MINNEAPOLIS — Diane Ott Whealy's Iowa grandparents, who were farmers, swapped seeds with neighbors all the time. With a handful of her grandfather's heirloom morning glory seeds, Whealy and her husband, Kent, took seed swapping to an international level.
In 1975, they launched Seed Savers Exchange in their home. Today, the nonprofit organization has 13,000 members and a headquarters at the 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. It maintains, preserves and sells thousands of varieties of heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers online (Seedsavers.org) and at garden centers around the country.
Whealy wrote Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver (Wilsted and Taylor Publishing, $25). We chatted with her about the organization's germination, outhouse hollyhocks and beans in the basement.
Question: How did you get the idea to save and share seeds?
Answer: My inspiration was my visits to my grandparents' farm in Iowa when I was a girl. That's where I learned about gardening and nature.
Years later, when my husband, Kent, and I had our own garden, we asked Grandpa Ott for some of his morning glory seeds, which I remember gathering as a girl. I found out that his parents had brought over the seeds from Bavaria. After he passed away, we realized that the seeds might have been lost had he not given them to us.
Q: Why did you launch Seed Savers Exchange?
A: Kent and I wondered if other people had an interest in saving older varieties of seeds. In 1975, we sent letters to magazines like Mother Earth News. Twenty-nine closet seed savers — it wasn't popular then — responded. We printed a pamphlet with a list of seeds. They sent us a quarter and an envelope to get one. Then they would request and trade seeds with other members. Before long, they were sending seeds to us. Our freezer became full of baby food jars filled with seeds.
Q: Why is it important to save old varieties?
A: It's our responsibility to pass on their genetic value and the stories that go with them. Seed Savers is maintaining 24,000 different varieties of heirloom seeds that otherwise might be lost. The plants taste better, have diverse colors, produce healthy food and preserve our agricultural heritage.
Q: Your collection outgrew your basement. Tell us about your current location.
A: It's a seed farm with 860 acres and 35 gardens where we maintain, grow and distribute our seed collections. Our members have sent us a treasure trove of unique varieties of seeds. We had the barn restored to hold meetings and classes.
Q: Where did the term heirloom come from?
A: A small circle of gardeners used it to describe seeds that were handed down through generations. They were non-hybrid standard varieties.
Q: Has the exchange gotten a boost from the locally grown movement?
A: Definitely. Our membership has really grown in the past couple of years, and we're getting more catalog requests. People are starting to be concerned about where and how their food is grown.
Q: How do you store seeds?
A: In a seed bank, which is a huge walk-in freezer with trays of seeds wrapped in foil packets. We also have part of our collection in Norway in case something happened. Our seeds are also growing in people's gardens and at Heritage Farm.
Q: What are your favorite heirloom seeds?
A: I love self-seeding annuals like the old- fashioned vining petunia. And outhouse hollyhocks. They were grown around outhouses on the farm to disguise them. When women came to the farm, they just had to look for the hollyhocks.
Q: What are the most popular seed requests?
A: The lazy housewife bean. It's a stringless bean that's easy to prepare. We always get requests for the kind of good-tasting tomatoes people remember their grandparents growing. Vegetables are far more popular than flowers. If people have limited space, they want to grow something they can eat.