Seed-saver Elene Crow shares native-Alabama seeds around the globe.
by Carolyn Drinkard
||Elene Crow collects seeds to save and share.
To Elene Crow, every day in December is Christmas! As an administrator for the Heirloom Seed Syndicate and a participant in many other flower groups, she participates in a Christmas card exchange with other members. Inside each card is a very special gift: a package of heirloom seeds.
"It’s like Santa coming every day," she laughed. "You never know what you’re going to get. If I can’t use the seeds, I pass them on to somebody who can. These are gifts that really do keep on giving."
Most people would not be excited about a gift of seeds, but Crow is. You see, Crow is a spermologist, a seed saver! Not only does she collect seeds but she also shares them with people all over the world. What makes her different from other seed savers is that she has never sold a plant or a seed, choosing instead to trade or share.
"I’m just a seed-a-holic," she laughed. "I love collecting and sharing seeds. When I visit anyone, I look at their plants … but I see the seeds they will produce."
Sharing her seeds is a passion for Crow, but sending her seeds to one place has now become her mission. That place is the Hussein K. Mugambi AFSU Farm, an orphanage in Uganda.
"This is a remote area," she explained, "and the only way to get in is by a small boat. It sometimes takes a month for my seeds to get there. He sends me pictures of the children eating the harvest. The watermelon seeds were a hit for them last year."
Because this area has a similar planting season to South Alabama, Crow has found hundreds of different seeds to share. She spends 12 months planning, collecting and sorting the seeds she mails each January. Last year, she sent two boxes; this year, she plans to send even more.
"The smiles on the children’s faces make it worth it. It is unreal the pleasure I receive knowing I helped those in need. I believe I have been led to help them."
In 2017, Crow has also been a part of helping even more people. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the fires out West, the exchanges received thousands of requests for heirloom seeds that had been swept away, damaged or destroyed. Crow was overjoyed to help these victims, who had lost their seedstocks.
Crow joyfully shares her native Alabama seeds all over the world. Each year, she plants Bedwell’s Supreme White Corn, a native to Clarke County, as well as other favorites such as Alabama Red Okra, Sand Mountain Sunshine Watermelon, Franklin Red Cowpea, Knuckle Purple Hull Pea, Talladega Cucumber and many more. Outside the United States, her most requested seeds are Bedwell’s Supreme White Corn and the Atkinson Tomato. Within the United States, the favorite is the Alabama Blackeyed Butter Bean.
|Elene looks through cards she has received. The cards contained seeds from all over the world. Many request seeds that Elene might have on hand. The exchanges allow members to get unusual and hard-to-find seeds.
Seed saving requires dedication and patience. Crow’s rule of thumb is cool, dry and dark. After the seeds have dried, she places them in transparent bags and labels and catalogues them in large books. Because seeds sent outside the United States have to go through customs, Crow has learned inspectors rarely damage boxes containing seeds in clear, labeled bags.
"Really, you have to know your seeds in order to handle them properly," she said. "Information is out there on the web or in books, but I am not afraid to ask someone who knows more than me. Someone will always teach you and help you."
Elene Crow lives on a small farm in the Round Hill Community, just outside of Thomasville. Behind her home is a rolling, terraced hillside that slopes gently downward. Hundreds of birds find sanctuary here, including many ducks that visit the pond at the foot of the hill. Local photographers often come to her farm for seasonal or holiday shoots, as the backgrounds are stunning. In early spring, Van Sion daffodils cover the hillside. These golden-yellow beauties, whose bulbs date back to 1620, have thrived here for years, and visitors come to see the breathtaking spectacle. Crow separates the bulbs periodically and shares them with collectors all over the United States.
A variety of fruit trees grow along the hillside, all started from seeds or sprouts, shared by family and friends. One that is especially desired is a white-fruited peach, given to her in the ‘70s by Erskine Chaney. Crow does not know the name of the tree, but she has sent its sprouts as far as Illinois and Georgia. In the ‘70s, she also planted plum sprouts from her mother’s home near Coffeeville. In 2016, she gave away 27 five-gallon buckets from these trees. Her other trees include apple, grapefruit, lemon, lime, quince, pawpaws, mayhaws and pomegranates.
Crow practices organic farming. In 2016, she used the straw-bale system in her gardens. In 2017, she opted for the lasagna method with three sisters, a technique her daddy had perfected. She composts, using tea and coffee grounds, wood chips, ashes, egg shells, Epsom salts and old powered milk. She also spreads manure from her chicken and guinea houses. To control pests, she uses only natural remedies such as Neem oil mixed with water. She picks garlic from her garden and puts it at the base of her fruit trees. She is also careful to remove all spent fruits, feeding the excess to her chickens and guineas.
Crow loves her plants, mixes her own soil for each one and eagerly shares their stories. For example, one cactus, which she named "Three Mile Cactus," came from a co-worker, who walked the long trek to the floor of the Grand Canyon just to get her a sprout. He held it in a coffee cup on the flight back to Thomasville. Crow has already collected and shared many seeds from this special cactus.
During winter months, Crow moves her plants to a 15-by-30 patio that she has enclosed as a plant room. The room has windows, benches and shelves that hold thousands of plants. She also has a small greenhouse she uses for smaller plants.
||Children and staff members enjoy the Atkinson tomatoes grown on the AFSU Farm. She sends boxes of seeds each January to plant to help feed the orphans.
Crow is a study in contrasts. She grew up in the Cunningham Community, near Coffeeville. Her father was a mailman and a farmer, who loved to garden. Crow said she spent many pleasurable hours following her dad and learning from him.
"I grew up in the country," she said, "so I know how to work. I grew up in the woods, so I learned common sense."
For years, she worked in real estate, before taking a job in maintenance at MacMillan Bloedel. She worked there until she retired in February 2017.
"I was the only woman in maintenance, but the men accepted me and helped me. I asked questions and they showed me how to do things. They taught me and, in three years’ time, I went for my electrician certification and got it."
Crow finds joy in her many other eclectic interests and hobbies. Even though she has lost 98 percent of the sight in her right eye, she is an avid reader who critiques manuscripts for publishers in both the United States and Canada. She also judges books for the Molly Award and Romance Writers of America. For years, she has volunteered at the Clarke County Museum’s Pioneer Day, teaching visitors how to hand-churn butter. In addition, she is a respected and experienced judge for local, state and national beauty pageants. She also serves as treasurer for Round Hill Baptist Church.
"I cultivate my garden and my life wisely," she added. "My daddy always told me, ‘Green side up!’ When I look at seeds, I see smiles on the faces of those I have shared with. Putting a smile on the faces of people is my way of paying back all the blessings I have received in my life."
Plants have given Elene Crow something very special and allowed her to scatter seeds of joy to the world.
Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.