A seed is a curious thing — a window to both the past and the future. A local group is hoping to use this special property to nurture the history of the Kaw Valley, one plant at a time.
The Kaw Valley Seeds Project, a nonprofit group started last year, is trying to create a bank of heritage seeds — ones native and/or extensively grown in Lawrence and the surrounding area.
“I feel like the seed reserve is something like a library. It not only holds the living seeds, but it holds the information from past gardeners,” says project member Laura Ramberg. “Also, gathering the stories, the history of the seeds, not just the agricultural history, but the cultural history. So where did that seed come from? Who developed it? I find that very interesting.”
As part of getting the word out and sharing the Kaw Valley heritage, the group is hosting a seed fair from noon to 5 p.m. today at the Dreher Building at Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds, 2110 Harper St.
Seeds of all types, including heritage seeds that date back hundreds of years, will be available. There will also be educational information, gardening tools, books and information on display, and children’s activities.
“I’m not calling it a seed exchange, I’m calling it a seed celebration,” Ramberg says. “There will be opportunities for people not just to bring seeds and trade them, but for people to buy heirloom seeds from different vendors that we have and becoming aware of where their seeds and their plants come from.”
The fair is the first large event held by the project, which is the brainchild of Ramberg and other like-minded seed lovers, who decided the region could benefit from saving and making an effort to use heritage seeds — as in ones that were either originated here or have long histories of growing well in eastern Kansas.
Founding project members include the husband and wife team of Dianna Henry and Jerry Sipe, who have a veritable seed bank going in their small apartment. Corn dries on the dinner table, beans next to the audio system. Seeds live in jars of all shapes and sizes, each kept with a tag specifying what it is.
The tags are like paging through a book on North American history. There’s a Native American corn called Brown Osage that has been something Henry has been cultivating since the 1980s for its unique taste, rare breeding and beautiful purple corn meal. Then there’s the Black Mexican Bush Bean, which Henry says has been grown in the central plains of North America since 1100 A.D.
These seeds and others of all shapes and stripes should be available at the fair, Henry says, but what might be even better is what non-project guests will bring in.
“It’s open sharing, it’s not that I buy your seeds and you buy mine,” Henry says. “I hope it’s a way for us to find out what heirlooms are in this area. Because we have heirlooms, we just aren’t used to thinking of (them that way). We’re thinking of that heirloom tomato you buy out of the catalogs. Well, the real heirlooms aren’t for sale. The real heirlooms are here and in the hands of maybe your neighbor.”
Henry says the primary reason the group decided to hold an exchange, in addition to building up a heirloom reserve, is to educate. To take seeds from something a gardener buys to something a gardener understands just as well as their grandparents and great-grandparents did.
“Many people thing it’s too hard,” Henry says. “And they don’t realize it’s just one more step from gardening.”
And while there’s no blanket explanation of how to save seed — Henry teaches classes four to five hours long on just that subject — it’s possible to find information about a specific seed’s saving technique through books and experienced growers, both of which will be available at the fair.
Ramberg says she believes in many ways there couldn’t be a better time to become interested in getting back to basics — back to our start, the seed.
“It’s just taking the idea of local food all the way to local seeds,” Ramberg says. “It’s a timely thing to do, it’s just a practical thing to do and it’s a fun thing to do.”