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'Gardener' Gives 'Heirloom Life' To Forgotten Flora

Oct 7, 2011
Originally published on October 7, 2011 12:24 pm

As a child growing up on his family's farm in the 1980s, Jere Gettle didn't spend his evenings watching TV; instead, he read seed catalogs. To him, the endless varieties of seeds with exotic-sounding names were full of possibility. He loved the idea of planting them in the ground, tending the crops that grew from them and preparing the harvested vegetables for a family meal.

Gettle and his wife, Emilee, have built a thriving business off that early fascination. The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. carries a large selection of seeds from the 19th century, and the Gettle's new book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, offers advice on how to save and grow heirloom vegetables.

Jere Gettle tells NPR's Lynn Neary that you can find heirloom seeds sitting in people's backyards, garages and cellars, just waiting to be rediscovered — and now, some of them are finally coming back.

"In the last 10 or 12 years, all of a sudden every chef and every magazine is ... starting to talk about our agricultural past," he says, "and with that comes the varieties that made America."

Gettle's interest in heirloom seeds — or seeds that are no longer cultivated — began early on, when he was just a kid flipping through seed catalogs.

"About the time I was 10 or 12 years old, I started noticing seeds disappearing," he says. "Especially the '80s [were] a period when varieties were just being dropped randomly from catalogs for no reason other than [that] they weren't the newest thing."

Gettle says the disappearance of varieties like the banana melon, "which was an incredible melon," inspired him to go in search of other forgotten flora.

Eye-Opening Eggplant

What's most striking about the vintage varieties Gettle has collected is just how different they look from those in grocery stores. That difference, he says, reflects their history.

"There are varieties from African-American heritage, Japanese varieties, German varieties," he says. "And each type comes with their own cultures — whatever they thought was greater, tastier, good-looking — so you have a lot of diversity."

In his book, Gettle features an assortment of eggplants that look very different from the big, purple pear shape most Americans are used to. He credits those eggplants with helping him realize the limitations of the vegetable's American varieties.

"I was first really enlightened on how much variety there really was when I traveled to Thailand and I would see 15 or 20 varieties at the grocery store," Gettle says. "I was really struck by how little Americans know about eggplant."

Gettle has traveled the world in search of heirloom seeds and the stories behind them. He says one of his favorite finds is the Yokohama squash, which was brought to the U.S. in the 1860s but disappeared from commercial seed catalogs in the 1880s.

"We thought it was extinct, and we finally found a grower in France that was still preserving it," he says. "It's a beautiful, [flat], pumpkin-shaped squash with a beautiful gray-green rind and it has a waxy look to it."

But you don't have to fly all the way to France for heirloom seeds. Once you're already eating heirloom varieties, Gettle's book offers advice for saving your seeds so you can replant them.

"As long as you're planting the traditional varieties that aren't patented, you can save seed," he says. "It's a process nature does every year, otherwise we wouldn't still be given these varieties. It's very simple, but there are a few tips to let people know things that make it easier so they won't make mistakes."

According to Gettle, peas, tomatoes, eggplant and lettuce are among the crops that make for easy seed saving.

'Stars' Of The Farmer's Market

Today, heirloom crops have become so popular that some people treat them like precious works of art. In his book, Gettle recalls attending an auction where buckets of heirloom vegetables were being sold for around $1,000.

Gettle says he appreciates the awareness such an event fosters, but his goal is to get the vegetable back on the dinner table and, in that regard, farmers markets have proved helpful.

"Farmers markets have tripled in the last 10 or 12 years in the United States and, fortunately for heirloom varieties, they have become kind of the stars at each farmers market," he says.

In the end, however, Gettle says he's always happy to see people throwing their support behind the heirloom movement.

"Anything to create awareness of where our food comes from, the varieties and the history behind it all — anything that can encourage that," he says, "we're for."

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LYNN NEARY, host: As a child growing up on his family's farm in the 1980s, Jere Gettle didn't spend his evenings watching TV. He read seed catalogs. To him, the endless varieties of seeds with exotic-sounding names were full of possibility. He loved the idea of planting them and eventually preparing the harvested vegetables for a family meal.

From the early fascination with seeds, Gettle has built thriving business, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. And now there's a book, "The Heirloom Life Gardner." Gettle describes heirloom seeds as being passed down through the generations. They're usually more than 50 years old and are considered pure, not genetically modified.

JERE GETTLE: They've basically have been sitting in people's, you know, backyards and their garages and their root cellars. They've just recently been rediscovered for the market. I mean, in the last 10 or 12 years, all of a sudden, every chef and every magazine is all of a sudden starting to talk about our agricultural past. And with that comes, you know, the varieties that basically made America.

NEARY: Well, you mention in your book that as a child, I think, or certainly as a teenager, when you were going through these catalogs, you started noticing that certain seeds were being left behind.

GETTLE: Yeah, probably about the time I was 10 or 12 years old, I started noticing seeds disappearing. That was, you know, the late '80s and early '90s. And especially the '80s was a period when varieties were just being dropped randomly from catalogs for no reason, other than they weren't the newest thing.

And so I - you know, I started noticing things like the banana melon disappearing out of catalogs, which was an incredible melon. So it kind of inspired me to, you know, start looking for varieties.

NEARY: Well, I think what's most striking about the vegetables that are grown from these heirloom seeds is how differently look from we're used to seeing in a grocery store.

GETTLE: They vary from everything that looks like a traditional grocery store variety. But the majority of them are different looking. Each one's unique, as were the families they came from. I mean, there's varieties from, you know, African-American heritage here, Japanese varieties, German varieties. And each type comes with their own culture's whatever they thought was great or tasty or good-looking. So you have a lot of diversity.

NEARY: What's the most interesting seed that you ever found? What's the most interesting story behind a seed that you've discovered while you were traveling around the world?

GETTLE: Oh, there's so many different stories. And a lot of times, actually, when we're traveling, we don't get the full story because of the language barrier. So some of them we've actually found, you know, online as well, like the Yokohama squash. It was one that was brought to the United States in the 1860s, and it basically had disappeared out of commercial catalogs in the 1880s. And we thought it was extinct, and we finally found a grower in France that was still preserving it.

It's a beautiful, flattened pumpkin-shaped squash with a beautiful gray-green rind, and it has a waxy look to it, one of the best, even, of all the different squashes that we grow.

NEARY: Right. You can travel all over the world to find seeds. But you also, in the book, explain how you can save seeds in your own kitchen.

GETTLE: That's correct. As long as you're planting the traditional varieties that aren't patented, you can save seed. You know, almost anything you grow, you can save seeds from it, as long as it's traditional. It's very easy, actually. It's a, you know, a process that nature does every year.

NEARY: You know, you mention in the book that you attended an auction where buckets of heirloom vegetables are being sold for, like, $1,000, as if they were sort of a work of art. Does that bother you at all to see vegetables treated as if they're kind of precious and relics, as I think you put it in the book?

GETTLE: I think it's exciting, you know, to see that, you know, the support behind heirlooms. Anything to create awareness of where our food comes from, the varieties and the history behind it all, is, you know, definitely - anything that can encourage that, we're for.

NEARY: But do you want to put those vegetables in their place, right back on the family dinner table, as opposed to in an art house auction?

GETTLE: Definitely that's what we're behind, and that's actually what the auction was behind, as well. It was, you know, to raise money and create awareness. It's definitely what's happening right now across America. I mean, farmers markets have, you know, tripled in the last 10 or 12 years in the United States. And fortunately for heirloom varieties, they've become kind of the stars at each farmer's market.

NEARY: Jere Gettle. He and his wife Emily are the authors of the new book "The Heirloom Life Gardner."

Thanks so much for joining us, Jere.

GETTLE: Thank you and have a great day.

NEARY: You can find a list of Gettle's tips for how to save seeds in your own kitchen in an excerpt on our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.