Sylvia’s Special Seeds
Written onSeptember 01 , 2008
I’d heard rumors of what might be growing in Sylvia Davatz’s greenhouse. Wheat from an alpine village. Greens throughout the winter. A tomato that lasts until December. Even peanuts! I wondered: What might be going on at Sylvia’s? Plants like these aren’t normally grown in Vermont.
To satisfy my curiosity, I called Sylvia and asked to learn more about her work with seed saving and her trials of unusual varieties. I’d met her when she volunteered in my produce department at the Upper Valley Food Co-op a couple of winters ago. Happily, I was invited over for a visit to her home and garden in Hartland.
Sylvia’s is not your ordinary home garden. Yes, it is laid out neatly in beds and paths. Like some gardens, hers has stone walls, these terraced up the hill on two sides. And yes, she grows some common vegetables, such as lettuces, beets, and tomatoes. But she recently built a passive solar greenhouse that allows her to extend her food production into colder months, create a frost-free environment for starting seedlings, and expand her seed saving capacity by housing biennials that require overwintering.
The purpose of seed saving is to preserve heirloom seeds that have been passed down through families and communities for generations, but that are at risk of disappearing because of the dominance of industrial agriculture, which has eliminated much of the genetic diversity present in world agriculture. Seed savers around the globe plant heirloom seeds each year to make sure the seed will remain vital and usable into the future.
Sylvia is a member of the Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), a nonprofit founded more than 25 years ago. Seed Savers preserves more than 25,000 varieties of open-pollinated (non-hybrid) heirloom and rare vegetable seeds by growing them out on their farm in Decorah, Iowa, and by publishing the Seed Savers Yearbook, through which members can offer heirloom seeds grown in their own gardens to other members. Sylvia offers seed of more than 50 vegetable varieties in the Seed Savers Yearbook and maintains an additional 50 or so varieties for her own use and for trades with friends.
Additionally, as a dual American/Swiss citizen, she is involved with the Swiss seed saving organization Pro Specie Rara, for which she grows and saves seed from three to six varieties of rare or endangered vegetables each year. This year’s varieties include a dwarf barley, wheat from an alpine village, and an old and rare lettuce.
Last year, Sylvia and a friend conducted trials of chickpeas and lentils, and found they didn’t work terribly well, ours not being the Mediterranean environment in which they thrive. But grains are another story. She’s got Globe Wheat from India that’s round and good for bread, Blue Tinge Ethiopian wheat, Kamut, and several hull-less barleys. And then there are peanuts. Yes, peanuts! A black skinned variety, and Thai peanuts too. Who’d have thought?
Sylvia is also working with varieties that naturally extend the season. Have you ever heard of a long-keeping tomato? Store them on your shelf and enjoy them through December. And Valencia winter melons, still juicy and tasty two months after fall harvest—she expects they could last up to four months. Imagine fresh melon out of your root cellar in January!
Dartmouth College’s Organic Farm manager, Scott Stokoe, is helping her with another remarkable project: dehybridizing Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Hybrids are the result of crossing two varieties to obtain a new one with specific characteristics. Seed from hybrids cannot be saved, since it will either be sterile or not grow true to type. Dehybridizing is the process of growing successive generations and selecting for the desired traits, hoping to get the qualities of the hybrid, but with the ability to save the seed and have them grow true to type.
I’d never heard of such a thing, but Sylvia and Scott are in their seventh year of growing the Sun Golds out and selecting for the best characteristics, hoping the variety will be stable by the 10th year. Several Seed Saver members are helping with this effort by growing her seed in different parts of the country. Additionally, she’s working on a plum-shaped Sungold that doesn’t crack—named, you guessed it, Plum Gold.
And this is only scratching the surface of her endeavors. In keeping with her desire to spread knowledge about seed saving, Sylvia has started doing workshops at Cobb Hill Co-housing’s Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland. Folks are hungry for this know-how, and it seems a natural extension of the growing interest in home gardening. In fact, part of Sylvia’s vision is to create a regional seed bank in which all the varieties that form our traditional New England diet are represented.
“Seed saving is a critically important skill that hasn’t yet received the wide recognition that growing heirloom vegetables has,” Sylvia said at a recent workshop. “But without it, we wouldn’t have those [heirloom] varieties.”
She also said that we, as a society, will need to understand and practice seed saving “as oil supplies deplete, as we re-localize economies, and as the seed industry continues to consolidate, often removing treasured varieties and their invaluable genetic diversity from circulation. Additionally, we will need locally adapted seed supplies to meet the demands of our climate, geography, seasons, and markets.”
Sylvia feels that her work honors the hundreds of generations of farmers whose efforts, skill, attention, and caring have given us the thousands of varieties of food we’re able to grow today. In turn, I feel that Sylvia’s efforts and vision are a vital link to the more abundant future many of us are working toward.
Photo by Sylvia Davatz, of her garden