March 2020 may well be remembered as the month the world shut down and people were told to stay at home, but there are other narratives at play. Food is a big one. The combination of home isolation and a fragile food system being made clear has resulted in a massive uptake of gardening. Seed companies across the country are experiencing huge increases in sales; social media is full of victory gardens, community gardens and local food growing initiatives. Our friends Nate Klienman of the Experimental Farm Network and Joseph Lofthouse are part of a group of seed industry leaders behind the Cooperative Garden Movement. If there is a silver lining to a global pandemic then this is it.

The work of The Utopian Seed Project is split in to testing, trialing and growing a diversity of food crops on one hand, and then sharing and celebrating that diversity on the other. While we wont be hosting any tasting events or farm days in the near future, we are still getting ready to grow a wide range of really interesting crops this year. Here’s some of the stuff we’ve got planted and growing.

Bambara Groundnuts (Vigna subterranea)

Bambara Groundnut Varieties

This is our first year attempting to grow this legume, which was domesticated in West Africa but is also grown in Southeast Asia. The varieties we are growing are pulled from the USDA GRIN database plus one variety that Craig LeHoullier shared from Madagascar. The really interesting thing about this plant is that it produces its seeds in much the same way as the peanut (flowering above ground and then sending down a peg into the subsoil to form the seed underground). However it shares its genus with the more well known Southern Pea (Vigna unguiculata). These plants love a long hot growing season, so we’ll have to wait and see how well the germinate, grow and form seeds.

If all goes well then we’ve already discussed a taste testing down in Charleston with Chef BJ Dennis (also a fan of the Bambara Groundnut!).

Some great information via Lost Crops of Africa.

Bambara Groundnut Planting

Toor Dal aka Pigeon Pea aka Gandules (Cajanus cajan)

The Pigeon Pea is thought to have originated in India, where it is the chief legume used in dals. The seeds we have planted were simply described as Toor Dal and came to us via an Indian colleague of board member Brandon Ruiz. They have been grown in the Charlotte region and so we have high hopes of their success in WNC. In tropical regions (Pigeon Peas are grown through Asia, Africa and Latin America), the Pigeon Pea grows as a short lived perennial tree. It produces massive biomass and as a legume, fixes atmospheric nitrogen, which is released when the plant is pruned. The seeds are prized when immature and mature as a protein rich food source.

I started these seeds early and they all germinated with 48 hours, leaving me with 144 young seedlings to nurture until after danger of frost has passed. There’s a good chance I won’t have space for all of them and may be swapping strips of 6 seedlings for project donations!

Moringa (Moringa oleifera)

Moringa Seedlings

Moringa is native to Southeast Asia but grown widely in tropical regions. Another crop that grows into a tree! The leaves are harvest as a nutrient rich food source and the seeds have medicinal and culinary applications as well. Our seed stock originally came from Ghana. This will be my third year growing Moringa in WNC and I have yet to get the plants to produce seeds (this year is the last of seeds!). While we can always get more, it is our hope to get a local seed crop so that we can begin the work of regional adaptation. I’ll be taking special care to make sure these plants have everything they need to reach maturity.

Note: there is a way to take stem cuttings and overwinter them, which could also be a back-up technique to dealing with this particular tropical perennial grown as a temperate annual.

Another crop well profiled in Lost Crops of Africa.

We’ll be babying all these seedlings through April and into May, and then transplanting once the weather is good and hot from mid to late May! Follow this garden journal for updates.