Seed Savers Exchange

Gardens in front of the barn at Seed Savers Exchange

 Decorah, Iowa, is a beautiful town near the Minnesota border. Norwegians apparently settled the town, and their influence remains in the food and culture. After driving more than 100 miles north of Iowa City, where my family and I visited my sister, we arrived at Seed Savers Exchange, a seed purveyor.   Visit them at  They specialize in selling heirloom seeds, and their goal is to help prevent the extinction of the seeds our great-grandparents grew. People used to save seeds of plants that did well in their gardens and pass them along to other people, and they developed varieties especially adapted to their gardens. With the advent of hybrid seed and the decline of gardening, many of these varieties have been lost. Seed Savers, along with other similar organizations, hopes to prevent further demise by growing and selling the seed.

Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Ott in 1975 with some seed her grandfather gave her that he brought from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. Heritage Farm, where Seed Savers Exchange is headquartered, spreads for 890 acres and includes antique apples, fields of heirloom vegetables, and endangered cattle. The farmers at the Heritage Farm, as well as gardeners across the country, work together to preserve heirloom seeds by growing, sharing, and selling the seeds. Seed Savers Exchange donates seed to national and international seed vaults and preservation programs.  


Unfortunately for me, we visited on a Sunday, when many of the buildings were closed, and we went there at the end of a very long day of driving and touring other places. Although my visit was brief, it was long enough to determine that the place is just as beautiful as the seed catalog and the website,,  depict it.

The soil is the rich, dark land of the Midwestern cornfields. I am perpetually envious of the richness of the soil and the abandon with which plants grow. My sister reminds me, though, that the weather is only pleasant less than half the year, and while I am at home, contentedly enjoying a 70-degree day in January and picking lettuce, the soil in which she might hope to grow lettuce is frozen solid and covered with snow.

But on that July day, the coneflowers grew in enormous clumps, as did the hollyhocks. Insects ravaged neither, and the colors in the petals were vibrant instead of faded by day after day of temperatures at or near 100, as my flowers are. Plants look like they do in pictures in magazines, instead of hot and tired.

Trial gardens at Seed Savers Exchange

In the vegetable garden, beans and tomatoes shared space with lettuce, potatoes, carrots, and beets. In Iowa, gardeners have only one season in which to grow their crop, and nature seems to cooperate to provide abundance in the short time. With the rich soil and extra hour of daylight gardens receive there, usually without the temperatures high enough to stop plant growth and fruit setting that we have regularly, plants grow and produce enough in the short season to sustain the gardener for the winter.

As I always do when I visit another garden, I left inspired to work harder in my garden. I cannot do anything about the heat, but I can continue to work on the soil so that my plants have a thicker layer of black loam in which to grow every year. I told my husband and sister I could just summer in Iowa, with a nice garden, and move back to SC when the snow falls. Then again, I would miss home and the sounds of our birds and insects. I guess I will stay where I am, and cope with my gardening challenges. At least I can garden nearly every day of the year here.

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To buy products from Seed Savers Exchange or to request a catalog, visit or call (563) 382-5990.  If you have some seed you have passed down in your family and want to make sure it is preserved, or if you want to share it with others, they might be able to help.  In addition, if there is some variety of plant you remember from your grandmother’s garden but you cannot seem to find anymore, check their catalog for it.

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