When she took the throne in 1837, the United States Ambassador brought Queen Victoria several barrels of his locally grown Newtown Pippin apples. The Queen enjoyed the apples so much that she lifted the import tax on that particular variety and soon the brand became a popular U.S. export. The small, green Newtown Pippin apple, also known as the Albemarle, originated in Queens, New York, and is excellent for baking, making cider, and delicious to eat. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated the apple in their orchards.
But when Parliament re-established the import tax on the Newtown Pippin during World War I, the apple’s popularity faded. Bigger, “better looking” apples like the Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious apples replaced the Newtown Pippin until finally the apple landed itself on Slow Food’s “U.S. Ark of Taste,” as “delicious foods in danger of extinction.” Most of the foods on the Ark of Taste are there because of the effects of industrialization but some are there because they’ve simply gone out of favor.
Heritage Seed Collective
In Fawn Township, just outside Pittsburgh, Greg Boulos planted the Newtown Pippin on Blackberry Meadows Farm, an organic farm he runs with his wife, Jen Montgomery. In addition to Blackberry Meadows, Boulos and Montgomery began the Heritage Seed Collective to revive heirloom plants and encourage communities to save seeds and grow the plants in community gardens.
Seed saving was a financial decision for Montgomery. “It’s cheaper to save your own seeds,” she says. “It’s easy to do, especially with tomatoes and peppers.” Organic farmers like Montgomery and Boulos, are now incorporating seed saving into their business plan and will teach others how to do it.
This year, with a grant from the Sprout Fund’s Spring Program, Boulos and Montgomery have purchased a number of seeds and seedlings that are on the U.S. Ark of Taste list including the Newtown Pippin. Others include heirloom beans, tomatoes, peppers, beets, and squash. Boulos and Montgomery sell the heritage tomatoes and peppers alongside the regular seedlings from their farm at various markets throughout the city. The packaging includes seed saving instructions and an empty seed packet for storage. Each year, they’ll introduce a new variety of heirloom plant, and Boulos hopes that the seedlings and the seeds will become the new collectible item.
Ultimately, Boulos and Montgomery want the Heritage Seed Collective to work with community gardens and food pantries. As the seed bank grows, they will give a starter seed bank first to the Hazelwood YMCA. The YMCA will then be able to distribute seedlings and seed packets with food from the food pantry, and partner with Seed Savers Exchange to implement a seed saving educational program.
“For us,” Boulos explains, “it’s a big partnership because if we can give them a big seed bank, then they’ll have the ability basically to be self-sufficient. They can collect their own seeds and save them, and they’ll have also an educational program in which they can teach community members how to save their own seeds.” Boulos hopes to partner with communities throughout the city.
Boulos and Montgomery understand that seed saving is a community effort and to support local gardeners, they partnered with designer Paul Fireman of Fireman Creative to start a Kickstarter initiative to create a community run, open source website. Gardeners and communities will be able to pinpoint on a map where they are growing particular heirloom plants, as well as information about how well the plants are doing, and how to prevent cross-pollination. The website will also include information about each plant’s history and how to save seeds.
“Teaching people how to save seeds takes their consumerism to another level,” Montgomery says, explaining that the mindset changes when people realize that they can get a whole new plant out of the seed. “It imparts a little bit of responsibility on people as well.” By cultivating biodiversity through saving endangered seeds, the Heritage Seed Collective is cultivating a community of urban gardeners, community gardens, food pantries, and delicious heirloom plants.
Community Nursery—Tree Pittsburgh
In 2005, a survey reported that Pittsburgh’s urban forest was dying, and that 36% of Pittsburgh’s trees were Maple trees. In the past, city planners throughout North America have planted monocultures of trees, lining city streets with only Elm or Ash or Maple. Unfortunately, this planning leaves trees vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases with the potential to kill entire species. Nearly one hundred years ago, an invasive fungal disease decimated the American Chestnut trees; fifty years later, the Dutch Elm Disease attacked. Biodiversity is part of an urban forest’s armor.
Inside a tall, chain-link fence in Point Breeze, Tree Pittsburgh is now growing a variety of trees to help recreate that biodiversity. Matthew Erb, the Director of Urban Forestry, says Tree Pittsburgh is “looking for more native trees that are not common in the nursery industry […] in hopes of getting them planted and increasing the diversity of native plantings.” Standing in the midst of knee-high tree seedlings, Erb identifies the potential of Buckeye, Kentucky Coffee, Black Gum, Osage Orange, and American Chestnut trees.
The nursery is on a vacant lot, which was purchased by a community resident for Tree Pittsburgh. A grant from the Sprout Fund’s Spring Program enabled them to purchase a fence, soil, and hire summer staff to care for the seedlings. Before the nursery, the staff of Tree Pittsburgh grew seedlings in their office. Once Tree Pittsburgh builds a hoop house, the seedlings will be moved, kept in the nursery until they are three to five years old, or until they are able to “survive four or five bites” from a rabbit.
Executive Director Danielle Crumrine says that this nursery is just the beginning: “This is going to feed a longer term effort to reforest and improve the condition of existing forest across the city, so it’s a long-term project.”
Although the grant from Sprout’s Spring Program paid for most of the initial expenses of building the nursery, the project will still incur annual expenses like summer interns. Volunteer work will help with big events like readying the nursery for the winter, but Crumrine is hoping to find a way for the nursery to become self-sustaining. In the mean time, she finds the diversity of tree seedlings in the nursery “so inspiring,” and hopes that the community members who come to pick the raspberries along the fence will as well.
Native Appalachian Nursery—Pittsburgh Botanic Garden
The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden faces a different challenge with its Native Appalachian Nursery. The new, 435 acre site, is riddled with mines that are releasing acid mine. Greg Nace, President of the Garden, likens the water in the mines to a tea of chemicals brewing under the earth. When the “tea” boils up out of the earth it contaminates everything: iron infused water rolls over rocks with a deep shade of red, and aluminum concentrated water streams milky white. Fish cannot live with either kind of water. Neither can plants.
The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden discovered that the best way to fix the mines is to remove them. Now backhoes are digging out the ridges above the mines, removing and cleaning the coal, and filling the ridges with topsoil. As the coal is sold, it pays for the reclamation project. Even so, the project will take several years.
It was Greg Nace’s idea to open a part of the property where the mines have not been as invasive. A mine seepage will be treated within a series of retention ponds, providing clean water for the Woodland Gardens – the first phase of the Botanic Garden to be open to the public. Five paths are now being built that will support plants and trees native to the Appalachian Plateau. To determine which plants are present and which are needed, students from Bidwell Training Center inventoried the trees and compared them to a list of plants found in the Appalachian plateau.
As the Botanic Garden finds and buys the plants necessary to diversify the walkways, the plants are held in the Native Appalachian Nursery. Earlier this year, the nursery was a temporary clearing in the middle of the woods. This summer, with the help of the Sprout Fund’s Spring Grant, a permanent location is being cleared and a greenhouse built. In the nursery, the plants are cared for by Bidwell students, and ultimately planted by Brian Heap, the Garden’s Horticulturalist. This summer, he has already planted 168 trees of 20 different varieties, bringing new plants to the forest. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden both increases the biodiversity of the region and preserves the diversity for future generations to enjoy.