Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Meeting Diane Ott Whealy - Seed Savers Exchange

On Sunday I was invited to attend a lecture at the Chicago Botanic Garden  featuring Diane Ott Whealy co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange.   Before the lecture the Botanic Garden hosted a luncheon for Gardening Bloggers like myself and fed us very well and allowed us to mingle and get to know one another.  I especially enjoyed the fact I could finally place names with faces for writers whose blogs I was familiar with but never met before.  In a few days I will detail all the bloggers I had the opportunity to meet.
Diane Ott Whealy
Today I want to share just a bit of what I learned from Diane Ott Whealy.  Seed Savers Exchange, for those who are not familiar with them, is a home-grown, amateur created heirloom seed saving not-for-profit created back in 1975, that is “dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.”  They started by collecting heirloom seeds, the kind passed down in families from year to year and then sharing them with paid members to keep the heirloom varieties circulating.  They now have a seed bank and a heritage farm where they rejuvenate seeds that have been saved to keep them viable as well as selling seed and maintaining a database of those who will share and swap heirloom seeds.
An Heirloom seed is one that existed before the commercial hybrid seed movement.  Most are open pollinated and therefore can be grown and perpetuated when you save seed from your crop.
Diane Ott Whealy came to Illinois promoting her new book Gathering which is a historical memoir of the founding and work that went into creating Seed Savers Exchange.  She spoke with me before the public program about how there is a new movement to return to non-hybrid seed and avoid genetically modified seeds which has spawned many companies now selling heirloom seed.  She was honest to say that in some cases it was slightly annoying to see SSE work repackaged by someone trying to make a profit from it, but she was also generous that she did not really see this as competition because the mission to save the genetic and cultural diversity of North American garden heritage is actually forwarded by anyone who plants an heirloom seed and passes it on because that keeps the variety available, which was the whole reason Seed Savers Exchange was created.  “We have no competition except weeds,” she said with a wide smile.

                       Seed Savers Exchange Mission : To save North America's
                      diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations
                      by building a network of people committed to collecting,
                      conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while
                      educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.

While we talked there were discussions about how many people think gardening can only occur with expensive equipment and absolutely no possibility for failure.  She then charged us all with the responsibility that as garden educators we have to help others understand that gardening is not too hard, but does require work however, the tool most needed is dedication not an expensive tiller.
She showed pictures of her personal garden during her lecture but told us at the luncheon much more about it.  She explained that it was planted on an old gravel cow lot.  I crafted a mental picture of a non planned, free-form garden space from her descriptions, but when I saw the pictures the garden had paths and raised beds and looked very well-kept and organized.  In these pictures you can see how neat it looks.
However, upon closer inspection you can see what she was really talking about, because as she pointed out this was a garden 20 years in the making, so it started out with organized raised beds, perhaps sporting only one variety of plant, but as it grew she added to the beds complimentary plants, not just with the idea of helpful companions, but attractive companions as well, like a red tulips interplanted with leaf lettuce.  My favorite was a squash with creeping thyme around it.  The creeping thyme was actually growing up through insect holes in the large squash leaves.  My organized, every herb in its place mentality was actually opened to an entirely new possibility.
I will discuss what else I have learned in more detail in future posts, as I am still sorting through the information I received on this great garden day.  But I wanted to share the excitement I felt in talking about gardening.  There was a seed swap after the program where I picked up a couple varieties to play with in my winter sowing activities which will start next week. I learned that Seed Savers Exchange website has mountains of information on how to save seed so you too can start saving seed for yourself.

I did get myself a copy of her book, and had it autographed. The book is a recounting of stories and philosophies about saving seed and why it is so important to maintain the diversity that once existed in our home and farm gardens.  Just speaking with her about it made me want to be better about saving the seed from my plants and sharing them with others.  On the Seed Savers Exchange website there are detailed instructions for saving seed.

I recommend to anyone interesting in preserving genetic plant diversity or those who like to be able to say, I know where my food comes from, to become a member of Seed Savers Exchange.  Membership is $40.00 and comes with a catalog and other publications.  They also have a $10.00 membership for those who wish to focus on herbs and flowers.  This exchange group gets a single publication which includes seeds available for swap or purchase from other heirloom herb and flower growers.  All the options for membership are detailed on the Seed Savers Exchange membership page.
You can also buy seeds directly from Seed Savers and many are certified organic.  If you prefer to leaf through seed packets, here are a few places where they have their seed racks in Northern Illinois.  If you want to know if a garden center near you has a rack, check out this page of the website and click the list for your state.

The Pure Gardener
502 W State St, Route 38
Geneva, IL 60134
Phone: (630)232-2766

Gethsemane Garden Center
5739 N Clark
Chicago, IL 60660
Phone: (773)878-5915

Blumen Gardens
403 Edward St
Sycamore, IL 60178
Phone: (815)895-3737

Duck Soup Coop
129 E Hillcrest Dr
Dekalb, IL 60115
Phone: (815)756-7044

Walkup Heritage Farm
5215 Walkup Rd
Crystal Lake, IL 60012
Phone: (815)459-7090

Stop back tomorrow for the Herb of the Week where we will be highlighting a plant whose best part is the seed!

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