Jere Gettle: Growing Heirloom Plants

Jere Gettle runs one of the country's largest heirloom seed catalogs. His mission is to preserve long-standing plant varieties and combat the growing homogenization of our food stock, along with the genetic manipulation that Big Ag is responsible for.

Preserving heirloom strains and expanding their use among small farmers and backyard gardeners is important for many reasons, including:

  • reducing the impact of a large monocrop failure (heirloom strains preserve genetic diversity)
  • preserving natural food-plant strains (a growing number of GMO foods have DNA not just from other plants in them, but from animals, too)
  • keeping public access to seed stocks (the "growing rights" to many GMO seeds are locked up by large & litigious corporations)
  • growing vegetables affordably (Big Ag practices have been driving up the price of basic foods)
  • healthy eating (many of these heirloom varieties are packed with more nutrients that the monocrop produce found in grocery stores)
  • sustainable farming (these seeds can be grown without the heavy chemical and fossil inputs Big Ag uses)
  • preserving history (many heirloom strains have truly fascinating back stories)

In this podcast, we discuss the origins of heirloom seed preservation, the dangers of GMOs, the importance of seed saving and seed swapping among small farmers, and how the interested backyard gardener can participate in keeping these old and fascinating heirloom strains alive.

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Jere Gettle (35m:12s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Glad they have a store here in CT, will definitely check it out.  Thanks for the possitive information, have not gotten into seed saving yet, this interview was very encouraging.  This is a nice counter balance to listening to Paul Craig Roberts and Gerald Celente, things are about as bad and depressing as they can get.  Eating home picked peaches and blueberries this morning are about the only cure that I have left.  Keep the possitve stuff coming too.

Wondeful podcast, Adam.  It was great to hear from Jere on this subject
Seeds you save yourself are a very important part of resilliency: if you cannot obtain seeds, it does not matter how good a gardener or small farmer you are. If you save have your own seed from things that work in your climate, you can grow things you are comfortable with and turn food security into a lifestyle.

I was involved in the Seed Saver Exchange back when it was all mail-order when I was in my 30s. Even then, we talked about biodiversity vesus monocropping. And, after Adam's informal cesus, I wondered what sort of diversity we have in our garden. We are growing 40 varieties in 18 raised beds. This is not counting vines and trees: two varieties each of grapes, figs, apples and peaches - plus a mulberry. Just like Adam, I was shocked at how far I had come in a relatively short time, in the four years since I moved to SC.

I've ordered from Rare Seeds, and recommend them. For people who live in the South I also recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: they have a huge selection of heirloom seeds.

Now excuse me. I have lettuce to replant and figs to pick…

I am just learning how to save seeds. Can anyone give me tips on the best way to save them for the long term e.g. to create a 4-5 year rotation? I live in a high humidity environment so that needs to be taken into account.


as to the basic numbers of a plant needed to prevent 'inbreeding depression'. I ran into this problem with leeks. I was growing way too few individuals to preserve a viable seed line over the long term.
Here is a basic chart:

Jan,Great to hear you have started the process of saving seeds.  I would first recommend getting the Seed to Seed book as a reference to help guide you through the process of prepping/harvesting each type of seed you want to harvest.  Sometimes there are special steps that are necessary before pollination / harvesting  occurs to ensure you are getting true seeds and not some new hybrid.  Then determine which plants you want to start saving seeds from and figure out how long you have to keep those plants in the ground. 
I have found that I have conflicting timeframes for harvesting and saving seeds.  I want to harvest all the ripe produce when its ready and prep the bed for the next planting when it is past but then get conflicted when I want to save seed and have to hold off.  Plant new food or let it go to seeds and wait?  But there are still lots of varieties that can be had without waiting.
As far as long term storage - we keep all our seeds in white paper envelopes or the original packaging and those are stored in plastic coupon tie folders sorted by type of plant (tomatoes, brassicas, lettuce, beans, etc) Then the folders are stored in a plastic bin that is then stored in a cedar chest with other seed starting gear (catalogs, popsicle sticks, pens, etc).  So far this has turned out very effective. 
Will will also be experimenting this fall with using our vacuum sealer and the Wide-Mouth Jar Sealer attachment to "put away" bulk seed in quart jars (still placed in envelopes).  Then we will place these jars in our cheese cave to keep them at 50 degrees. We did try to use some frozen bean seeds this year and had very poor results, so we are avoiding freezing seeds for now until we do more research on that. 
But seeds are very resilient themselves.  As an example, this year we started some tomato seeds that were harvested from my wife's backyard garden in 2002 and not properly stored and have traveled thousands of miles during our moving adventures.  We have 4 great looking plants growing in the garden as I type this.  Took an extra 3 weeks to germinate but they did finally grow. 
So I hope this helps and good luck with the seed saving.  I think I will harvest some basil seed this week.  That is an easy one. 

Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon is a great book that has lots of information on seed saving. Steve ran a seed company for about a decade and the book offers reams of practical advice.

Thanks everyone for the tips - much appreciated! smiley

One of the best ways to learn about seed saving is to join a local group.  In my area, we have a thriving community of growers and seed savers committed to conserving and preserving genetic diversity.  We have a seed bank, an annual seed sale in March, a plant sale in May, quarterly newsletters, and monthly meetings where we bring in speakers to talk about local challenges.  We focus on education, supporting school programs and community events.  I can post a link to our website if that would be of interest.
 In the face of all the doom and gloom gathering on the horizon, it's very heartening to come in contact with other people with exactly the same goals.  Thanks for the post.

In this podcast, I made an off-hand mention about the first heirloom seeds I purchased from Jere's company. They were of the Morado tomato, a variety from Spain :

This very rare tomato produces delicious 1-lb fruit that are dark purplish-pink in color, with green shoulders. The plants have excellent production, and fruit is uniform and crack resistant. Another great-tasting "black" tomato that should be a good variety for the market grower.
It has been over a year since I initially bought the seeds, and I've been waiting eagerly all season for the plants to grow and ripen.

I'm happy to report that the wait has been worth it. I just harvested these beauties this morning:

These tomatoes have a thick, succulent meat that's really perfect in a meal on a hot summer's day.

The harvest also included this monster, which was roughly the same size as a grapefruit:

Very happy to be growing healthy and wonderful-tasting heirloom food from seed. Hard to eat any more nutritiously or tastily than that!

If you're not already planting at least some heirloom varieties in your garden, check with your local nursery or farmer's market for guidance on where to get seeds/seedlings. Or purchase some from a catalog company like Jere's. Your local bio-diversity and your dinner table will be better off for it.

Some great tips on seed harvesting!  Thanks everyone.   We've been ordering and growing heirloom veggies for a couple of years now and want to start reclaiming seeds for the following year.   Like most things, it's something that seems to be a skill that needs time (and wisdom!) to develop.  We have a ways to go yet…   Having good sources of credible knowledge is a big help.