Unifying Ideas: Stamford Seed Savers

By Libby Weiland, Statewide Network Coordinator & Stephen Greene, Stamford Seed Savers

photo from Stamford VT Seed Savers

Long-time garden organizers, Helen Fields and Stephen Greene—instrumental movers and shakers in the  school and community gardening movement in Southern Vermont—are excited to have turned their focus on their home community—Stamford, Vermont. Helen and Stephen were looking for a project that would unify people locally. Out of community meetings grew an idea and tremendous support for creating a local seed bank and turning a retired tennis court into a school garden. Read below to get the scoop on how these projects got up and going and lessons learned. Visit their website for more information and updates on Stamford VT Seed Savers.

Q: What need/idea sparked a seed saving garden project in Stamford, Vermont?

A: The original idea for the Stamford Seed Savers came from C.J. Vadnais whose parents Betty and Larry Vadnais had been instructors in Sustainable Living at nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts decades earlier.  Our first meetings were held in the spring following the most recent presidential elections and I think that a number of us were looking for something positive to do at a local level that would serve as a counterweight to the negative chaos of national politics.

The idea of creating a seed bank that would make locally adapted seed varieties available to everyone in the community seemed like a unifying idea that everyone could get behind regardless of their political leanings.

Q: How does your seed saving project run?

A: The project has proceeded in an appropriately organic manner with no real structure or leadership. I’m sure that sounds like a terrible way to run an organization, but it actually worked quite well for the first year or more.  We would meet every two weeks at the town library.  Topics that people wanted to discuss were placed on an agenda via email and then during the meetings decisions were made and responsibilities were assigned by consensus.

We were all admittedly novices when it came to seed saving, but there was a diversity of experience within the group that served us well.  Many of us were experienced gardeners.  A couple of members had extensive experience managing school gardens. There were people with grant writing experience, horticulturalists, landscapers, and web designers to mention a few.  People contributed to the projects based on their interest and their capacity to get involved.  I think that whatever success we have had was the result of people wanting to come together to build a stronger and more resilient community.

The technical aspects of seed saving have been more of a challenge for us.  It turns out that growing for the purpose of producing seed is much more complicated than simply growing vegetables in your garden (who knew?) and we have made a number of mistakes along the way.  For example: I personally was interested in growing a variety of dwarf blue kale for seed.  Kale is a biennial that goes to seed in its second year.  I mulched the plants heavily to get them through the winter in the ground, but in the spring only one of the original twelve plants made it through.  I tended this one plant carefully for several weeks waiting for it to bolt, only to be eaten when a deer jumped the fence and browsed a number of my young brassicas.  I am sure that seed saving is one of those essential activities that takes years to develop a degree of competency.  

Despite these challenges we were, nonetheless, able to organize a successful seed swap event this past February. Only a few of the varieties that were offered came from local seed savers.  Most of the seeds were donations from commercial purveyors or of leftovers from local growers.

Despite the lack of purity of our seed we felt that holding the seed exchange event and subsequently cataloguing over a hundred varieties of seed and making them available through the town library was a worthy beginning.  Both the successes and the failures that we have had provided us with lessons learned and are an important part of the journey.

Q: What has our group done well that’s lead to the success of this project?

A: In addition to the original goal of making a seed bank available to local residents there has been a great deal of support for creating a school garden.  And this aspect of our work has in some ways been the most satisfying in terms of building community.  When we decided that we were interested in creating this garden we approached the own select board and were granted permission to build it on an old defunct tennis court located behind the school.

To get started we used lumber that was salvaged from an old backboard that was being torn down on the school playground.  This provided us with enough lumber to build eight garden beds, sixteen inches high and ten feet long.  A local landscaping company donated topsoil and a nearby organic dairy gave us a deal on composted manure.

With an established garden behind the school a couple of the Stamford VT Seed Savers were able to work with classes from the school to grow seedlings and plant the gardens with the students.

An initial grant from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund made these early steps possible and gave us a great deal of credibility with the community.  This past fall students harvested sixty-five pounds of organic potatoes and twenty-five pounds of heirloom tomatoes that were used by the school cafeteria.

The most gratifying aspect of creating the school garden has been discovering how many people in the community are excited to help make it happen.  We have reached out to the community by making sure that we had a presence at community events such as Green Up Day, the church bazaar, and our annual 5K road race.  In response we have received donations of lumber, topsoil, compost, seeds, blueberry bushes, a 250 gallon water tank and much more.  It seems that most people are eager to make a positive contribution to their community when given the opportunity.

Q: What challenges have you had to address relating to this project? How have you addressed them?

A: One of the biggest challenges that we have faced is maintaining our momentum during the summer months when watering and garden maintenance require a consistent non-event focused effort.  We have been able to make it work largely through the efforts of a handful of committed and reliable members.  Because the school recognizes the value of the garden we are hoping to expand participation in the garden maintenance by inviting parental involvement.  Although our most recent workday events were both rained out we sent home announcements with the kids inviting parents to help out.  We will have to see what kind of a response we get in the spring, from the parents and the weather, when try again to add more beds to the garden.

Q: What is your favorite memory from this season at the Stamford VT Seed Savers?

A: I think that best part of these projects has been seeing how the kids respond to working in the garden.  Last spring the kids planted and tended seedling in the classrooms.  Later they planted them out in the garden and in the fall they were able to harvest the results.  Working in the gardens is a welcome break from their daily classroom routine and they are learning valuable life lessons in a natural and joyful way.

Q: Any other tips for people wanting to start a seed saving garden or working to improve an existing project?

A: To borrow a phrase from the Chinese book of I-Ching “persistence furthers”.  There will always be obstacles in the path, see those obstacles as opportunities to learn from.  Reach out to your larger community and you will find allies who you didn’t know were there.  Talk to other people who are doing the same type of work and network, network, network.

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