Below is the second part of our social experiment to see how willing Christian churches are across Appalachia to help their local communities become more resilient. Given the systemic poverty, food insecurity, and human suffering in this region, we want to find out if churches are living out their faith in God and putting their neighbors first. Regardless of the topic, this is a great guide for those looking to source fruit trees, nut trees, berry plants, and open-pollinated seeds. I really enjoyed writing this part, as it is right up my alley. At the end of the letter, you will find two church properties CM and I designed for inspiration. This is a generalized idea of what we do for property consultations as well.
What Should be Grown?
Although there are thousands of potential candidates to grow regarding vegetable seeds, it is crucial to first focus on high-calorie, nutrient-dense, staple crops that grow well in your area. Then, once you have built a foundation of staple crops, please expand from there and grow less calorie-dense but still nutritious crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, leafy greens, etc. I mention this so that the congregation will have staples for families and individuals who fall on hard times.
Moreover, the assembly may find that due to rising inflation and food shortages, they need to rely on these crops sooner rather than later. Depending on your local climate and frost-free growing days, the staple crops I suggest are Potatoes, Sweet potatoes, beans (pole & bush), carrots, parsnips, flour/dent corn, wheat (specifically Nu East), winter squash, peanuts (avoid if peanut allergies exist). If other crops grow abundantly in your location, by all means, grow them. These vegetables are only a foundation from which you and your congregation can expand to increase food resiliency.
Sources for Vegetable Seeds
I am not affiliated with any seed companies I recommend, nor is this an advertisement for them. There is no financial or relational incentive for me to suggest them. I value their high-quality seeds and their commitment to keeping these seeds free from genetic modification contamination (GMO). I have purchased seeds from these businesses for years, and I believe they have the best quality seeds around.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: The best source for GMO-free seed. Their customer service is excellent, their seed selection is unsurpassed, and they offer free shipping. I love that they send free seed packets with every purchase and donate to charities throughout the year. Their website is full of information and customer reviews of seeds, and you can request a free seed catalog. Baker Creek really goes the extra mile to test common vegetable varieties that can be easily contaminated by GMO plants. For this reason, I highly recommend purchasing your beets, corn, and soybeans from Baker Creek and saving those seeds. Please do not use church member seed sources of these crops unless tested for seed purity and GMO contamination first.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Based in central Virginia, SESE offers a great selection of GMO-free seeds that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic. They sell all sorts of vegetable seeds, herb seeds, flowers, sweet potato slips, garlic, and seed potatoes. Each vegetable category on their website provides a growing guide with recommendations on seed saving for that particular species. You can also request a free seed catalog.
Seed Savers Exchange: This seed company has been around for many years and is dedicated, like the previously listed seed companies, to maintaining heirloom varieties for people to grow. They are based in Iowa and offer a decent variety of seeds. Like the other two seed companies, Seed Savers offers a free seed catalog with tremendous information, growing guides, and seed stories.
FEDCO Seeds: FEDCO is my go-to seed company for disease-resistant potatoes. I specifically like the late blight-resistant varieties (the disease that caused the Potato Famine in Ireland, which killed over a million people). The ones I grew to great success on my farm are Yukon Gem, Upstate Abundance, Chieftain, Nicola, Soraya, and Elba. All of these have performed well for me, and I highly recommend them. FEDCO also sells grafted fruit trees, asparagus crowns, sweet potato slips, and much more.
It's essential for the long-term sustainability of congregations that seed saving is accomplished using open-pollinated heirloom seeds instead of hybrid seeds. A hybrid vegetable is a product of crossing two different varieties of the same species to produce a superior plant. This process takes years to perfect, and the desired characteristics of hybrid plants are not passed on to future generations. Therefore, saving seeds from hybrid plants will produce different results than the original hybrid vegetable. Because of this issue, I only recommend using open-pollinated seeds and selecting their best-performing offspring to save seeds. Hybrid seeds are not genetically modified.
GMO contamination not only makes seed saving from GMO plants illegal due to corporate control of those seeds, but they are also unsuitable for human or animal consumption. I believe that GMO work of any kind is the antithesis of what Christians stand for. It is, therefore, immoral, unethical, and evil to support such businesses that alter the genes of species our Creator has made for corporate profit/control. In light of this, it is essential to purchase seeds from companies that have "Safe Seed Pledges". Please do not buy inexpensive seeds from Ferry-Morse, Burpee, Amazon, Dollar Tree, Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, etc. Buy quality seeds at the start and save those seeds to plant year after year.
Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, 2nd Edition, is one of the best guides to seed saving available that will prove to be an invaluable tool in continuing your congregation’s sustainable food production.
Perennial crops are crops that do not need to be planted yearly, like annuals, and will produce food for years to come. Herbaceous perennial crops die back to the ground every winter but regrow in the spring. These include perennial onions (bunching onions, chives, garlic chives, etc.), asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, mint, and sunchokes. Sunchokes are a nutrient-dense, highly prolific relative of sunflowers that produce an edible tuber. Thyme, oregano, sage, etc., are all easy-to-grow herbs that benefit our bodies. In addition, medicinal plants for tea, tinctures, etc., can be grown to support our immune systems. Marshmallow, lavender, hardy passionflower, rose (hips), lemon balm, astragalus, and elecampane are a few of the many useful herbal medicinal plants that are also ornamental.
Staple Tree Crops
In the mountainous terrain of Appalachia, the most stable agriculture must come from tree crops. Yes, we should grow annual crops but only on a small scale, whereas tree crops should dominate most systems. Two excellent books dive into great detail on how to accomplish this, and I am implementing their advice myself to great success. J. Russell Smith's Tree Crops a Permanent Agriculture and Bill Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture, both of which can be found on Amazon.
Chinese Chestnuts: Chinese chestnuts are the most important tree crop one can grow in Appalachia. The best-performing chestnuts come from seeds of superior parents from the University of Missouri's Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Farm (HARC) and Route9 Cooperative in Ohio. Route9 is where I order my chestnuts in September for late fall delivery. Grafted Chinese Chestnuts often die from graft incompatibility, so seedling-grown trees from superior known cultivar parentage are recommended instead. Feel free to contact me regarding chestnut cultivation, as this is one of the most important tree crops for human sustenance. The multi-generation chestnut forests of Corsica are a testament to this tree's importance for mountainous cultures. Furthermore, chestnuts are gluten-free for those with gluten intolerances and are similar in nutrition to rice. Chestnut flour can be substituted for wheat flour in recipes.
Alert! The U.S. Forest Service is working with corporations and The American Chestnut Foundation to produce a genetically modified American Chestnut that should not be grown or supported. In this situation, these participants are "playing God" by inserting genes of a wheat plant into the American Chestnut DNA to incur blight resistance. Contrary to the publicity in favor of this project, the genetic modification of this tree is a test pilot to genetically modify common edible tree species (apples, peaches, pears, etc) for large-scale industrial control of our food supply.
Apples: Apples are one of the most versatile fruit trees for Appalachians to grow. Due to late spring frosts in my area, I grow late-blooming apple varieties such as Yellow June, Terry, Aunt Rachel, Buckingham, Joseph, Father Abraham, Black Limbertwig, and several others. All are resistant to cedar apple rust and fire blight (two widespread apple diseases in Appalachia). Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are popular store varieties grown on the West Coast but are pest and disease magnets in our hot and humid climate. Therefore, it is wise to grow disease-resistant apple varieties that can thrive in this region.
To find the best varieties suitable to your location, contact David Vernon of Century Farm Orchards in Reidsville, North Carolina. David is a wealth of knowledge and the premier apple tree expert for our region. I have purchased over 20 apple varieties from him, and he produces excellent quality, affordable, grafted apple trees.
Disease-Resistant Apple Varieties: King David, Enterprise, Liberty, Arkansas Black, Williams Pride, Wolf River, Freedom, Magnum Bonum, Fall Pippin, Grimes Golden, Hunger, Yates, Hoople's Antique Gold, Stayman Winesap, Virginia Winesap, Virginia Beauty, Dula Beauty, Florina, Pristine, Yellow Transparent, Black Limbertwig, Yellow June, Joseph
European Pear: Moonglow, Potomac, Seckel, Warren, Keiffer, Magness, Shenandoah, Harrow Sweet, Harrow Delight, Blake's Pride
Asian Pear: Olympic (aka Korean Giant), Shinko, Shin-Li, Tennosui
Sour Cherry: Montmorency, North Star, Meteor, Surefire
Sweet Cherry: Blackgold, Whitegold (sweet cherries are not well adapted to hot, humid climates)
Peach: Reliance, Red-Haven, China Pearl, Indian Blood Cling, Indian Blood Free, Harrow Diamond, Contender, Carolina Gold, and many others that are bacterial spot resistant
Mulberries: Illinois Everbearing, Girardi, Silk Hope, Oscar, Wellington, Trader, Kokuso, Miss Kim, Taylor
Plum: Satsuma, Shiro, Methley, AU Rosa
Apricot: Tomcat, Chinese Mormon, Montrose, Manchurian, Harcot
Persimmons: (cold hardy American or American/Asian hybrids) Meader, Ruby, Yates, Prok, Korp, Early Jewel, Ichi Ki Kei Jiro, Kassandra, Keener 2, Barbara's Blush, Rosseyanka,
Rutgers Hazelnut Breeding Program: Rutgers University, in New Jersey, has spent the past 20 years breeding European type (the main hazelnut species used for human consumption) hazelnuts with resistance to eastern filbert blight (EFB is a native hazelnut disease that kills all other hazelnut species except American hazelnut). Their work has produced several highly productive varieties that I recommend folks grow. Raritan, Monmouth, Hunterdon, Somerset, Grand Traverse, and The Beast are carefully bred to resist EFB, grow to roughly 15'x15', and be used for culinary applications.
Sources of Tree Crops
Burnt Ridge Nursery: Wonderful selection of fruit trees, nut trees, Rutgers hazelnuts, berries, and shrubs. Make sure to order in winter or early spring for spring delivery, as these West Coast-grown plants need time to adjust to the fluctuating East coast temperatures common in our winters.
Century Farm Orchards: The highest quality apple trees available to those of us in Appalachia. Excellent prices for nice-sized grafted trees. Helpful website information and wonderful customer service. Also sells fig trees and grafted pears.
Edible Landscaping: Excellent source of fruits, nuts, berries, and herbs that are demonstrated to thrive in our climate and are located in Nelson County, Virginia. You can visit the nursery year-round, which saves on expensive shipping charges
Peaceful Heritage Nursery: Small family nursery that produces excellent quality fruit trees. Sells many varieties adapted to Appalachia.
One Green World: Another West coast nursery that offers an astounding variety of edible plants. Good customer service and top-quality plants. Can be pricey, depending on the plant species.
Mehrabyan Nursery: Located in New York state, this family-run nursery produces some of the best quality plants I have ever seen. Not only are the fruit trees healthy and large, but the owner is an expert at grafting fruit trees. Very affordable trees and excellent customer service.
Cummins Nursery: Another New York State nursery with a nice variety of grafted fruit trees. Offers a variety of dwarf fruit tree rootstocks.
Grimo Nut Nursery: A Canadian fruit and nut tree nursery with an excellent selection of hard-to-find edible tree crops. Highly recommended, but it can be expensive if ordering a lot of grafted trees.
Route9 Coop: Apart from HARC, Route9 is the leading seller of the nation's most superior Chinese chestnut varieties. Their offspring are consistently more productive than the parent trees. Chinese chestnuts are unique in the plant world for producing similar or even better offspring than the parent trees.
As many of you are already aware, Appalachia is a perfect region to grow berries. Many species bloom after late spring frosts, so their production is much more reliable. Certain varieties can even bear early summer and late summer crops as well.
Thornless Blackberry: Ouachita, Arapaho, Prime Ark Traveler, Prime Ark Freedom, Navaho, Apache
Raspberry: Heritage, Double Gold, Polana, Caroline, Anne Gold, Joan J, Latham, Nova, Prelude, Encore, Himbo Top
Black Raspberry: Niwot, Jewel, Bristol
Blueberry (all Northern Highbush varieties): Chandler, Patriot, Earliblue, Blueray, Duke, Spartan, Darrow, Aurora
Elderberry: Marge, York, Samdal, Sampo, Nova, John, Adams, Bob Gordon
Strawberry: Ozark Beauty, Allstar, Earliglow, Surecrop, Annapolis, Tristar
Sources of Berry Plants
Burnt Ridge Nursery: See above.
Double A Vineyards: Primarily a grapevine nursery that also offers raspberries, currents, gooseberries, blueberries, elderberry, etc.
Bottoms Nursery: Inexpensive blackberry plants, blueberries, fruit trees, grape vines, etc.
Ison's: The leading muscadine nursery for the south that also offers fruit trees, berry plants, and more
Fruitwood Nursery: Focuses on scion wood for grafting but offers very inexpensive rooted cuttings of mulberries, elderberries, and more. One of my favorite nurseries.
Simmons Plant Farm: Huge plants for what you pay for. Offers a diversity of berries, asparagus crowns, rhubarb, and more. A great family-run nursery.
Indianaberry: Offers a huge selection of berry plants, asparagus crowns, and more for reasonable prices.
Although this is not an exhaustive how-to guide for starting church gardens, there are some fundamentals that I can mention to get you started. According to Introduction to Permaculture, we need to begin our gardens directly outside our buildings. Elements (sheds, greenhouses, water, plants, and animals) that require routine maintenance are placed closer to the center of activity. In contrast, elements that do not require close observation and interaction are placed further away. This means that vegetables that need to be picked often, such as kitchen herbs, salad greens, green beans, etc., are placed in narrow beds closer to the church building, whereas crops that are harvested one time, such as potatoes, carrots, or garlic, are placed further away in block plantings.
Chickens require daily observation and interaction, so they are placed closer to the center of activity (in this example, a church building) and where their fertilizer and scratching benefit other plants (around fruit trees). No matter the location, space, or slope, all plantings are placed on contour to reduce erosion and make easy-to-use pathways. Contour is a level line on the landscape used to gauge elevation. The lines on a topographic map are contour lines. We never plant up and down a slope which erodes soil and makes maintenance difficult.
Introduction to Permaculture shows you how to lay everything out so folks are not overwhelmed when creating such valuable systems. For Permaculture in real-time, please check out Geoff Lawton's YouTube channel for further inspiration.
● Spraying toxic chemicals or using synthetic fertilizers is strongly discouraged. Instead, we select varieties of annual and perennial crops that are pest and disease resistant for our area. Facilitating healthy soil life translates into high-quality produce.
● Instead of paying landscaping companies thousands of dollars per year on mulching, mowing, trimming, and seeding grass, why not encourage young people through employment opportunities to learn how to manage these systems? It may take some time to find folks, but as these systems mature and their production is used to help members of the church and the community, the old phrase "build it, and they will come" rings true.
● Maintaining and enhancing soil organisms through composting, organic fertilizers, wood chips, old animal bedding, etc., is critical to producing high-quality, nutrient-dense foods that are free from toxic cancer-causing chemicals. Additionally, when we have healthy soils, plants are more resistant to pests, disease, and extreme weather events such as droughts.
● Those who are having a hard time giving up their lawns and ornamental plantings should be encouraged to see that replacing these egocentric forms of vanity is Christianity in action! What better way to spread the message of Jesus Christ than to grow useful plants that directly enhance the quality of life for the congregation and the community? Americans desperately need Jesus, and the most impactful way of connecting people to Christ is through churches living out their faith by sustainably producing food.
● Due to the unceasing attempt by corporations and global organizations to dominate our nation's food supply, we must pivot as quickly as possible to begin growing as much of our food. This will ensure our autonomy and not be beholden to evil people. The obsession with genetically altering all life and turning it into an industrial commodity for corporate profit is not only unsettling but downright demonic. The mass funding of such organizations by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation enables these groups almost unlimited access to altering life as well as propagandizing the public into believing these actions are for the "good of humanity". This is why it is critical for Christians to educate themselves and then act appropriately so that we maintain our sovereignty and be an alternative to such broken people.
Below are two examples of churches CM and I created that show what crops can be grown in the area based on property size and topography. Many churches are dominated by massive parking lots and paved-over areas. In places like this, we can install raised beds around the perimeter of the parking lots or along buildings.
All garden beds are planted on contour so that erosion is reduced and pathways are much more accessible while tending crops. Narrow beds are always no more than four feet wide so that work can be done on either side without stepping in the beds. For those with mobility constraints, we can plant raised beds near sidewalks and parking lots so everyone in the congregation can be involved in this project. Where overhead power lines are present, we plant dwarf fruit trees that do not grow larger than 10-12 feet, or we plant berry plants and annual crops in these spaces when appropriate.
The larger the lawn space, the more tree crops (fruit trees and nut trees) we plant. This is especially true if the cleared land is hilly or on a slope. Depending on your budget, we can install small terraces on these slopes to grow annual and perennial herbaceous crops. Keep in mind that these recommendations are creative ideas on what could be planted at your church. Although people's needs will differ from location to location, we can always find innovative solutions to make churches highly productive places of abundance.