Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories
A Tennessee native and master gardener at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., John Coykendall has become a somewhat of a celebrity in a growing movement that prioritizes farm-to-table cuisine with locally sourced, organic, and heirloom foods and flavors. Since 1973 Coykendall has maintained a close relationship with the farmers and gardeners in Washington Parish, Louisiana. In this book he chronicles his annual pilgrimage to Louisiana and the wealth of oral histories, recipes, tall tales, agricultural knowledge, and wisdom from these Louisiana families and friends. I had the delightful opportunity to talk with Coykendall soon after his book came out.
Coykendall says, “There’s a big renaissance for saving heirloom seeds. That’s where the good food comes from!” He’s been a seed-saver for 60 years and has about 700 seeds in his own collection. He says most are from the Appalachian region or the Deep South. He’s a legacy donor to the Seed Savers Exchange.
Coyendall says he has spent a lot of time in Washington Parish, Louisiana. One of the main people he interviewed for his book is Arlie O’Bryant, age 99. Coykendall always carries those Moleskin notebooks and a pencil with him, which are filled with notes from interviews and his sketches. “I always have a book and pencil in hand,” he said. Through his interviews over the years, he has gained a lot of farm knowledge – “about the old ways of farming; getting away from chemicals and the synthetic way of farming.
“People are now re-discovering the seeds that make real food, for example, tomatoes.” Coykendall said that there are so many wonderful old heirloom seed varieties, such as the Louisiana Gulf State tomato, originally grown in 1921 as a commercial tomato. His favorites include the Oxheart tomato, with its deep pink heart-shaped fruits, and the Pineapple tomato, a bi-color beefsteak tomato named for its shape.
Coykendall says you can save all kinds of seeds – “from apples to zucchini.”
Beans are a particularly good seed to save, and “there are so many types,” he says. There are some that stay tender until their late stage of development and, when canned, their pods open up in what old timers call “shelly beans.” There are brown bunch beans, half runners, pole beans, and many varieties that can be grown throughout the season.
Coykendall has a good friend, Bill Best, who has 1,500 beans from Appalachia. In Appalachia, small family farms were growing what sustained them, and bean seeds would be handed down from generation to generation. “There are more varieties of beans in Appalachia than in the rest of the country,” Coykendall said.
“The same thing happened to beans as happened to tomatoes,” Coykendall explained. For commercial use, “they were engineered for tougher hulls” and thus not for flavor.
I asked Coykendall what advice he might have for getting started with gardening and heirloom seeds. “Get something you really love and get started saving seeds,” he advised. “Don’t overwhelm yourself at first. You don’t need a lot of space either. You can start with container gardening on your patio or a small space in your backyard. It’s amazing what you can get done and it will really grow on you!” (pun intended)
Coykendall described some of the cool weather plants that are now growing at Blackberry Farm, which provide delicious fare for the farm’s guests. He’s growing all kinds of lettuces, collards, radishes, kale, winter cabbage, and Swiss chard, to name a few. “The fall garden is the most overlooked garden,” he said. “Anything you can grow in the spring, you can grow as well or better in the fall. These plants thrive in chilly, rainy weather!”
I asked how difficult it was to get their fall garden going since the mid-south had summer heat (90s) well into October. “To compensate for the heat, we planted smaller patches that we could water daily.” Then once the weather cooled, more plots could be planted.
Coykendall has been at Blackberry Farm for going on 21 years (in 2020), and he lives in Knoxville in the house his grandfather built in 1927. He is their Master Gardener and focuses on growing heirloom produce for the chefs. “Seed saving is the most important part.” When growing plants, he makes sure that seeds are saved for years to come. He’s also a classically trained artist and is known for his pastoral landscape sketches. Coykendall is certainly a “down to earth” person, in tune with the natural world, as well as a master storyteller with a dry sense of humor.
Coykendall was thrilled with the success of the Seed Library at the Blount County Library in Maryville, Tenn. and says he will work with the library again next year on the seed collection. It’s a wonderful, and free, way to get started growing wholesome food in one’s own yard.
Coykendall participated in the Southern Festival of Books October 11-13, in Nashville, Tenn. before his book was released. He was a guest speaker at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia in September.
He’s been featured in Food and Wine magazine, writing about the five herbs everyone should grow at home. He’s been featured in Country Roads magazine, about his seed saving from Washington Parish, and in Amy Campbell’s blog on Tennessee Farm Table. The documentary about his work, “Deeply Rooted,” was featured in Garden and Gun in November 2017.
Read more about Coykendall’s lifetime of heirloom seed saving and sketching at: https://www.seedsavers.org/legacy-donors-john-coykendall
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