Seed companies are certainly not the only source for heirloom varieties. In fact, many heirlooms are not even available from commercial seed companies, but circulate from gardener to gardener in trades facilitated by seed exchanges. These exchanges are not seed companies and they usually do not sell seeds. Instead, they are forums where people who grow heirlooms and people who are looking for them can find each other. Most provide members with publications that operate a little like classified ads. In them, gardeners with seeds to share can list what they have and those who are looking for a particular variety can post what they want. Members browse these lists, hopefully making a match. While there is no guarantee that a particular variety will appear in any given year (or for that matter, ever), these exchanges are the best place to look for rare heirlooms. Each year, they list literally hundreds of different varieties. Many of them, including many that are at risk of becoming extinct, are available nowhere else.
Dedicated to preserving Appalachia's edible heritage, this young non-profit has already added 50 regional varieties to its seed bank, and is preserving several hundred more. Since so many of these rare heirlooms came as just a few seeds from a single source, the AHSC is currently building inventory. In time, they plan offer these seeds to AHSC members and others. They published a quarterly newsletter, with info on what they grow and how you can help preserve heirlooms from the Appalachians.
Carl and Karen Barnes, who have been collecting and growing corn for 50 years, started this exchange, which is devoted entirely to corn. And lest you think that means plain old ordinary yellow grocery-store corn, CORN has some remarkable things--old dents and flints, flour corns, popcorn, white, red, black, blue, orange, purple, and multi-colored corn, old Native American varieties, and plenty more. That's just part of what this exchange has to offer. The growers in this exchange maintain many other kinds of corn, save seeds (it takes some skill to keep corn varieties pure), and trade it with others who do the same. They also offer two or three varieties for a donation of $3.00 per packet.
The Garden State has a long and distinguished history of fine horticulturists and choice plants. Keeping that tradition alive, their Heirloom Seed Society is active on several fronts. They coordinate an heirloom seed exchange, host a tomato tasting, hold plant sales, and offer workshops. And they are developing a farm museum in northwestern NJ. Their website has lots of interesting information.
Europe's largest organization for organic gardeners, the Henry Doubleday Research Organization is also involved in the heirlooms movement. Their "Heritage Seed Library" works to bring back endangered varieties, and issues a yearly catalog. So far, they are preserving some 700 rare varieties, and offer 200 of them in their catalog. They are sponsor a seed swap, and need volunteers to adopt and grow rare heritage varieties. They do plenty of other things, too. They have display gardens, sponsor lectures, and offer sage advice about organic gardening.
Gardening is an ancient tradition in Ireland, and growers there have developed many fine varieties of vegetables, grains, and fruits. Today, many of these fine heirlooms are increasingly scarce. To help stop this genetic erosion, gardeners joined together in an organization that is finding and saving vegetables, potatoes, apples (they maintain 140 varieties from Ireland), and cereal grains. The group also does research and outreach, and is hoping for its own farm.
Devoted to preserving and sharing heirlooms, this organization hosts an annual seed swap each spring, and serves gardeners and organic farmers in Maine and the Northeast.
A relatively recent addition to the world of seed exchanges, d'coda organized this one to save primarily regional heirlooms from the increasing incursion of GE pollen into traditional crops. This pint-sized exchange has a big heart, and the feel of friendly gardeners swapping seeds and stories on the front porch.
*d'coda prefers snail-mail, as she lives computer free
As Tim Berners-Lee is to the World Wide Web, so Kent and Diane Whealy are to the heirloom vegetable renaissance. They founded the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), which gives gardeners access to thousands of heirlooms. Here's the way it works. The SSE publishes an annual yearbook in which members offer seeds to share and/or seeds they want. Gardeners can contact each other, and work out a swap. In recent times, the list has included thousands of postings. While many of the varieties in the Yearbook are familiar ones that also appear in the seed trade, there are always a fair number of rare heirlooms that either never appeared in catalogs or ones that were once in the trade but have since been dropped. And if you are looking for something really unusual, the SSE is the place to look. They also have varieties from around the world, not just ones from the U.S.
Founded in 1986, the Seed Savers' Network is working to preserve heirlooms in Australia and elsewhere around the globe. They have worked with more than 5,000 varieties, and currently help growers share more than 1,300 different seeds and other plant materials each year. In addition to a quarterly newsletter, they publish a handbook each year which members list what they have to share. They also host conferences, workshops, and have an impressive outreach program to start and support seed saving organizations around the globe.
Another of the leaders in the heirloom seed movement, Seeds of Diversity Canada also has an impressive seed exchange. They publish an annual seed listing, plus newsletters. Canadian gardeners also host "Seedy Saturdays." They operate a bit like swap meets, but with table after table of seeds. Details are on their website. So is plenty of other good information about growing heirloom vegetables.
Heirlooms go to college! This program, which is dedicated to identifying and preserving heirlooms from the South (Texas to Virginia), looks at heirlooms as cultural indicators. They hunt for seeds, but also for the gardeners who developed and maintained these varieties so they can preserve both the seed and human legacies. There are some very interesting vegetables here. Some of these heirlooms seem to resist disease and insects better than their modern counterparts. Others have different, but equally intriguing traits. The researchers here work with rank-and-file volunteer gardeners who grow heirlooms and share seeds. Check their website for more information.