white ceiling.  The flashes bounce off the white ceiling and provide a consistent level of light.  We have started using 400 speed Kodak print film entirely, mainly because prints are so much easier to store and access than slides.  (Some folks will argue that slides are superior for publishing, but only a tiny portion of these photos will ever be published as high-quality color images, and our printing company has just purchased greatly improved scanners capable of producing virtually the same results from either photos or transparencies.)  Camera settings are determined by using a flash meter that measures the light at the dif­ferent levels of our grids (floor level, table level, and on a box on the table).  The light at these different levels is always the same (depending on the grid’s distance from the white ceiling), so the height of the camera (up or down the column) doesn’t matter.

During June 1996, more than 750 of the lettuces in Heritage Farm’s collection were photographed.  Each photo includes the top view of a full head, a head cut in half to show internal structure, and a typical leaf.  The computer-generated name labels (which were 6″ long and seemed plenty big at the time, but should have been larger) include the variety name, SSE Lettuce #, and date of the photo.  Along the top edge we placed a color scale (Kodak Color Control Patches), which shows the pri­mary colors and white and black.  We also have started taking our film to LaCrosse, Wisconsin for developing, at a one-hour lab in a huge grocery store that has new, high-quality, automated proces­sors.   The lab’s staff can look at our color scale and adjust the color levels on each roll of film, if needed.  Although I’m certain that brightness and colors will always vary some­what, we are now getting images that are much more con­sistent.  And the price is so inexpensive that we can afford to always have duplicate images made, so one com­plete set will always be accessible for quick reference, while the other set can be robbed for Plant Profiles, seed brochures, or whatever.  The negatives are stored off site.

This summer we are attempting an evaluative growout of Heritage Farm’s squash col­lection.  The project is under the direction of Kathy Moen, Heritage Farm’s new garden manager.  Kathy is a relatively recent graduate of Iowa State with triple degrees in Entomology, Pest Management and Plant Pathology.  She is being advised by Glenn Drowns, SSE’s curator of corns and “cucurbits” (the vine crops:  squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers).  We are growing both Glenn’s and Heritage Farm’s squash collections, which together number over 1,000 varieties.  (We have decided not to include about 200 varieties from Gatersleben’s collection, which is more than we can handle.)  Our 800-variety growout will not be for seed, but for documentary photogra­phy and data collection.  (Actually, a few dozen varieties with low seed quantities will be hand-pollinated.)  Glenn, who lives three hours south of Heritage Farm, is also planning to grow his entire collection of 200 watermelons at his farm this summer, and we will also attempt to take those documentary photos.

Eventually this summer’s photos and data will be published as Seed Savers Guide to Heirloom Squash, which should generate substantial project-related revenue that will be used to help maintain the collections and projects at Heritage Farm.  Those folks who attend our Campout Convention in late July, and others who visit Heritage Farm at the end of this summer, are in for a rare treat (more weird squash than you can shake a hoe at).  Our readers who can’t visit  this summer will get a small preview in the “Plant Pro­files” which will be pub­lished in Seed Savers 1997 Harvest Edition (next November), and also in our seed brochure next December.  I have always dreamed of Seed Savers being the organi­zation which would eventually publish the next series of books that would rival the Vegetables of New York.  For me, it’s really exciting to see that we are getting much closer to doing exactly that.

Scroll To Top