The Heirloom Collards Project

I am way late to the party on this (it happened in December 2020) but recently I’ve caught up on watching the videos connected with Collard Week. This is part of the Heirloom Collards Project, an ongoing collaboration between Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Seed Savers Exchange, plus farmers, seed-savers, chefs and others who want to celebrate and explore the world of collards.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s Ira Wallace, standing in a beautiful field of heirloom collards! Screen capture from Collard Week video, Culinary Breeding Network’s YouTube channel.

You can play the videos from the above link, or visit the YouTube channel of the Culinary Breeding Network, where you will become seriously distracted, unless that’s just me.

Why collards? Well, first, hasn’t kale had enough fun? We’ve now learned to tell Lacinato from Red Russian from Scotch Curled, and so have most grocery stores, but there are even more varieties of collards out there, and you won’t find them distinguished with helpful labels when you buy them. The Heirloom Collards Project link above will show you an amazing palette of collards in shades of green, yellow, blue-purple; leaves that are smooth, crinkly, large, small, thick-stemmed or thin-stemmed; and growth habits that suit any garden. Most seed catalogs won’t offer you this huge variety, but that will change, if the farmers involved in this project have anything to say about it.

Collards also hold a significant role in the cuisine and agriculture of the American South and the African-American community. You’ll find this role explored in the videos, especially the opening session with food historian Michael Twitty. Later on, seed-saver Amirah Mitchell discusses seedkeeping and cultural identity, and chef Ashleigh Shanti presents ways to prepare collards and what cooking them means to her. You’ll also get to visit with the farmers growing the crops.

One great thing about heirlooms is how many are named after people. Don’t you want to grow a collard called Tabitha Dykes or Miss Annie Pearl Counselman? Some are more descriptive of color, like Old-Timey Blue. They all look gorgeous and delicious.

Collards are cool-weather plants that prefer the temperatures of spring and fall. It’s too late to start collards from seed now (unless you just want tiny leaves for a salad, in which case go for it), but you can still buy plants at garden centers. (Probably just a couple of recent hybrid varieties, but give the Project time to work its magic.) Collards are in the cabbage family, and are subject to the usual insect pests, so floating row cover is recommended. And make sure to peruse seed catalogs this winter to choose the best type for planting next spring. Many collards are relatively heat-resistant and can provide harvests into early summer.

Meanwhile, enjoy learning about collards from the experts! I have to say, the existence of recordings like this is one bright spot in the pandemic, though I’m sure the participants missed spending time with each other in person. But now we can all join in, even those of us who missed the party first time around.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

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