Rodger Winn traces his obsession with seed saving to the first grade.
As a little boy, he read “Seeds and More Seeds: A Science I CAN READ Book” by Millicent E. Selsam and “drove my mother crazy with the experiments in the book,” he said.
It was a part of him: Winn’s parents and grandparents were farmers and saved seeds from one year to the next.
His early years and young adulthood — including a stint in the U.S. Navy, when Winn carried seeds and seed catalogs that reminded him of home and started a seed swap with fellow sailors — helped turn his passion for seed saving into a second career.
Although his day job has him working 12-hour shifts at VC Summer, as Winn became known within the seed saving community for his work with heirloom tomatoes, he was approached by national seed catalog companies to grow out certain heirloom varieties for seed.
The resurgence of heirloom materials and organic growing practices are a growing trend in South Carolina and elsewhere, part of an overall reinvestment in cleaner living practices. Today, Winn grows more than 120 varieties of tomatoes, as well as okra, peppers, eggplant, beans and peas, and flowers such as zinnias and sunflowers for seed.
“Time and effort should be put into something you’re not going to get in a can,” Winn said.
He encourages mixing flowering plants and shrubs with vegetables in a garden and trying a heirloom variety or two.
“You can plan a pretty flower garden, then add vegetables to it,” he said. “It’s a plus for the heirlooms. I have red okra that is just beautiful. The butter-yellow flowers ... okra is part of the hibiscus family. Even if you don’t eat okra, it’s pretty in the garden. And the purple-podded beans ... the blooms are lavender in color, the stems are purple, and the beans are delicious. Better than anything you’ll get in a can.”
Once lost, now found
When Winn got his first computer in 1998, one of the first things he did was to try and track down a variety of speckled butterbean that his grandmother once grew.
Over generations, a seed saver’s favorite seeds can get lost. “People die,” Winn said, “and folks come in to clean out the house and — not knowing or realizing — the heirloom seeds that had been kept in the freezer are thrown out.”
That initial search led him to gardening forums and discussions about black tomatoes — which, when vine-ripe, have a deep red skin and blackish flesh when cut. His interest piqued, Winn knew he had to get some seeds.
With the exception of the variety known as Cherokee Black, all of the heirloom black tomato seeds were coming from Eastern Europe. At the time, the region was just opening up to trade and non-hybridized seeds — as close as you could get to a pure lineage — were becoming available to the worldwide market. The Black Tula, which Winn has grown and today claims is the best tasting heirloom tomato, traces its roots to Tula, Russia, just south of Moscow.
“Heirloom” is defined as naturally open-pollinated breeds of plants grown true from seeds, not hybrids. Prior to 1940 and the establishment of the interstate roads system in the United States, all seed material in the United States was considered heirloom.
With the advent of the commercial trucking industry, the business of farming had to look at the durability and transportation of crops over longer distances and the science of hybridization began in earnest. Hybrid plants for farmers — and everyday gardeners who pick up plants at big box garden centers — took the place of heirloom varieties.
In 1962, the Marion tomato, developed at Clemson and named for Marion County, South Carolina, became the last open-pollinated commercially grown tomato variety.
Winn said while heirloom plants had supported families for generations, what made them special was what ultimately made them fall out of commercial favor _ thin skins that would split or bruise easily, a short shelf life, and the pruning, staking and care that each plant needs.
While the flavor of a home grown vegetable or fruit is far superior to what you get in a grocery store, it does take work. And some space. But there are options available.
“Modern heirlooms are perfect for the home gardener,” Winn said.
Over the past decade, Winn said, scientists and growers in New Zealand and in the United States have been breeding new plant varieties that don’t take up as much space as the traditional tomato plant. The “Dwarf Tomato Project” took the 1880 Dwarf Burpee tomato, which grows to only 2 feet high, and crossed it with five of the more popular varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Selection was made for plants that grow no taller that 3 feet and have the best flavor. These new, smaller plants are naturally disease tolerant, produce “normal” sized fruit, and are perfect for growing in pots, a child’s garden or in small spaces.
There are 60 dwarf varieties that are deemed stable — meaning seeds saved from a tomato grown this year will produce the same type of tomato when those seeds are planted in the future, unlike a hybrid — and Winn has been sent seeds of 42 varieties to grow out for seed catalogs.
Not just tomatoes
Even though Winn built his reputation in heirlooms based on his initial interest in tomatoes, Winn said that he prefers growing beans and peas.
“I like the color, shapes and patterns of beans and peas,” he said. The Pink Eye Purple Hull pea is a favorite because of the long pods and coloring of the peas.
Winn has been given seeds for the Sea Island Red Pea to help get that variety back into production, and he was the first person to grow out the Hardee Southern Pea (a cowpea) — 80 pounds of seed for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Planted in mid-July, the vines grow to 12 feet in length and produce peas through late September, until the first frost.
During a recent visit to Winn’s greenhouse, he showed off the seedlings of 50 varieties of pepper plants and eight heirloom varieties of eggplant that he will sell at area flower shows — in addition to his white cucumbers and 120-plus varieties of tomatoes.
This year, in preparation for the 2018 growing season, Winn will be planting the newly revived African runner peanut, courtesy of David Shields, and the Odell white watermelon.
Also known as the White Stoney Mountain watermelon, the seeds for the Odell were provided by his wife Karen’s family, the Metzes, who also share a love of saving vegetable and flower seeds. The light green melon with a white rind was popular in the 1930s and 40s and rivaled the Bradford watermelon, another recently revived variety, for its taste. Karen Winn’s grandfather’s grandfather grew them from plants purchased from the Pomaria Plantation in the 1850s.
Winn encourages gardeners to mix flowering plants and shrubs with vegetables and to try an heirloom variety or two.
“You can plan a pretty flower garden, then add vegetables to it,” he said. “It’s a plus for the heirlooms. I have red okra that is just beautiful. The butter-yellow flowers — okra is part of the hibiscus family. Even if you don’t eat okra, it’s pretty in the garden.”