In the year 2022, even a first-time vegetable gardener cancreate something very special and perhaps one of a kind. In the past decade, the discovery of heirloom seeds with South Carolina origins has been remarkable. These recovered, venerable survivors run across the vegetable spectrum — from tomatoes, okra, and butter beans to pole beans, cowpeas, corn, rice, pumpkins, and watermelons. A garden made exclusively from plants with a South Carolina background should appeal especially to localists, who support local production and consumption of goods and promotion of local history, culture, and identity, as well as the growing number of chefs in the increasingly popular locavore movement, which supports locally grown or produced food.
Logically the South Carolina gardener should cultivate South Carolina seeds — they are more resistant to our hot summer climate and to our local insects. Seeds are sensitive to the weather patterns around them and know what to do to survive in their indigenous climate. This intelligence comes from being native to a place for centuries. All of the following South Carolina vegetables can be found at Sow True Seed in Asheville and ordered from them online at SowTrueSeed.com, subject to availability. Other heirloom seed companies and local nurseries carry them as well.
The most popular backyard product for the novice and veteran vegetable gardener alike is the tomato. After experiencing the pasteboard impostor shipped here over thousands of miles, everybody wants the real thing, not a substitute. Luckily, the old Sease family tomato provides the South Carolina garden with one of the tastiest varieties. The Sease family of Newberry County has been growing this tomato for more than a century. It is a cat-faced, pinkish-red, very large tomato resembling the well-known Brandywine. Some of its largest fruits are 6 or more inches across — the perfect size for that much-anticipated homegrown tomato sandwich made from a firm, meaty thick slice with tomato hanging over the edges. Elderly folks in the Dutch Fork all knew the Sease tomato and always planted their saved seeds after Good Friday in order to have that longed-for first sandwich on the Fourth of July.
The popular and readily available Marion tomato introduced in Charleston in 1960 will serve in the South Carolina garden if the Sease can’t be acquired. The Marion is a good alternative that takes heat well, and gardeners can find them at most local nurseries or even Lowe’s.
If growing tomatoes from seed, sow them around February in pots and keep them in a warm, sunny place inside. Once they sprout and have grown to 6 inches or more, plant them after the last frost. Tomatoes like as much sun as possible — they should not receive more than 10 percent shade in a day.
When tomatoes are considered, many South Carolinians also automatically think of okra for okra gumbo. At least three okra varieties have verifiable South Carolina pedigrees. For decades since its introduction in 1939 and improvement in the 1980s, Clemson Spineless has been well known, but now two new introductions with perhaps older South Carolina roots are being sold in the heirloom seed trade. These are the Bradford Family and the Kibler Family okras. Chris Smith, a native of England and formerly with Sow True Seed, calls the Kibler okra superior to Clemson Spineless for taste and its ability to stay tender even when 8 inches or longer. Chris notes that its pods are grouped closer to the main stem for easy and productive harvest. His new book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration (2019) is the go-to handbook for everything okra.
It is personally gratifying that my father passed the Kibler okra on to me in the 1970s, the only okra that our family has grown in Prosperity for many decades and that I have now passed on to Chris. As of this year, it is now available from as far away as Wardah Seeds in Pakistan and is sold online there. Despite its growing popularity, Wardah lists it as “Rare.” It has been available in the trade for only five years.
When growing okra in central South Carolina, do not plant the seeds until after May 1. It helps to soak the seeds overnight in water before planting; this will improve germination. Drill them in a row in full sun, about half an inch deep. Do not plant too deep. I water in the row before I plant the seeds so that there is extra moisture in the ground. Expect your crop to coincide nicely with your tomato harvest!
Okra and tomatoes served over rice is certainly one of the quintessentially South Carolina dishes, and we now have the famous Carolina Gold seed available once again after a long lapse. Novice gardeners in central South Carolina should know that Carolina Gold does quite well as far north as Union County. Farm statistics for the Upcountry in the 1840s and 1850s listed “Upland Rice” harvests by the barrel in the bottomlands of central South Carolina in Lexington and Newberry counties and at least as far north as Union County. With locally grown tomatoes, okra, and bacon over rice, it is now again possible to have a 100 percent signature South Carolina dish.
I grew Carolina Gold quite successfully to full heavy heads of golden grains several years in succession from saved seeds of my own growth. The secret is to germinate the seeds under water in trays of rich soil as early as possible in a warm place, then after the last frost, transplant the little clumps into very rich soil with as much sun as possible. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, rice does not require flooding or more water than it takes to grow corn during the growing season. Lowcountry flooding of rice fields is to kill weeds. It ripens like grain at the end of the summer, but give the rice as long as possible. When the heads are full and heavy and begin to nod, you know it is ready.
It is necessary that a true South Carolina heirloom garden has butter beans, and luckily, we have two excellent South Carolina survivors — the Carolina Sieva and the Livingston Family Large. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable was the Carolina Sieva; in fact, it gets its name “butterbean” because, according to Jefferson, the tender young Sievas were eaten in a pool of warm, fresh butter. He considered this a food fit for a king, or a president. Today, Monticello sells the Carolina Sieva in its heirlooms list. It was originally resupplied to them by central South Carolina gardener Rodger Winn.
In the 1850s, South Carolina nurseryman William Summer called the Sieva the Siewee, perhaps suggesting its origin in Carolina with the native Sewee tribe of Coastal South Carolina. This is only a surmise on my part, but it stands to reason that the Carolina Colonists may have gotten the seed from the Sewee, likely the trading partners with the natives of Central America where the butter bean is said to derive.
The other South Carolina butter bean option is the Livingston Family Large, about twice the size of the Sieva. Both are white. Summer described it in 1859 as a large desirable butter bean from South Carolina. Mr. Carold Wicker of Pomaria is responsible for saving this heirloom. He had gotten it from the Livingston family of Pomaria. I have grown it successfully for several years now.
Some people plant in hills; others plant in rows. I plant in hills. Plant about five seeds per hill after the last frost, each spaced about a foot apart and no more than an inch deep. It helps to water the holes, but don’t soak the seeds. Once they come up, eliminate the two weakest plants to allow the stronger three more resources. I have never watered these two heirloom varieties as they are extremely hardy. Even in drought they usually persevere.
The best and easiest pole bean I have ever grown is the Epting Family Green Bean, preserved in the Epting Family of Prosperity. My seeds came from my mother many years ago through her cousin Benny Epting. His family had been growing this particular bean in the area for as long as he could remember, so long in fact that it had already taken the name Epting. Growers have said that it is by far the best string bean for taste, length of productiveness, adaptability to our climate, bright color, and crispness. It never fails. A novice gardener should grow it because it is nearly foolproof. Plant them the same way as the butter beans.
A South Carolina heirloom garden should have one or more of the following South Carolina peas. The delicious Sea Island Red Pea was shepherded by the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It is now widely available from several seed houses since its introduction a decade or more ago.
Just as excellent is the tiny Rice Pea, about twice as large as a big rice grain and also grown for generations on the Sea Islands. Both it and the Sea Island Red are the traditional peas used in the New Year’s dish Hoppin’ John, a Lowcountry staple from the early 1800s or earlier. Served with ham hock and Carolina Gold, it is another of South Carolina’s most popular signature dishes. The Rice Pea may double as an ornamental vine. It has panicles of bright yellow flowers that make the long pods, which turn jet black when mature. It is a great pollinator plant for the native black bee. My Rice Peas self-seed each year, a perfect trait for the new gardener.
I drill my peas in rows well after the last frost; depending on the season, some people even put them in the ground as late as July. Like most of our South Carolina heirlooms, they really love the heat! They are usually ready for harvest in the fall, right on time for serving Hoppin’ John.
Perhaps the most spectacular successes in the introduction of South Carolina heirloom varieties in the last few years is the watermelon. Three South Carolina watermelons have recently become famous once again — the Odell’s Large White, the Ravenscroft, and the Bradford Family. We have specific data on the origins of the first two in central South Carolina in around 1850. These are unsurpassed in sweetness and crispness. The Kleckley and Charleston Grey have also been popular South Carolina melons for many years. Odell’s Large White was featured recently in Amy Goldman-Fowler’s The Melon (2019). It was boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste in 2018.
Like butter beans, I plant my watermelons in hills, five seeds per hill about an inch deep, with plenty of space between hills. I knock out the weakest two or three per hill after they come up to reduce competition. Leave plenty of room when growing melons! They run on vines and can extend 15 feet or more from the original seed site.
The novice gardener should not be misled by experts who claim we can’t grow pumpkins in South Carolina. Even in the heat of the Lowcountry, the old Dutch Fork Pumpkin is a delicious, newly found heirloom of central South Carolina. An elderly farmer from the Stoney Hill section near Prosperity first made these seeds available to me about 15 years ago. I grew them successfully at Ballylee Farms, and their seeds were introduced through Sow True Seeds in 2018. They have now become popular with a growing number of South Carolina chefs from Charleston to Columbia for soups and pies. The farmer who gave it to me actually called it “the old timey pie pumpkin.” I have eaten no better pumpkin pie. The pumpkin is also an excellent keeper. Planting pumpkins is very similar to planting watermelons.
If the new gardener has room for at least three rows of corn (required for pollination), the newly introduced old variety Guinea Flint from the Carolina Lowcountry is among the best corns for milling grits. It has become widely available in the last few years.
The list could go on, but for the new gardener, these recommendations would provide a self-sufficiency that even the experienced master vegetable gardener might not achieve. That they are all local South Carolina vegetables might give the first-time gardener a reason for bragging rights. The seeds are tried and true and acclimated to the place, making gardening success more likely for the first-time gardener. It is good to remember that success for both the new and seasoned gardener alike always starts with the seeds.
Dr. Kibler is editor of Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer of Pomaria, published by the University of South Carolina Press.