A Southern Exposure for Spring Planting

By HRW

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 5-6

As soil is being worked and gardens laid this Spring, it may be useful to remember that all seeds are not created equal, and that there are alternatives to agribusiness and hybridization.

Southern Exposure, a seed exchange and gardening center in North Garden, Va., is one such alternative. (No relation to the Institute for Southern Studies' journal of the same name.)

Begun in 1982 by Jeff McCormack, a botanist who previously ran the greenhouses at the University of Virginia, Southern Exposure is a leader among the growing movement to preserve genetic variation in agricultural crops. McCormack has been called a vegetable historian, and he and his wife, Patty Wallens, began their seed exchange from their kitchen table as a means of protecting some traditional varieties of garden crops from extinction.

They soon began receiving unsolicited donations of seeds from like-minded individuals who were enamored of particular plants that had been grown in their families for, sometimes, several generations. Today Southern Exposure has expanded to include hundreds of vegetable varieties, flowers, and fruit trees, many of which are not commercially available and some of which were feared to be extinct.

The Southern Exposure operation now includes a twelve-acre organic testing and demonstration garden; a lab and environmentally controlled seed storage; a customer list that is doubling every year; and a catalog full of seeds, gardening and seed-saving supplies, and general tips and advice. The business also has an unlisted telephone; to get their catalog, send $3 to P.O. Box 158, North Garden, VA


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22959. Those who place orders automatically receive future catalogs.

McCommack writes in his 1989 catalog, "Non-hybrid [seed] varieties introduced prior to 1940 are defined as heirloom varieties. After 1940, hybrids began to displace traditional varieties, and many became scarce or lost. We define a special class of heirlooms as 'family heirloom varieties.' These have been handed down within families for generations."

These heirlooms are described and sometimes illustrated in the Southern Exposure catalog.

For example, the Large Early Greasy variety of pole bean is "from the mountain area of Mars Hill, N.C. Pods have medium strings, are flattened when young...grow 4 to 6" long, and contain 6 white seeds per pod. Though not suitable for green shell out, it makes a high quality green bean when picked small. As is typical of many home saved seed of mountain people, there is some variation in this variety as to pod and seed size, shape, and maturity. The name 'greasy' refers to the lack of 'fuzziness' (plant hairs) on the pods. Has been grown for generations as a drought hardy, cornfield bean."

McCormack says he is "concerned about the erosion of genetic resources and the trend toward replacement of standard or open-pollinated varieties by hybrids. Unless we have genetic diversity in our food crops, our whole food supply is vulnerable to epidemics...For this reason, we offer a diverse selection of open-pollinated varieties to help ensure a genetic reservoir of resistance to disease, regional adaptability, cultural and flavor qualities, and to ensure that the traditional varieties remain available to gardeners and farmers.

"What a shame it would be if we lost varieties such as 'Stowell's Evergreen' corn or 'Tappy's Finest' tomato. We would lose not only unique taste and quality, but also part of our agricultural and cultural heritage."

Finally, there's the Old Time Tennessee cantaloupe, which one gardener told McCormack is so fragrant he can find the melons in his garden in the dark-obviously healthier and even more entertaining than a trip to the refrigerator for a beer.