Keepers of the Seeds

seedsSaving seeds to plant for next year’s crop has been key to survival around the globe for millennia. In Kentucky, seed saving emerged as an essential agriculture practice among Native Americans as early as 3,500 years ago, and the seeds traded by these early farmers to European settlers created the basis for the diets of generations of Kentuckians. In the last century, however, commercial seed production by multinational companies aimed to select varieties that would last longer on shelves and that were more suited to the demands of mechanical harvest and long-distance transportation. As a result, many traditional seed varieties, representing generations of meticulous effort spent maintaining flavor and quality, were brought almost to extinction. More recently, farmers and gardeners who have been quietly conserving Kentucky’s heirloom plants are joining a growing movement to preserve the food heritage of the Bluegrass State.

In Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving, Bill Best explores our rich history of saving seeds from the roots of the practice among Native Americans to current efforts aimed at recovering and saving seed varieties that might otherwise be lost. Writing with Dobree Adams, Best passes on his extensive first-hand knowledge of seeds and draws on interviews with veteran members of the seed-saving community to examine the unique challenges of raising heirloom varieties, to celebrate the traditions of the practice, and to expose the enormous cultural impact and social relevance of responsibly and traditionally sourced food.

Best gives practical tips on saving, planting, and growing heirloom beans and tomatoes, and provides easy-to-follow instructions on how to properly collect, ferment, and dry heirloom seeds from season to season. He also shares his favorite varieties for the table, such as the Pink Tip Greasy bean, unique for the pink tip which develops on the end of the pod as the bean matures, and the Aunt Cecil’s Green tomato, which remains bright green even when fully ripe. In addition, Best includes a brief guide to various heirloom Kentucky and Appalachian beans and tomatoes, sketching out the distinctions and virtues of each.

Beyond providing an examination of the processes and history of collecting and cultivating seeds, Best highlights the high price we pay for cheaper produce and the implications of seed saving for the future of sustainable agriculture. In an age when modern technology is used to mass-produce uniformly mediocre fruits and vegetables devoid of nutritional value, Best suggests a return to the time-tested traditions of raising heirloom plants to preserve flavor and quality. While celebrating seed saving as an important element of Kentucky’s history and agricultural tradition, Kentucky Heirloom Seeds also looks to the future, proposing gardening and seed saving as means to regain a more balanced relationship with our foods and food sources.

The Colorful World of Kentucky Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom tomatoes come in many colors, including red, pink, yellow, green-when-ripe, brown, black, and purple. Their various sugar-acid combinations give them distinctive flavors.


Yellow tomatoes tend to be high in sugars. Although they are thought to have a lower acid content, the sugars simply overpower the acids and give the tomatoes a sweet flavor. Developed by Claude Brown of Pike County, Kentucky, Claude Brown’s Yellow Giant is actually a deep orange color and can weigh three pounds or more.


Heirloom red tomatoes are high in acid and are pleasing to a lot of people. Best’s favorite red tomato is the Zeke Dishman, a very large and tasty tomato that often weighs over two pounds. It was developed by Zeke Dishman of Windy in Wayne County over several decades.


Pink tomatoes tend to be high in acids and sugars—what many refer to as “old-fashioned” flavor. The pinks are Bill Best’s personal favorites, and the Vinson Watts tomato is his favorite one of all.


Best’s favorite green-when-ripe tomato is Aunt Cecil’s Green, a Ken- tucky heirloom with good flavor. This variety develops a yellow tint on the blossom end as it becomes fully ripe. It sells well at farmers’ markets and has a very good flavor but does not have a long shelf life.


Best’s favorite black tomato (and a favorite of his customers) is the Blackberry, a large and tasty tomato weighing about twelve to sixteen ounces. The original seeds were given to Bill by John Allen of Cartersville, Kentucky.





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