Collards are a southern food icon and an underappreciated nutrition powerhouse that has sustained generations of southerners, both Black and white. At last this vegetable is getting the recognition it deserves! The first ever Collards Week is happening December 14-17 2020. I found out about this while researching for an article on collards for Growing for Market magazine. Yes, perhaps the title “Week” is aspirational, and four days is a jumping-off point for the post-Covid future.
There will be online presentations celebrating collards led by Michael Twitty, Ira Wallace, Jon Jackson, Amirah Mitchell and Ashleigh Shanti. This event includes food history, seed stewardship, gardening, farming, cooking and conversation and is part of the Heirloom Collard Project. Collards Week is a collaboration between the Culinary Breeding Network and The Heirloom Collard Project. You can register for free at www.heirloomcollards.org/collard-week-2020/. All events will be broadcast live through YouTube Live via the Culinary Breeding Network starting at 1:00pm Eastern time.
Michael Twitty’s kick-off presentation, The History and Significance of Collards in the South, will be a fascinating exploration of complex issues. Twitty states this himself on his blog, Afroculinaria, “The collard’s complicated story with African Americans really speaks to the way food can unravel the mysteries of complex identities.”
The Collards Tour and the Book
From 2003 to 2007, a team of four crisscrossed the South, mostly in North and South Carolina, searching for heirloom collards by word-of-mouth, by spotting them as they drove past, and by reading newspapers, attending small-town collard festivals, and visiting restaurants where collards were the only greens served. After the trip, USDA Plant Geneticist Mark Farnham grew out more than sixty of the heirloom collard cultivars in a trial garden at a USDA Agricultural Research Station. He published several papers, including the 2007 article “Neglected Landraces of Collard from the Carolinas.”
Two of the other road trip members, Edward H Davis and John T Morgan of Emory & Henry College, wrote a beautiful book: Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table to tell the stories of these varieties and the gardeners who steward them. Davis and Morgan noted that despite other wide diversity among the collard seed savers, most of them were older, with an average age of 70, and most of them had no family, friends, or neighbors willing or able to keep growing their special family collard variety into the future.
The Heirloom Collards Project
In 2016, Seed Savers Exchange in collaboration with Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange requested over 60 collard varieties from the USDA ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) to trial at Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa. These were rare heirloom varieties collected by Davis and Morgan from seed savers across the Southeast. The goal of the Heirloom Collards Project is to support the tradition of heirloom collards, by finding growers and sharing the seeds nationally and also to celebrate the special stories associated with these heirloom collards.
The Heirloom Collard project is a national program led by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, Working Food and The Utopian Seed Project. The Project is building a coalition of seed stewards, gardeners, farmers, chefs and seed companies to preserve heirloom collard varieties and their culinary heritage.
Ira Wallace has an article “A Southern Food Tradition: Saving Heirloom Collards” coming out in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Grit magazine. There she points out that giant seed companies have been buying out the smaller ones, and have reduced the number of open-pollinated collard varieties readily available to only five. Saving heirloom collards is an act in food heritage. Ira’s article also includes some collard stories and directions for growing seed. You can also find good directions for growing seed in Jeff McCormack’s Organic Brassica Seed Production Manual.
Mosaic photo by Chris Smith
The Heirloom Variety Trial
The National Heirloom Collard Variety Trial was launched in 2020, with over 230 participants across the US. They are currently growing twenty different varieties from the large collection at Seed Savers Exchange and the USDA. This collection includes varieties from the Davis and Morgan collecting trips. There are eight trial sites growing all 20 varieties and also hundreds of citizen scientists growing and comparing randomly selected sets of three varieties. The growers are recording data for each collard variety on appearance, uniformity, vigor, disease resistance, flavor, germination, earliness, yield and winter hardiness. Their data will be recorded and analyzed via SeedLinked, a web platform connecting people with information on varieties written by people growing them.
The Heirloom Collard Project has a place for everyone interested in growing or eating this delicious vegetable, including home gardeners, experienced seed savers, commercial growers and chefs. Click the link to see photos of the 2020 varieties and the farms doing the full trial. Get ready to sign up for 2021. Novice seed growers may want to consider practicing with more common varieties first, and then, as they gain experience, they can sign up to become seed-saving stewards.
Collards are very easy to grow and harvest, providing months of harvests from a single sowing. They are cold-hardy and heat-tolerant, giving the possibility of harvests ten months of the year in the Southeast. Colder areas may need to provide some protection if wanting mid-winter harvests. Hotter areas may need a longer summer break. Growers can make sauerkraut to extend the season. There is a wide range of leaf shapes and colors including variegated types. For details of how to grow collards, see my article coming soon in Growing for Market.
There is a fascinating blog post published on the Heirloom Collard website written by Norah Hummel, who is a Seed Savers Exchange partner in the Heirloom Collards Project. It’s a really fantastic blog post with some really good photographs, talking you through the whole process of growing collard seed.
Growing Collard Seed
Like other brassicas, collards are a biennial seed crop. To save seed, keep your collard plants alive over winter. If you can’t do this outdoors or in a hoophouse, dig up the plants in late fall and trim off the leaves, preserving the growing point. Replant these plant stubs (stecklings) close together in a tub of soil or even damp sawdust, to replant in early spring. Make sure you have no other brassicas from the oleracea group (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, some kales, kohlrabi) in flower at the same time. Some kales (Russian, Siberian types) are Brassica rapa and do not cross-pollinate.
Read Margaret Roach’s interview on A Way to Garden, with Chris Smith of Utopian Seed Project, a crop-trialing nonprofit working to celebrate food and farming, and Sow True Seeds, talking about heirloom collards.