A New Home for SESE

For the past dozen years, ever since our cooperative took on stewardship of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange from Dr. Jeff McCormack, we’ve been operating the business out a repurposed living room in our large collective house.  “Don’t worry,” we were told, “it’s just temporary.  We’ll get the business its own building in a year.”  Thanks to all your support and the resulting twelve years of steady and dramatic growth we really can’t put it off any longer.  And so we are embarking on the exciting and challenging project of trying to build our dear SESE a brand new home.

To be a proper home, however, it needs to be more than just four walls and a roof (and a loading dock, and a seed storage room, and a germination lab, and and and…).  I feel that a proper home should reflect the personality of its occupant.  For us, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has a strong personality reflected in its core values:
-A commitment to promoting organic and sustainable agriculture.  This world, this soil, this place is our home and we should treat it that way.  Better to work with the living systems that sustain us than against them.
-A strong cooperative and educational spirit.  We’re all in this together and we will all do best collectively if we open up, share, and cooperate.  As Ira likes to say, you can get a bigger slice of pie by stealing other people’s slices or you can get a bigger slice of pie by working with the other folks to make the pie you’re sharing bigger.  We prefer the latter.
-An interest in preserving and promoting our regional cultural heritage.  The work of generations in this particular beautiful place we call home has yielded a rich heritage not just of delightful vegetables but also song, art, craft, and architecture.  Diversity is real wealth and we should preserve and promote it for all to enjoy.

So, here is what we have set out to do.  We will build a headquarters for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange that is beautiful and functional and a joy to work in.  We will make it out of materials that do not contribute to the spread of toxic substances in our environment.  We will make it out of materials and using techniques particularly adapted to Central Virginia.  We will draw upon the heritage of historic and regional building trades to make a building anchored in the history of this place.  And we will use both the finished building and the process of building it as a way to reach out to our local community to cooperate on shared goals and to serve as an educational and advocacy platform for the techniques and technologies and philosophies that we employ.

My name is Paul Blundell.  I have been with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for almost 6 years now and have been heading up the project in its nascent stages.  I have some experience in the historic preservation trades and am acting as our networker-in-chief for this project.

Here Comes The Sun(flowers)…

Spring is swiftly approaching, and let me tell you, I can’t wait for sun—and for sunflowers! Sunflowers will brighten up your garden and bring a smile to your face. Southern Exposure loves them so much that a blooming sunflower graces our logo! To us, sunflowers symbolize the unity of beauty and utility, and serve as a reminder of the boundless source of life’s energy and creation.  Maybe, that’s why we carry fifteen varieties of sunflowers.

Autumn Beauty sunflower

Beauty and Utility United

If you are going to be growing sunflowers in the hopes of harvesting sunflower seeds, you should stick with Black Mammoth. This variety is the traditional tall, single-headed sunflower—stalks can grow to be eight to ten feet tall! Black Mammoth is a confectionery variety of sunflower, which means that its big seeds will be great for munching.

If there are children frequenting your garden, you should consider planting our adorable Short Stuff or Sunspot varieties. Kids love these dwarf sunflowers as they only grow to be about three or four feet tall. They are also perfect for borders & container gardens and for growing seed to feed birds in the wintertime.

Are you into D.I.Y. (“Do It Yourself”) projects? If so, why not experiment with dying fabric the old-fashioned way? Hopi Indians crushed the purple-black seeds of the gorgeous Hopi Dye variety and used the pulp as a natural dye for coloring woven baskets. If you want to try growing these sunflowers for seed, plan to mature the seeds in the driest part of the growing season.

The Many Faces—er—Heads of Sunflowers

Some people may not realize that not all sunflowers are stalks topped with single heads. Sunflower plants can have many branches with many heads! Poly-headed varieties usually grow to be about five to seven feet tall. Although their seeds are too small to harvest for human consumption, poly-headed sunflowers are valuable additions to a garden as they are visually striking—a single plant can yield flowers of many different colors.

Plus, birds love the tiny seeds of poly-headed sunflowers. Take, for instance, our ornamental Cucumber-Leaf variety, which you may want to plant just for your neighborhood birds. When the heads of the sunflowers mature and dry out, your feathery friends will flock to them! They tend to prefer this variety to other kinds of sunflowers. (However, all types of sunflowers attract birds, which is bad news for saving seed…so, use bird netting on poly-headed sunflowers while they’re drying down and tie paper bags over the large heads of single-headed sunflowers. Seeds will continue to mature inside the bag).

One benefit of poly-headed sunflowers is that they are less likely to fall over because of heavy heads. Black Mammoth sunflowers, on the other hand, may fall over due to strong winds or loose soil if left untrellised. Another great thing about poly-headed varieties is that you will get a longer bloom out of them. Black Mammoths might have two weeks with their heads at maturity before they wither up, but the many flowers on a poly-headed plant will give you about a month and a half of blooming action!

Sunflower Facts

Lastly, here are some general things you may want to know about our favorite flower:

  1. As most plants orient themselves towards the south to get the most light possible during the day, sunflowers tend to lean south. In fact, the French word for “sunflower” is “tournesol,” which literally means, “turn with the sun.” So, if you happen to have a fence in your yard that runs east to west, a smart idea would be to plant your sunflowers on the north side of the fence so that the sunflowers can lean against it! Talk about trellising made easy…
  2. Don’t fertilize your sunflowers with manure or anything else that is high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen leads to sunflowers that are too tall and thus more likely to fall over. Also, a surplus of nitrogen can mean more leaves and less flowers.
  3. Frost kills! When planting sunflowers, either start them in a greenhouse/indoors and transplant them or directly seed them in the ground after the danger of frost has passed.
  4. If you’re wondering when to plant sunflowers, we’d recommend planting them a couple of times over the course of the spring/summer since they flower for a limited time. For instance, if you plant your first batch in April or May, plant some more in June to maximize the time you get to spend admiring these lovely flowers.
  5. Sunflowers are beautiful, easy to grow, great for kids, and have few bug problems. What more could you ask for?

Tomato Varieties: Finding the Right Heirloom Tomato Seeds

A tomato rainbow- cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, brandywine tomatoes, paste tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a great place to start when it comes to planning your garden.  Since there are so many great varieties of tomatoes it can be hard to figure out where to start.  You might be tempted to plant tomato seeds for each of them!  But, if you are limited by garden space, time, and tummies for them all to go, then it is probably a good idea to think about what you want to use them for and which flavors suit you best.

Heirloom tomatoes have gained some popularity in the past few years.  It seems like: once you go heirloom you never go back.  For the most part this is true – most varieties developed before 1940 were bred for great flavor.  Some heirloom tomatoes were also developed for growing conditions – such as short summers or resistance to plant diseases like the dreaded late blight.  So, it is important to note, that just because a tomato variety is an heirloom doesn’t guarantee that it will be delicious (although it’s a good indication).

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato- sometimes called a black tomato

Cherokee Purple is a beefsteak, heirloom tomato variety.  These tomatoes hold a rare distinction of actually having a purple color.  Most ‘purple’ tomatoes are more pink than purple.  The Cherokee Purple tomato also has a distinctive interior.  The flesh has a rich dark color while the  locule (the cavity where the tomatoes’ seeds are contained) filling has a deep  green color.  The tomato’s flavor is rich and juicy.

Heirloom -Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes

The Yellow Brandywine tomato has all the delicious flavor of a traditional Red Brandywine tomato.  The fruits are a rich yellow orange color,and have a smooth texture.  Yellow Brandywine fruits often have some ribbing and generally weigh 1-2lbs, definitely a beefsteak tomato. If the tomato plants experiences drastic shifts in temperature fruit shapes can become irregular.

Eva Purple Ball Heirloom Tomato

The Eva Purple Ball heirloom tomato plants take about 78 days before harvest.  Fruits are great all around tomatoes they can be sliced and  for sandwiches, cooked down into tomato sauce, and even dehydrated.  Eva Purple Balls produce uniform sized fruits that are resistant to cracking and rarely have blemishes.

Green Zebra - tomato

The Green Zebra tomato retains its green color after it ripens. It has a good earthy flavor and is popular with tomato aficionados.  Although this tomato was developed in 1985, it can certainly hold its own in a garden with heirloom tomatoes.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato

This cherry tomato wins taste test after taste test with its sweet flavor.  The tomato plants produce high yields of tiny currant sized fruits.  If you are going to plant this tomato in your garden you will certainly need to either place a cage around it or steak it.  Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato plant tends to sprawl.

Roma VFN Paste Tomato

The Roma VFN tomato is a great example  of a tomato that has not only been selected for flavor but for disease resistance as well. While no plant can ever be 100% safe in the garden the growing tomatoes should not suffer from Veritcillium Wilt, Alternaria stem cranker, or Fusarium wilt- race 1.  This open pollinated tomato variety is widely adapted to grow in a wide range of climates and growing conditions.

Saving the Past for the Future