Gardening With Heirloom Varieties

Food historian William Woys Weaver has been gardening with heirloom varieties since he was a boy. But finding his grandfather’s rare seed collection in a deep freeze may have been the critical point in determining his unique career path. Today, Weaver’s collection includes over 4,000 varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Read the fascinating story of how he revived his grandfather’s garden.

| August/September 2008

Each year, Weaver is gardening with heirloom varieties from his collection, and grows hundreds of varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

Each year, Weaver is gardening with heirloom varieties from his collection, and grows hundreds of varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

Photo by Rob Cardillo

Gardening with heirloom varieties. How my grandfather’s nearly lost seed collection led me to a passion for gardening and food history.

Gardening With Heirloom Varieties

It was never my intention to become a seedsman, gardener or food historian, but it happened as one of those turns in life that leads us down an unexpected path into a world of ongoing surprise and pleasure. Closeness to the earth is part of my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and the knack for botany came from the Quaker side of my clan. But it was my grandfather who brought those threads together. He was born in Lancaster County, married to a Quaker farm girl and was deeply devoted to plants.

My grandparents were my early mentors. I remember working beside my grandfather in his large kitchen garden with my own miniature wheelbarrow and tools. I was probably more in his way than a help, but I was also absorbing everything he told me.

My grandfather had begun collecting seeds in the late 1920s — mostly from relatives during his extensive genealogical work. That was the founding framework from which the Roughwood Seed Collection (my seed collection that now contains more than 4,000 varieties) evolved. Even before then, his penchant for collecting flowers of intense blue colors was well-established. I still have one of his specially bred tall-stemmed blue columbines, and not long ago realized that the big blue dahlia that used to tower over me as a child was none other than ‘Thomas Edison,’ a showy variety introduced in 1929.

My grandfather had been sickly all his life because of a bad childhood case of rheumatic fever, but gardening was an outlet he could enjoy without wearing himself down. He also kept racing pigeons and bees, and they brought a unique balance to the little world he created. The bees pollinated the plants and made honey, and the pigeons provided delicious squabs for potpies, not to mention rich fertilizer for the garden.

My grandfather died unexpectedly in 1956, when I was 9 years old. Manicured flower beds gradually returned to weeds, and the half-acre kitchen garden went back to lawn.

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