This year at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm we continue our seed regeneration efforts to increase the seed stock of rare collard varieties from our collection. The collard varieties in our collection are a combination of varieties donated by home gardeners and varieties that we requested from the USDA. To learn more about the USDA collection, read Ira Wallace’s “Saving Heirloom Collards” article, written for Mother Earth News. 

Rochelle Wiedenhoeft, Seed Savers Exchange’s Collection Field Coordinator, holding a year 1 collard (Y1) after cutting off the leaves for overwinter storage

Determining which varieties to grow from our seed bank is based on many factors including seed health, seed inventory, and the variety’s story. In Northeastern Iowa, collard seed production is a multi-year process with many steps. In 2020, we selected three heirloom collard varieties from the seed bank to grow for seed production so that we have enough to share with collard lovers across the country. 

Below are the stories of each collard variety we grew this season.

Cody Egan, Seed Savers Exchange’s Catalog Field Coordinator, holding a Susan Turner collard

Susan Turner Collard

The Susan Turner Collard was stewarded by Phil Harper of Albertson, North Carolina. Phil received this heirloom variety from his wife’s uncle, Billy Houston, who had been growing the collards since about 1950. Mr. Houston’s seed source was Susan Turner, an elderly woman who had been saving the same strain for several decades in the nearby town of Beulaville, NC. In 2004, Phil gave some seeds to Dr. John Morgan, a cultural geographer and professor of geography at Emory & Henry College, who was collecting heirloom collard strains for preservation on behalf of the USDA. Seed Savers Exchange requested this variety in 2016 from the USDA collection (PI 662800).

In 2016 we grew 12 plants of this variety on Heritage Farm for evaluation and to document the physical characteristics of the variety. Our evaluation team described it as highly variable; two plants were darker blue-green in color and had lobed leaves. Another plant was significantly different in habit, it’s leaves lying flat on the ground. There is also variability in leaf color (some plants are purple) and leaf blistering. Plants have a moderate heading capability and measure 11-24 inches tall and 22-43 inches wide. After blanching for taste evaluation the collards tasted  sweet with a hint of bitterness and nice texture.

Hard Headed Cabbage Collard grown for Evaluation in 2016

Hard Headed Cabbage Collard

This collard has been passed down for several decades. It is from Ronald and Mary Spain of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Their source was Mary’s aunt, Gladys Stevens Russell, who received this heirloom collard from her parents. In 2004, Ronald and Mary gave some seeds to Dr. John Morgan. Seed Savers Exchange received this variety in 2016 from the USDA collection (PI 662802).

This variety was also grown in 2016 by our evaluation team and described as variable; three of 11 plants were dark green. The other 8 plants were yellow-green to light green. One plant had a prostrate growth habit, while others are more open. Leaf blistering is slightly variable from low to moderate. Leaf margin is variable from entire to wavy. Plants have moderate heading capabilities. Plants measure 16.5-26 inches tall and 28-48 inches wide. The texture of this variety was tough and stringy but has a slight sweetness.

Bill’s Pea Ridge collard, Y1 plants

Bill’s Pea Ridge Collard

This is one of many heirloom collard varieties grown by Buddy Brickhouse of Gum Neck, North Carolina. Buddy believes this variety, like his others, dates back to his maternal grandmother and therefore likely to before 1910. In 2004, Buddy gave some seeds to Dr. Edward Davis. Seed Savers Exchange requested this variety in 2016 from the USDA collection (PI 662817).

In 2016 the evaluation team recorded their observations of this variety and observed some variation. Two plants had blue-green leaves. One of these blue-green leaved plants had highly prominent veins that stand out. One of the green leaved plants had a more erect growth habit and ruffled leaves. Three plants with green leaves had more dentate margins. Leaves vary from elliptic to spatulate in shape and have moderate blistering. Plants measure 14-21 inches tall and 25-35 inches wide. Non-heading variety. Taste evaluation recorded average taste qualities with slight bitterness.

Saving Seeds from Collards

Collards (Brassica oleracea var. viridis) are part of a group of vegetables known as cole crops which include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. These crops all have similar flower morphology and will readily cross with each other if not isolated appropriately. At Heritage Farm we isolate our collard varieties by ½- 2 miles depending on the physical barriers (like woods) present between gardens. Collards are biennials, meaning they take two years to complete their life cycle, and must withstand a period of cold, called vernalization, in order to produce seed. This cold period stimulates the plants’ ability to flower and set seed. Here in Northeastern Iowa, winter temperatures frequently reach well below 0 degrees F, which would kill the collards if they were left in the ground through the winter. Therefore, we dig the plants and overwinter them in a temperature regulated root cellar, which also provides safe conditions for vernalization. For more seed saving tips check out Seed Savers Exchange seed saving charts here.

Optimal size of year 1 collard prior to removal of leaves for storage

Year 1

We plant our year one (Y1) collard seedlings in late-summer and dig them after the first several frosts to store in the root cellar.  For genetic preservation we aim to plant over 200 plants per variety. It is important for the plants to be just the right size when dug for storage. If plants are too small, they will dry out in the root cellar and are too young for vernalization to occur. If plants are too large, they won’t store well and take up more space. Transplanting in late-summer is timed so that plants have reached the optimal size (see photo above) for storage when the weather begins to be consistently cold. The collards are dug and the leaves are cut off with a sharp knife close to the apical meristem, the point from which the plant will continue to grow next year. By cutting off the leaves, the plant mass is considerably reduced and is less likely to freeze, or become diseased and moldy in the root cellar. The plants have stored all the sugars they need to survive the six months of storage in their stem, not their leaves. 

Cutting back foliage of a Y1 collard prior to packing in sawdust for storage

Storage methods

This year at Heritage Farm, we experimented with two methods of packing collards for storage. The first method is to use a large pot and completely bury plants, laying sideways, in layers of sawdust. The second method is to use smaller pots and bury just the roots in sawdust. After plants are packed into pots they are set in our climate controlled root cellar to overwinter and vernalize. Over the next six months of storage, the collards will be periodically watered and carefully monitored for signs of disease, freeze damage, mold, or drying out. 

Y1 collards packed in sawdust ready for storage

Planting Year 2 collards

At the end of March we start to check on the collards more frequently to see which varieties are starting to wake up. In early April, after outside temperatures have started to warm, we set the pots of collards on wagons in our high tunnel to harden off and allow them to acclimate to the outdoor environment. By mid April we plant the Y2s in the open field about two feet apart, and cover with remay to protect from late frosts. As the collards grow and the stems elongate, we place T-posts between plants to trellis their flower stalks later in the growing season. 

Harvesting seed

In mid summer the collards will set seed and the pods (siliques) will begin to dry down. Flower stalks are cut and threshed in the field in large garbage cans. Threshing the seeds is a joy as the pods shatter very easily, and the resulting seed is a success of many months of tender care. We take the seeds back to the seed processing room and allow them to dry down further before a final round of processing, which separates the seeds from the chaff. Collard biennial seed production is a multi-year process with many steps. We are continuously improving our methodologies to better utilize resources and adapt to our changing environment. 

Trellis system of year 2 collards in the open field

Get in Touch! Help Us Regenerate Heirloom Collard Seed

Seed Savers Exchange is humbled to be regenerating these rare heirloom collards and is excited to continue to share them with the larger Heirloom Collard Project community. One of the key impact areas of the Heirloom Collard Project is to connect with collard seed stewards around the country to regenerate these special varieties. If you are interested in growing an heirloom collard variety for seed regeneration, please contact Norah Hummel at collards@seedsavers.org.

Final harvest of collard seed