Midcoast Weekender

Five questions for 'the botanist'

By Beth A. Birmingham | Jun 18, 2017
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham

Waldoboro — As director of the Heirloom Seed Project at Medomak Valley High School, Neil Lash recently traveled to Richmond, Va., to accept an Award of Excellence from National Garden Clubs Inc. at its 88th convention. It was one of only three nationwide awards presented at the ceremony.

Nominated by the Garden Club Federation of Maine Inc., the Heirloom Seed Project is the oldest, and one of the largest, school-based seed-saving programs in the United States.

Lash, who said "It was an honor to represent what these kids have done since 1991," answered these five questions in the summary of the application qualifications:

How did the Heirloom Seed Project get started?

"In 1972 the school offered its first horticulture class. It became so popular that in 1991 the idea of the Heirloom Seed Project took root. We created a bio-diversity program and started saving the seeds that have the best history."

How many different types of seeds/plants are there?

"There is a two-acre garden, two greenhouses, a collection of 70 heirloom hosta plants, a seed bank of over 800 varieties of heirloom seeds collected from local, national and international sources, a seed catalog run by the students, and an onsite 'living history' tree arboretum -- including its oldest dating back to 1682."

What do you do with the seeds?

"The project promotes sustainability by growing and harvesting the seeds in an environment where pollinators can thrive, and saving the seeds of plants, some of which were nearing extinction in some parts of our country, as well as other parts of the world. The project works with retail seed companies who partner with the teens so they can offer the seeds for sale to the public."

What are some of the most unusual aspects of the project?

"The development of an online seed-saving catalog, which provides a wealth of information, memories and history. The unique genetic makeup of these seeds is the result of forces and situations that will never again be duplicated. And probably most famous is the 'Living History Tree Arboretum,' where trees with an authentic connection to history are planted. New additions include a 'moon tree' that actually made the trip, a sugar maple from Amelia Earthart's home, a yellow buckeye from George Washington's home, and a a shellbark hickory from the home of Robert E. Lee."

How does the project sustain itself?

"Through grant writing. The students in the Heirloom Seed Project were one of two grand prize winners in 2015 and competed against schools and universities from across the country for a $20,000 grant from the Seeds of Change Grant Program, which provides grants to help communities and schools plant sustainable gardens. The money was used to expand their seed-saving oepration, expand the teen agriculture program, and buy a new walk-in freezer, where their 800 varieties of seeds are stored."

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.

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