Roughwood Seed Collection
by William Woys Weaver, PhD
The Roughwood Seed Collection, which now comprises about 4,000 varieties of heirloom food plants, was begun informally in 1932 by my
grandfather H. Ralph Weaver (1896-1956). During the Great Depression, when food was scarce for many households, he set out to feed his family from a one-acre plot in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Since he had been working on the Weaver family genealogy, my grandfather used his Lancaster County family connections to acquire heirloom seeds that had been grown in the Dutch Country for many generations. His passion for rare old-time varieties snowballed so that by the 1940s he managed to create one of the finest kitchen gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Among the many frequent visitors to his garden was West Chester folk artist Horace Pippin from whom he acquired many rare peppers.
My grandfather’s untimely death brought an abrupt end to his chapter of the Roughwood Seed Collection story. Some 10 years later, while a student at the University of Virginia, I discovered his seed collection at the bottom of my grandmother’s deep freezer. My grandfather knew that by freezing seeds they could be kept for a long time, so by this stroke of luck, many of his most valuable seeds were still viable when I began to tinker with them. By the mid-1970s I brought most of his original garden back under cultivation.
In 1979, I moved the seed collection to Devon, Pennsylvania. Since the collection had no official name, I dubbed it the Roughwood Seed Collection after the Victorian name of the old house in which I now live. Since moving the collection to Devon, it has grown dramatically over the years; many are unique and not found in other seed collections.
Highly talented seedsman and garden specialist (and musician), Owen Taylor came to work for me and in 2014 became the Roughwood Seed Collection Manager. He has given the collection its long-needed re-cataloging and computerization, thus we are now able to organize successful workshops on heirlooms, seed saving, and even cooking with heirlooms.
With the collaboration of several select organic growers, we are now planting large-scale seed crops at Kutztown University, Fields Edge Farm in Lancaster County (Twitter: Alex Wenger @thefieldsedge), and Hill Creek Farm in Chester County (HillCreekFarmPA.com). Our rare, non-GMO, untreated, Limited Edition seeds are available for sale via Roughwood Seed Collection, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, Missouri and Hudson Valley Seed Library.
William Woys Weaver, PhD, is owner and curator of the Roughwood Seed Collection, which he inherited from his grandfather H. Ralph Weaver (1896-1956). Dr. Weaver is a food historian who has been dubbed “the Merlin of American regional cookery,” who has “dedicated his life to the documentation and continuation of heritage foodways.” He is the author of 17 books, including Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, the best-seller that moved the national discussion about farming practices into the kitchen and restaurant. His most recent book is Dutch Treats, which preserves more than 100 authentic heirloom recipes from Pennsylvania farmhouse kitchens and describes Pensylvania Dutch cultural culinary traditions and their heirloom ingredients. For the seed collection, Dr. Weaver concentrates on rare seed acquisition, seed purity maintenance, and breeding programs designed to create new and nutritionally useful open-pollinated food plants of special value to home gardeners, small-scale farmers, discerning chefs, and developing societies. His enduring goal is to facilitate the continuation of the Collection in perpetuity.
Owen Taylor was manager of the Roughwood Seed Collection for four years. He ably oversaw growing out, harvesting, storing, and documenting our thousands of varieties of living ancestral seeds using an agroecological approach. He worked with hundreds of volunteers and lead hands-on interactive seed keeping workshops for hundreds of attendees, sharing the art of saving seed in communities far and wide.