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The stories that seeds tell

Couple’s Seed Treasures catalog specializes in heirloom varieties

Jodi Summit
Posted 9/11/18

ORR- When is a garden seed more than just a seed? When the seeds have a story to tell, of course.

With Jackie Clay Atkinson and her husband Will, two of the headliners at this year’s Orr …

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The stories that seeds tell

Couple’s Seed Treasures catalog specializes in heirloom varieties


ORR- When is a garden seed more than just a seed? When the seeds have a story to tell, of course.

With Jackie Clay Atkinson and her husband Will, two of the headliners at this year’s Orr Sustainability and Homesteading Expo, there were plenty of seed stories to tell.

The couple, who have homesteaded a farm in Angora since 2003, got started in the seed-selling business almost by accident. They had always been interested in heirloom and rare garden plants and would trade seeds with others who shared their passion. The couple has over 60 years of gardening experience, and their garden spreads over three acres.

The business started with a large, pale grey squash, a Hopi Grey. The squash, as far as the Atkinsons could tell, was near extinction. They couldn’t find anyone else growing this amazing variety.

The squash boasts tender orange flesh and grows to seven to 20 pounds in about 100 days. It makes great “pumpkin” pie, but its real superpower is it staying ability. The squash can be stored indoors, in normal household conditions, for over two years.

Jackie, who has been writing a column on homesteading and food preservation for Backwoods Home Magazine, mentioned that they would like to share some of their seeds with others, to make sure the variety didn’t disappear.

“We got over 200 requests for the seeds,” said Will, who said the couple then realized two things. The first was that it was expensive to mail out over 200 free samples. The second was that there was a market for small-scale heirloom seeds.

So, Seed Treasures was born. Their catalog now offers a wide selection of heirloomsw along with their own varieties (bred via open pollination), along with detailed growing directions. All their seeds do well in the northern Minnesota Zone Three climate. Their seeds are reasonably-priced ($2.50 a packet this year), and must be ordered the old-fashioned way, by mail with a paper order slip.

After talking with Jackie and Will, or perusing their catalog or website, it is hard to imagine how a gardener is to pick which varieties to grow.

Jackie, with her wide smile, is not willing to pick favorites. Every seed they sell, every plant they grow, has something unique and special to crow about.

The Bill Bean Tomato produces huge slicers with old-fashioned meaty tomato flavor, some topping the scale at over three pounds. They got these seeds from a local Veterans Service Officer. The seeds came over from Italy during World War II.

But don’t let this tomato become your favorite, because there are over a dozen others they sell that are just as interesting.

And then there are the beans: bush, pole, and dried varieties, some of which do double or triple duty.

A new favorite is a Crawford, grown from seeds sent by a reader in Germany, who is still gardening in her 90s.

“This family has grown these beans for at least three generations,” Jackie said. “We love the history behind these seeds.”

Crawford beans are unique in many ways, Jackie said. Harvested early, they are one of the best-tasting beans she has grown. Left growing a little larger, they make wonderful canning beans. And if left to mature and dry on the stalk, can be harvested as dried beans.

Another bean, called Folsom Indian Ruins, may date back as far as 1,500 years. Friends in New Mexico found an old pitch-sealed clay pot out in one of their fields, after cows had dug up some soil. When opened, the pot was filled with dried beans. A relative of the farmer, who worked at a university, was able to get a seed carbon-dated, and found it was 1,500 years old.

“We got five of the seeds,” Jackie said. “We cooked one bean and it tasted good. We grew the rest and now sell them.”

While old varieties have plenty of stories to tell, the couple also works to improve more recent varieties. Will has spent the last nine seasons perfecting a short-season, open-pollinated, sweet corn variety, Seneca Sunrise. Working from a hybrid sweet corn, Will bred it back to its open-pollinated roots, allowing seeds to be saved year to year. This new variety boasts a 33-percent sugar content and about 12-percent protein. With a 67-day growing season, it can also be left out in the garden to dry, and then ground into a wonderful cornmeal, or used to feed livestock.

The couple also has worked to preserve corn native to northern Minnesota Indians.

Their Bear Island Chippewa is a native flint/flour corn from the Red Lake area. It features multi-colored kernels that run to gold, bronze, and red. And its kernels are larger and fatter than most other flint corn, making a good cornmeal with a sweet flavor.

Jackie is also an expert on preserving home-grown foods and has published several books on the topic. In addition, you can find lots of her wisdom and experience online. At this year’s expo she taught two classes on fearless pressure cooking.

You can learn more about heirloom seed varieties that are perfect for northern gardeners at


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