Heirloom seed exchanges carefully collect and distribute thousands of varieties, from everyday fruits and vegetables to rare wildflowers and exotic medicinal herbs. For backyard farmers who'd like to experiment, Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, suggests starting with a crop that you enjoy eating and that is adapted to your specific growing climate.
"Growing seed in the same geographic area allows the seed to adapt to local pests and climate challenges, and requires less chemical pesticides and fertilizers," she says. "Heirloom seeds are tough, and in many cases have been grown in the same region for decades."
Here are a few of the groups that save, swap, and sell heirloom seeds, both online and at local exchanges:
- Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, has been pioneering heirloom seed exchanging for over 35 years. "I grow German Pink tomatoes and know that my great-great-grandparents also grew this variety in Bavaria long before I was born," says Whealy.
- Abundant Life Seeds in Cottage Grove, Oregon, is an exchange specializing in potatoes like the Austrian Crescent-Fingerling, which is often used in salads.
- Located in western California, Bountiful Gardens offers unusual hot-weather heirlooms like Egyptian spinach greens and Madras radish, as well as mushroom-growing kits.
- Virginia’s Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has a selection of southern heirlooms like peanuts, peas, and cotton, along with cold-hardy perennial onion plants that produce clusters of small onions rather than single bulbs.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has retail stores in Missouri, Connecticut, and California. This season, Baker Creek introduced Rich Sweetness 132, a small, bright-orange tomato said to taste like a pear.
- Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson specializes in tomatillo and teosinte, among other crops that thrive in the southwestern desert climate.
- Victory Seeds, an exchange in Molalla, Oregon, sells heirloom vegetables, flowers, and herbs. New this year are the Chinese Curved Snake cucumber and the Kustovaya Oranzhevaya pumpkin.
- Berea, Kentucky, is home to the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, where heirloom beans like the Lazy Wife bean, the Goose bean, and the Big John bean are a specialty.