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Column: Initiative focuses on promoting heirloom gardening

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The vault in the former Hope town square bank now secures a different kind of currency. The vault, which sat empty after the bank closed several years ago, now is home to hundreds of varieties of heirloom produce seeds.

The seeds are part of a new gardening initiative called Heritage Seeds of Hope.

Founded by Jim Kelly and Larry Simpson, in partnership with the Heritage of Hope Inc., the organization is dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds and passing on gardening heritage. Heritage Seeds of Hope is part of a growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.

“The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of varieties,” said Kelly, president and founder. “Our children today don’t know what a good tomato tastes like.”

Heritage Seeds of Hope, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, will sell seeds and limited gardening supplies and host classes and seminars on topics including planting, staking, seed collecting, harvesting, soil management and organic gardening methods. The organization’s Seed Library will allow visitors to “check out” heirloom seeds with an agreement to grow the plant and bring back additional seeds after harvest.

“Gardening is a dying art,” Kelly said. “We are the first generation to not collect and save seeds. We want to show people that you don’t need labels or chemicals to grow things, and we want to show people what our parents and grandparents had and how they did things.”

Heritage Seeds of Hope also plans to manage a garden in the vacant lot next to Strawberry Fields Mercantile on Jackson Street on the Hope town square. The group will use the space to grow produce and to increase seed inventory. Kelly said the produce from the garden will be sold at the Heritage of Seeds location and at local farmers markets.

Kelly said the seed bank also plans to donate seeds and knowledge to the Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School FFA program. The produce from the FFA garden will be donated to the local food bank.

“We want to get as much of the community involved as we can,” Kelly said. “We want people to eat real food and to know how to grow their own food.”

Kelly’s passion for gardening began 25 years ago when he decided that he wanted to plant a certain variety of tomatoes in his small garden. To obtain the seed, Kelly was told he needed to talk to local gardening expert Mary Ann Fox. She not only told him the variety he liked didn’t have much flavor, but she sent him home with a completely different variety than he asked for.

“I grew the tomatoes, and when I tasted them I realized that I didn’t know anything about tomatoes. The variety Mary sent me home with became my favorite tomato, and it still is today,” he said.

Fox took Kelly under her wing and taught him how to grow heirloom produce from seeds and how to save seeds.

“I got addicted,” Kelly said. “It’s phenomenal the differences you can get with different varieties. I love the colors, the flavors, the sizes.”

In the 25 years since meeting Mary, Kelly has grown several hundred varieties of tomatoes. He now loves collecting unique seeds. Last year, he exchanged seeds with people from Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Greece.

“My goal in life is to grow thousands of varieties,” he said. “I want to experience all life has to offer.”

When Fox passed away in 2013, her family gave her seed collection to Kelly.

“I donated hundreds of thousands of seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange,” Kelly said. “But I also saved hundreds of seeds to start Heritage Seeds of Hope.”

Paige Harden is a proud lifelong resident of Columbus. A former Republic newspaper reporter, Harden is now a freelance writer and public relations consultant. She can be reached by email at

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