Meet Heirloom Seed Expert Trina Pilonero
“It’s in our cultural heritage to save seeds.”
OCH: How did you get started as a gardener?
TP: I was born in Kansas and, out of necessity, Dad had a garden. As children (there were five of us), we were expected to help in the garden. I learned it was fun but it was also a lot of hard work. I vowed never to have a garden.
OCH: Are all your vows so successful?
TP: Well, I married my college sweetheart 41 years ago! We moved to the Catskills in 1990 with our two then-teenage daughters. I was a professional stay-at-home mom. I made my own goat cheese, which I liked doing. I liked goats, wanted some, got some, and made cheese in the kitchen.
OCH: Is that when you became a Master Gardener?
TP: Yes, well, I finally had to choose between my plants and my goats. I quit dairy goats and started a nursery because I got mad.
TP: Yes, I remembered how good tomatoes are supposed to taste and that’s not the way the plants I was growing from transplants tasted. I started using open pollinated and heirloom seeds. I was an exuberant grower and always grew too many of everything, so I started putting them out by the side of the road. Then I helped form the first farmers’ market up here, as a venue for my tomato plants. I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever did. But the next year, I was vindicated. People liked the way our plants produced and they came back.
OCH: What does “open pollinated” and “heirloom” mean?
TP: Open pollinated plants have two genetic parents, male and female, that are the same. The hybrids, which came into prominence after World War II, have genetically different parents. They are bred for their vigor and productivity. The only way to get hybrids is from a corporation. But if you save seeds from an open pollinated plant, you get the same plant you started with. It’s in our cultural heritage to save seeds. We are relearning how to be self-sufficient. Heirloom plants are like me—over 50. They have been around for at least three generations.
When plants are bred for disease resistance, they tend to lose flavor—they look beautiful, but they are tasteless. To me, flavor is incredibly important.
OCH: Are all the plants you grow native to the region?
TP: Oh, no. The biggest challenge to growing up here is our short season. I grow what performs well here. Four out of five gardeners grow tomatoes, so we carry a large variety of all sorts of tomatoes. But we grow many, many other things as well. The extent of the challenge is to grow what performs well in our environment. I’m growing something now from Egypt called Melo Khya, a short spinach-like plant that gets taller as it ages and becomes fibrous. Its mature strands can be made into rope. Somebody told me about it and I found it on the Internet. We pay attention to what our customers ask for.
In addition to our vegetables, we have herbs and some perennials, like the butterfly bush and other cottage garden plants. If I like them, we sell them. There’s a breeder, Tom Wagner, who grows a tomato that is named Green Zebra because it has stripes. It lacks a color gene but it tastes great! There are fads in the vegetable world as in every world.
OCH: Do you still sell at the farmers’ markets?
TP: Well, I go to Union Square in New York City, so we don’t do the Liberty Farmers’ Market on Fridays anymore. We still sell at the Sunday market in Callicoon. I love and support my local farmers’
OCH: Do you still keep farm animals?
TP: We have five head of Scottish Highlander cattle. They are from a hardy, ancient fifth-century breed. They have long shaggy hair and big horns. We keep chickens—also heritage breeds.
OCH: You moved some of your operations away from your farm in Jeffersonville. Why is that?
TP: We just found it was hard for some people to get to us up at the farm. Now we share space at Gorzynski’s Farm on Route 52. It works out well for us.