The Preservation Garden

From 1985 Harvest Edition, Seed Savers Exchange, 1985

What in the world would ever cause two men and a boy to try to grow out over 2,000 varieties of garden plants on five acres? The main reasons were two seed collections totaling nearly 5,000 varieties, and the result was that most fantastic display of heirloom vegetable varieties that anyone has ever seen. We learned a tremendous amount from that garden this last summer. And we also used it to create more interest about heirloom varieties — through national publicity and locally with garden tours — than anything else we could have possibly done.

I never intended to build up a personal garden seed collection of over 4,000 rare varieties. I realized from the beginning that it would be all that I could do to just put out the publications of the Seed Savers Exchange which would make this material available to everyone. The first few years I kept my collection to just a few hundred varieties that people had either sent me or that I had requested. I was a member of the Seed Savers Exchange just like all of you and had a listing each year. But in 1981 John Withee asked me to take over his Wanigan Associates bean collection of 1,186 accessions which he had collected over a period of 14 years. I agreed and then the fun began.

When the Wanigan Associates collection was turned over to me, I received almost exactly 900 samples of beans. The others had already died out of the collection. Of that 900 probably half of them were either four years old or tiny samples of ten seeds or less. I formed a Growers Network within the SSE. During the springs of 1982 and 1983, 350 gardeners each year agreed to grow bean seeds for me and return them. I sent out over 2,400 packets of beans each of those two springs. By the end of those two years, we had good quantities of new seed of over 800 of the varieties. The Growers Network had done a fantastic job.

But one problem did emerge during that project that has been continuing and unsolvable. When the seeds were returned to me those two seasons it quickly became apparent that about 10% of them were mistakes. Now I don’t mean outcrosses; I mean just mistakes where seeds had been mixed up. This worried me terribly, because I had hoped to build a Growers Network that was capable of maintaining everything that came through the Seed Savers Exchange. But if people were going to make that amount of mistakes when they could see the difference in the seeds, imagine the problems that would be created with seeds that weren’t visually distinct, such as tomatoes and peppers. It’s a problem that I still have no idea how to solve. Please don’t get me wrong. There are people that grow out a hundred lines of beans for me each year and return beautiful seed and I am very thankful for their participation.

Because of these problems, the Seed Savers Exchange switched last year from a program of grow and return to one of long-term maintenance. We asked that gardeners actually “adopt” seeds, agree to maintain them for at least five years, and during that time also offer them through their Yearbook listings, so they would be available to others. At the end of that five years they could either turn them back in to the SSE seed collection or continue to maintain them. Thus far we have distributed only beans, and that will also be the case this year.

In 1984, Glenn Drowns, a young squash collector from Idaho, moved back to Iowa to work with me. Glenn had a collection himself of well over 1,000 varieties, including nearly 400 varieties of squash. During the summer of 1984, Glenn didn’t have a garden. He worked all that summer getting the SSE’s seed collection in good order. We agreed that during the summer of 1985 we would grow a garden together, combine our two collections of seeds, and grow out everything that both of us needed to multiply.

Lee and Lindsay Lee are caretakers of the Pine Bluff 4-H Camp where we hold our Campout Convention each summer. They suggested that I go talk to a fellow named Herb Ehrie, who owns the fields just behind the 4-H camp. One long, narrow, eight-acre field down by the river was a beautiful black sandy loam. Herb agreed to rent us five acres of it. We began dreaming about the garden that we could show everyone at the Campout.

Next we approached Steve Elwood, the young fellow who owns the Decorah Greenhouse. He agreed to rent us bench space and sell us the materials needed to grow out our plants. David and Gail Lange, Iowa SSE members and friends of Glenn, came over one weekend and we spent a day planting almost 300 varieties of tomatoes and 100 varieties of peppers. If I remember right, we ended up with about 60 flats of plants.

Herb’s land has not had any synthetic chemicals on it since 1979, and we agreed to keep it that way. So instead of using commercial fertilizer, I located a place near Rochester, Minnesota that was turning out composted turkey manure. We had a semi truckload delivered and Herb and his brother Jim used their manure loaders to spread it. Then my friend Lorado Adelmann worked up the entire field with a Howard Rotavator, which is actually a huge tiller behind a tractor. This pulverized the entire field to a depth of about six inches. I wasn’t sure it would be possible to work up a five-acre field into garden-type conditions, but we came close.

By this time we already had a good deal of money tied up in land rent, manure, machine labor, greenhouse costs, materials, etc. I knew that Pioneer Hi-Bred had been funding various projects, so I called a person that I knew in their organization. I explained our project and asked if there was any chance of possibly getting funding of $2,000. To tell you the truth, I never imagined that it would happen. But they expressed genuine interest, and a couple of weeks later we received the funding. That money ended up covering just about half of the costs of the five-acre garden. I am extremely grateful for Pioneer’s support, because the SSE would not have been able to finance this large a project by ourselves. And we stretched their money a long ways.

Glenn is a high school science teacher in the town of Calamus, Iowa, about three hours south of here. He would come up to spend the weekends with us and we’d go out to plant. We had an early spring and things…..

…..went perfectly. For two weekends in a row we would plant all day Saturday and all day Sunday, and as we were walking out of the field Sunday evening it would start to rain. I was starting to believe that the entire project was going to fall into place as easily as things usually do for me. But I was wrong.

When it came time to plant the tomatoes and the peppers, we decided to wait until right after we’d had a rain. It was just too much work to bucket water from the river to mud in all of those thousands of plants. Well, we ended up waiting for over two weeks for it to rain. Finally there was a decent rain and we got all of the plants in. But that was almost the last rain we got during all of June and July. During those two months it hadn’t been that dry in 75 years. At one point we were 13 inches behind on moisture. Every time we thought that the garden just couldn’t go another day without some moisture, it would rain 2/10 of an inch. Twice during those two months the plants came to a complete stop and we lost valuable time from what is already a short season. I had actually lured Glenn to Iowa by telling him how nice the rains came here. And they usually do. But I’m sure he was wondering.

We found an old house that was being torn down and we hauled several pickup loads of wooden lath out to the garden. Since we needed 2,000 markers, we broke them all in half. We should have left them whole, because the plants eventually covered many of them up and you don’t want to waste any time searching for your markers. We used indelible marking pens to make plastic tags that had each plant’s name and number on it. The tags were stapled to the lath with staple guns and these markers were put in as we planted.

The garden was long and narrow and widened out the farther you got into it. We put a center aisle through its entire length. All of the rows for the row crops were spaced four feet apart. We planted about 12 feet of row for each of the 500 beans, 280 tomatoes, 100 peppers, 50 lettuce, and 50 peas. The 120 corns were planted in sections four rows wide. Three hills each of 370 squash were planted in rows on 16-foot centers. These were trained out at right angles to the rows — for awhile. We also planted 130 potatoes, 120 muskmelons, 115 watermelons, 20 cucumbers, and a little bit of dozens of other things. We divided the garden into six “lettered” sections and numbered the rows within each section. So each plant was given a section letter and a row number. We used these to make up our data sheets. They were also compiled into a map which was printed and distributed to people at the Campout.

Aaron used a seven-horse Troy-Bilt tiller to work up the ground as we planted. Then, after things were planted, he kept the garden tilled as the plants grew in. If anyone ever asks you if a 12 year-old-boy and a Troy-Bilt tiller can keep a five-acre garden clean, tell them, “Oh, heck yes!” Aaron did all of our tilling and worked like a man out there all last summer. Of course, there were a few times when he had to go swimming in the river. (During the hot part of the summer, we’d all go down to the river to eat our sack lunches and then go swimming.)

We puzzled over a way to support our pole beans. Individual teepees of poles were out of the question. Russ Goddard, one of my very best bean growers from Oregon, told me once that he dropped twine string to them from wires strung between a series of permanent 8’ tall fence posts. Well, friends told me about an Amish fellow named Dan Zook who has a sawmill about 20 miles from here near Harmony, Minnesota. He cut me 300 2” X 2” X 6’ oak stakes that were sharpened on one end. We pounded these in about 18” with a maul every 15’ along our pole bean rows. Then we ran a heavy wire along their tops, brought the wire down from the two end posts at a 45 degree angle and staked it to the ground, and put a staple around the wire on the tip of each post to hold it there. Then we tied twine strings to the wire every 18” and dropped them to the plants which easily climbed them. The only problem with this system is that the pole bean varieties will grow together unless you spend a lot of time training them. Next year in these rows we intend to alternate pole beans and indeterminate (vining) tomatoes.

Dr. Gary Nabhan, my close friend from Arizona, came in a few days before the Campout and we put him to work. Gary had told me about a new study that had documented test plots of peppers that showed up to 80% crossing. Well, it was obvious that we weren’t going to be able to grow 100 varieties of peppers within close distance of each other. Roger Lintecum, a friend of mine from Kansas, had given me several ¼ mile rolls of telegraph wire, which is galvanized and quite a bit heavier than No. 9. We cut the telegraph wire into lengths and bent them into half circles that had a diameter of about four feet. We had bought a couple of rolls of a material called Reemay that Rob Johnston sells through Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. (Reemay is a spun polyester which is excellent caging material. It lets in light and water, but keeps out insects.) We cut this Reemay into 5’ squares, poked two of our semi-circles of wire into the ground crossed in an “X”, covered it with Reemay and buried its edges. The technique worked perfectly to cage the pepper plants we intended to save for seed. There were even instances where the only fruits that we got off a certain variety were the ones that were under the cages. I imagine this was because of the moisture that they held in and because of the protection that the material provided from the drought.

The garden had gotten up well on the early rains, but, as the Campout neared in late July, it had come to almost a complete standstill. Twice during that period the plants’ growth seemed to come to a complete halt. We’re located on the Iowa/Minnesota border and our season is short to begin with. This was growing time that we couldn’t afford to lose and it hurt us with some things that didn’t mature before frost. But the slow growth helped us keep ahead of the weeds as we were cleaning up the garden before the Campout. Glenn and I weeded like crazy and Aaron tilled. By the time the Campout rolled around on July 20 & 21 we had that entire five-acre garden almost entirely weed-free. It was beautiful!

Attendance at the Campout tripled to almost 200 people. Most of them had come to see the garden, and they weren’t disappointed. Glenn gave hands-on demonstrations of the hand-pollination of squash (and other cucurbits). And Dr. Mark Widrlechner, horticulturist at the Plant Introduction Station at Ames, Iowa, gave demonstrations on the hand-pollination of corn. People were simply fascinated by the incredible amount of diversity that we had on display for them to see. Jan Blum of Seeds Blum and her partner Karla spent four days in the garden taking data on the varieties. It’s hard to describe the effect that the garden had on everyone, except to say that people were just blown away. It really has exciting potential.

The incredible high of the Campout quickly faded and, as our feet settled back firmly on the ground, we were confronted again by the drought. The squash had been “melting down” with the afternoon heat and recovering overnight. But then it got so bad that they started melting by noon and then by late morning. And they weren’t recovering completely. We decided to try to pump water out of the river and lead it around through trenches that we would make with the potato plow behind the Troy-Bilt. Aaron easily made the trenches in the powder-dry soil. Glenn and Jeff McCormack, whose family was staying with us after the Campout, rented a pump and borrowed old hose from the Fire Department. Well, it turned out to be too big a rise from the river. What was supposed to be a 300 gallon per minute pump was putting out about 18. John and Cindy Meyer were still here and they helped lead around what water there was and tried to coax more out of the pump. We were able to water the half-acre that contained the beans, peppers, and most of the tomatoes. The system of trenches would have worked if we could have gotten the water to it. But we finally just gave up.

This extended period of drought was incredibly frustrating for Glenn, who was hand-pollinating all of the cucurbits and also the corn. Normally all he has to do is hand-pollinate the first few fruits of a variety and then he’s done with it. But, because of the drought stress, the plants were aborting the blossoms that he was trying to hand-pollinate. So for nearly two months he fought a losing battle with the drought. Even so, I would guess that he was successful in obtaining seed from probably 80 to 90% of the cucurbits. But the work involved was truly staggering.

The drought finally broke in mid-August and then it never stopped raining. Of course that split every tomato in the garden and there was a tremendous amount of waste. We had gotten a good return on all of the peas that we planted, because they were out so early. But the drought really hurt the lettuces. I had bought a carton of small plastic deli containers from a local grocery store. They were the one-quart size and were made of white plastic and had a clear plastic lid. We squeezed the tomato seeds into these, took them up to a shed on a farm across the road where we let them ferment, and finished cleaning and drying them there.

The peppers did extremely well. Quite a few were from the Southwest or Mexico and I had no idea how well they’d do this far north. I was amazed at how well many of them produced. But we probably lost two weeks time because of the drought and some of them did not have time to ripen off. We had hoped to let them go just as long as possible in the garden before we took seed from them. In this area, if you can get past the clear full moon night in late September, you may have almost another month of growing season. We were watching the weather forecasts closely and thought that we were going to make it. On the full moon night in September they had been predicting a low of just 37 degrees. But when the 10:00 news and weather came on that evening, they had revised that down to 31 degrees with a possibility of 25 in the valleys. Diane and I went out that night and worked until 1:30 pulling the caged pepper plants and stuffing them into sacks with their labels. The next day we tied these plants together with twine by their roots and hung them in the shed. Since they didn’t freeze we hoped that a lot of the energy in the plant would go into the seed. Most of the fruits did ripen on off and we were able to get seed back from about 85% of everything we planted.

We had a real problem with the beans because the severe drought was followed by such rainy weather. Some of the beans were blossoming during the worst of the drought and produced nothing because they simply aborted all of their blossoms. When it started raining again, they all came back on strong. So what we had were a few dry pods buried in mounds of lush damp foliage. Most of the later pods didn’t have time to ripen. This was probably the biggest problem that we had with the garden. We actually let the first light frost take off most of the leaves from the plants before we picked the pole beans. The bush beans had already been harvested. We took the five-foot-square pieces of Reemay that we had used to cover the pepper cages, quartered them, and picked each variety of beans onto one of these 2.5 foot squares of cloth. We tossed the plant’s label in with the beans, tied it into a bundle with a piece of twine, and hung these from the rafters in the shed to dry. These bags of pods are really drying well and it looks as though we’ll probably be shelling beans all winter.

Even with the worst drought in 75 years during those two months, we were able to get seed back from probably 85-90% of everything that we grew. But the amounts we had gotten were small. I was sorry about that, because I had hoped to have sufficient seed to enter many of the varieties into the government collections which would have provided our efforts with frozen back-up against loss. The drought added immensely to the amount of work involved and we really didn’t need anything extra to do. Next year we intend to cut the garden down to two or three acres and 1,000 or more varieties. This was the first year that we’ve ever been able to grow out a large amount of the SSE’s seed collection ourselves. A lot of the material was getting to the point where it needed to be multiplied, which is the reason the garden was so huge this year.

The thing that excited me the most about the Preservation Garden was the value that such a garden has as an educational tool. We just knocked people’s eyes out with the diversity that’s available to them as vegetable gardeners. Time and time again we’d see people walk into that garden, their mouths would fall open, and then they’d get fired up. They’d start looking and they just couldn’t stop. We can talk about the loss of genetic diversity until we’re blue in the face, but it’s so abstract that most people fail to recognize it as a threat. But if you take those people into a garden, show them hundreds of unique varieties, and tell them that most of these would be extinct unless we protect them — then they understand. I don’t think that anything we can do will take the place of “showing” people genetic diversity. And it’s something that all Seed Savers can do by showing off their personal gardens.

We were also able to use the garden to generate a tremendous amount of publicity. It will probably end up being the subject of half a dozen national magazine articles and has already made the front page of the Kansas City Times in color. And we didn’t even go after the publicity this year, because we had so much else going on. The only people who really came to see it were writers who already knew what we were doing. Its value in introducing people to heirloom varieties and in educating people to the problems involved with genetic preservation is seemingly endless.

This garden was the first step toward what I see as the ultimate goal of …

… the Seed Savers Exchange. Within the next year I hope that the SSE is able, through grant money and fundraising drives, to purchase a small fertile farm here in northeast Iowa and set it up as an exemplary Preservation Farm. There we would develop huge trial gardens, a system of special greenhouses, large underground root cellars, and seed processing and freezing equipment. We would be able to grow out our huge collection of seeds and evaluate the newly discovered heirlooms that are constantly entering the collection. The Preservation Farm could include all aspects of genetic conservation, not just vegetables. Orchards and poultry and rare livestock breeds are all facing the same massive genetic wipeout unless immediate action is taken. I’d eventually like to see a network of such preservation farms trialing plant material in different climates and sharing data via computer.

Once again this summer I bit off more than I ever should have attempted and then chewed it anyway. But it was necessary to show everybody what can be done. And it was also necessary to show me the size of the project that it will take to keep this much plant material alive. I want to thank Glenn Drowns for the tremendous amount of work that he contributed to the project and for sharing his squash collection with all of us. I want to thank Aaron Whealy for working like a man all summer. And I also wish to thank those others who helped from time to time in the garden: Gary Nabhan, Andy Adelmann, Diane Whealy, Amy Whealy, John and Cindy Meyer, Jeff McCormack, Laura Demuth, Beth Rotto, Kevin Sand, Steve McCargar and Dale Ott. It was an unforgettable summer.

Aaron and Kent Whealy with a Mandan Squash

Aaron Whealy and Kent Whealy with Mandan Squash