Gathering seeds for a growth enterprise
Thursday, November 18, 2010
EPHRATA, PA. - Windswept, frostbitten and bedraggled, Lisa Von Saunder's little fenced vegetable garden seems an unlikely Noah's Ark on this chilly November afternoon.
A rare African eggplant resembles a ribbed heirloom tomato that somehow survived a freeze. A tiny pear-shaped yellow tomato from Cuba is still clinging to a tangle of old vines. Von Saunder fixes on a pair of sad-looking pepper bushes with green fruit. She pulls the plants in their entirety and drags them to the kitchen. If she can get the bell peppers to color up indoors, she can harvest viable seeds. Earl, her hyperactive cat, pounces on the vine and munches a leaf.
Most gardeners encounter a vegetable at the start of its growth cycle, as a seed in spring. Von Saunder, 58, is preoccupied with the other end of things, harvesting the newly ripened seed in the fall from plants that have grown for months, fruited and are now dead or dying. Their demise is tempered with the gift of the germ of another generation.
Saving this seed is her livelihood; she's the brains and brawn behind Amishland Heirloom Seeds of Reamstown, in Lancaster County. She has a friend grow some of the bean seeds in Idaho and gets someone to help with the winter seed packaging, but the enterprise is as basic and homespun as it gets. We are sitting around the kitchen table in her three-room 1890s house in Ephrata. This is the nerve center of her entire operation, and at one point, she shows me how her seed is packaged for customers.
"I can show you how we do it," she says, taking a shallow cardboard box full of plastic bags of newly processed seed. "When I say 'we,' I mean me."
Most of her freshly harvested inventory, which is to say her income for the next year, sits on another table full of cardboard boxes. She has a basic Web site, accepts checks mailed to her or payment through PayPal, and packages the seeds, 10 at a time, in plastic envelopes meant to house baseball cards. In an age of computerization, globalization and automation, Von Saunder's operation is truly a cottage industry, a throwback to the century before last.
This might be merely quaint, except her work is of vital importance to anyone who values rare and antique varieties of vegetables and the stories that they tell.
Von Saunder, who spent much of her childhood in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington as the daughter of an aeronautical engineer, lives in the heart of Lancaster County, and in proximity to the self-contained Amish and Mennonite farming societies that have grown seed strains brought over by their ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries.
She said that she was inspired to do this after visiting Thomas Jefferson's spectacular vegetable garden at Monticello 12 years ago, and she started it as a sideline that became her full-time passion and taskmaster.
About a quarter of her seed offerings derive from Amish, Mennonite and other Pennsylvania German settlers, and virtually all the strains are heirloom varieties that have been around for at least 50 years. They are all open pollinated, meaning that as long as they are not unintentionally cross-pollinated with another variety, they will grow true from their seed. The only human intervention is in harvesting the seed of the biggest, the tastiest or the healthiest individual plants to try to perpetuate those traits in subsequent years.
Von Saunder can talk for hours about tomatoes. Her eyes grow larger as she discusses a beefsteak variety that she received from an Amish friend named Eva, who died two years ago at the age of 89. Eva called it My Big Yellow and had been growing it in her garden in Schoeneck, Pa., for more than 60 years. It is a striped bicolor and now bears the name Eva's Amish Stripe. "They're this big," said Von Saunder, holding her hands about a saucer size apart. "And fruity, and just wonderful."
She sells 123 varieties of tomatoes, and I ask which ones she likes best. "In my opinion," she says, "the best-tasting tomato is a toss-up between two identical varieties, Todd County Amish and Amish Potato Leaf." They are both pink beefsteaks, distinguished by their leaf forms. She calls them huge, flavorful and resistant to cracking. "Pink, wonderful and they produce." Take that, Brandywine.
I mention the small vining Black Cherry as one of my top flavorful tomatoes. She is clearly not floored by the idea, though she does sell it and roots around for some seeds of one of those small fruited, vigorous vines that seed themselves from year to year. She produces Matt's Wild Cherry, small, sweet and delicious. I imagine it trained between the wire mesh netting of my community plot next year.
Her garden is one of three that she uses in Lancaster County to grow her seed stock. In searching for varieties, she will come across gardeners in their last years with perhaps just a handful of seeds. A chance encounter is the only thing between saving and losing a variety that may have been grown on one or two farms for 200 years.
The Amish and Mennonite farmers here continue agricultural practices and seed strains that were passed over by industrial agriculture but are typical of the way first- and second-generation immigrant farmers worked in the early years of the republic.
"Most of the European immigrants brought some kind of seed with them," said George DeVault, a farmer and heirloom seed expert in Emmaus, Pa. "They didn't know what they would find in the New World, and they wanted a taste of home. It was the original comfort food."
"When I see an older person gardening, I'll screech the brakes, go over and offer to trade seeds," Von Saunder said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
More on saving seeds
Read about how Lisa Von Saunder saves her seeds in a Groundwork post on the Food section's All We Can Eat blog, at washingtonpost.com/allwecaneat.