Rodger Winn traces his obsession with heirloom seed saving to his first year at school.

As a little boy, he read Seeds And More Seeds: A Science I CAN READ Book by Millicent E. Selsam and “drove my mother crazy with the experiments in the book”, he says.

It was a part of him: Winn’s parents and grandparents were farmers in South Carolina, the United States, and saved seeds from one year to the next.

His early years and young adulthood – including a stint in the US Navy, when Winn carried seeds and seed catalogues that reminded him of home and started a seed swap with fellow sailors – helped turn his passion for seed saving into a second career.

Although his day job has him working 12-hour shifts at a nuclear power station, as Winn became known within the seed saving community for his work with heirloom tomatoes, he was approached by American seed catalogue companies to grow out certain heirloom varieties for seed.

The resurgence of heirloom materials and organic growing practices are a growing trend in South Carolina and elsewhere in the United States – even globally – and is part of an overall reinvestment in cleaner living practices. Today, Winn grows more than 120 varieties of tomatoes, as well as okra, peppers, eggplant, beans and peas, and flowers such as zinnias and sunflowers for seed.

“Time and effort should be put into something you’re not going to get in a can,” Winn says.

Winn will plant 50 heirloom varieties of peppers, eight varieties of eggplant, and over 120 varieties of tomatoes. He sells most of his plants at nearby plant shows and nurseries, but he will also plant almost 1ha just to harvest the seeds for seed catalogue companies.

He encourages mixing flowering plants and shrubs with vegetables in a garden and trying an heirloom variety or two.

“You can plan a pretty flower garden, then add vegetables to it,” he says. “It’s a plus for the heirlooms. I have red okra that is just beautiful. The butter-yellow flowers … okra is part of the hibiscus family. Even if you don’t eat okra, it’s pretty in the garden.

“And the purple-podded beans … the blooms are lavender in colour, the stems are purple, and the beans are delicious. Better than anything you’ll get in a can.”

Once lost, now found

When Winn got his first computer in 1998, one of the first things he did was to try and track down a variety of speckled butterbean that his grandmother once grew.

Over generations, a seed saver’s favourite seeds can get lost. “People die,” Winn says, “and folks come in to clean out the house and – not knowing or realising – the heirloom seeds that had been kept in the freezer are thrown out.”

Winn and his wife have a system of tracking seeds they plant that involves making detailed lists and marking trays with labelled ice cream sticks.

That initial search led him to gardening forums and discussions about black tomatoes – which, when vine-ripe, have a deep red skin and blackish flesh when cut. His interest piqued, Winn knew he had to get some seeds.

With the exception of the variety known as Cherokee Black, all of the heirloom black tomato seeds were coming from Eastern Europe. At the time, the region was just opening up to trade and non-hybridised seeds – as close as you could get to a pure lineage – were becoming available to the worldwide market.

The Black Tula, which Winn has grown and today claims is the best tasting heirloom tomato, traces its roots to Tula, Russia, just south of Moscow.

“Heirloom” is defined as naturally open-pollinated breeds of plants grown true from seeds, not hybrids. Prior to 1940 and the establishment of the interstate roads system in the United States, all seed material in the country was considered heirloom.

With the advent of the commercial trucking industry, the business of farming had to look at the durability and transportation of crops over longer distances and the science of hybridisation began in earnest.

Hybrid plants for farmers – and everyday gardeners who pick up plants at garden centres – took the place of heirloom varieties.

In 1962, the Marion tomato, named for Marion County, South Carolina, became the last open-pollinated commercially grown tomato variety.

The book that started an obsession.

Winn says while heirloom plants had supported families for generations, what made them special was what ultimately made them fall out of commercial favour – thin skins that would split or bruise easily, a short shelf life, and the pruning, staking and care that each plant needs.

While the flavour of a home grown vegetable or fruit is far superior to what you get in a grocery store, it does take work. And some space. But there are options available.

“Modern heirlooms are perfect for the home gardener,” Winn says.

Over the past decade, according to him, scientists and growers in New Zealand and in the United States have been breeding new plant varieties that don’t take up as much space as the traditional tomato plant.

The “Dwarf Tomato Project” took the 1880 dwarf Burpee tomato, which grows to only 60cm high, and crossed it with five of the more popular varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Selection was made for plants that grow no taller that 90cm and have the best flavour. These new, smaller plants are naturally disease tolerant, produce “normal” sized fruit, and are perfect for growing in pots, a child’s garden, or in small spaces.

There are 60 dwarf varieties that are deemed stable – meaning seeds saved from a tomato grown this year will produce the same type of tomato when those seeds are planted in the future, unlike a hybrid – and Winn has been sent seeds of 42 varieties to grow out for seed catalogues.

Not just tomatoes

Even though Winn built his reputation in heirlooms based on his initial interest in tomatoes, he says he actually prefers growing beans and peas.

“I like the colour, shapes, and patterns of beans and peas,” he says.

The Pink Eye Purple Hull pea is a favourite because of the long pods and colouring of the peas.

Winn has been given seeds for the Sea Island Red Pea to help get that variety back into production, and he was the first person in the United States to grow out the Hardee Southern Pea (a cowpea) – almost 40kg of seed for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Planted in mid-July, the vines grow to 3.5m in length and produce peas through late September, until the first frost.

During a recent visit to Winn’s greenhouse, he shows off the seedlings of 50 varieties of pepper plants and eight heirloom varieties of eggplant that he will sell at area flower shows – in addition to his white cucumbers and 120-plus varieties of tomatoes.

This year, in preparation for the 2018 growing season, Winn will be planting the newly revived African runner peanut, and the Odell white watermelon.

Also known as the White Stoney Mountain watermelon, the seeds for the Odell were provided by the family of Winn’s wife Karen, the Metzes, who also share a love of saving vegetable and flower seeds.

The light green melon with a white rind was popular in the 1930s and 1940s and rivalled the Bradford watermelon, another recently revived variety, for its taste.

Karen Winn’s grandfather’s grandfather grew them from plants purchased from the Pomaria Plantation in the 1850s. – The State/Tribune News Service