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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Donnie Calhoun


Donnie Calhoun, a native of Ashe County, has worked at many jobs, but now that he is retired, he focuses his energy on growing heirloom vegetables at his home near Warrensville. Donnie grows over twenty different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, quite a few different varieties of peppers, and other types of heirlooms that his friends and customers especially like. He grows only heirlooms, and he decides what to grow based on how well the individual types of plants grow for him and what people request. Donnie sells his vegetables from the front porch of his home and at various locations throughout the county.  Although his growing decisions are mostly market-driven, Donnie confirms that he doesn’t sell plants to make money but because he wants to offer excellent, naturally-grown plants to his friends, neighbors, and other customers. He takes pride in the fact that he is keeping certain heirloom varieties alive and providing his buyers with good food at a price they can afford.

Donnie’s unique process for growing heirloom tomatoes begins at the end of the growing season when he saves seeds from ripe tomatoes that he wants to grow again. Some of the heirlooms he grows are not available in seed catalogs so saving seeds is the only way to get a crop the next year and make sure that variety is not lost. It also happens to be very cost effective. In addition, instead of ordering expensive new trays and pots, he reuses food containers that would have been thrown away. 

Donnie describes how he re-uses his plastic containers year after year and demonstrates how he starts his plants by first adding soil to a container, then adding seeds and water from a spray bottle, then adding another thin layer of soil before securing a lid on top of the container. The lid helps keep the moisture in, but the plants need to be watched to make sure they stay moist but not too wet. In this way, Donnie starts his peppers and tomatoes on the back sun porch in late winter or early spring. By early March, the seedlings are already several inches tall.

Donnie opens a binder filled with layers of paper towels that appear to be stained brown. Hundreds of seeds are preserved and labeled on each paper towel page:

“plum blueberry, orange oxheart, red oval oxheart—seeds cluster on the outside.”

His wife, Sherry, explains how these oxheart tomatoes are perfect for anyone who has trouble digesting the seeds. Since the seeds cluster along the edge they are easy to remove, leaving just the meat of the tomato. They sell a lot of this type of tomato. 

Donnie has a unique way of saving his seeds by drying, then storing, them on paper towels. He takes a ripe tomato he wants to save and then smears it across the towel to spread seeds around. After the seeds are dry, he writes the tomato’s name and other notes at the top. When it’s time to plant, Donnie just needs to tear off a piece of the paper towel with seeds on it and place both on the soil. The seedlings sprout extremely close together so Donnie is very careful when watering them. He uses a small spray bottle so that he doesn’t break any of the stems with too much water at once. When their second set of leaves appears, he gently teases the seedlings apart and replants them into small pots that he collects on trays, all of which he recycles and uses over and over. Thanks to these efforts, Donnie has thousands of heirloom tomato and pepper plants that he grew without having to buy seeds or containers.

In a greenhouse of his own design, Donnie showcases row upon row of seedlings transplanted from the initial starts. Everything Donnie grows is inside and up off the ground. This helps him control pests naturally.

“I water them from underneath, I’ll put half a pitcher. If it’s real hot in here, I’ll put a whole pitcher, for a week. I don’t water but once a week. But you gotta turn these trays every day because they go to the sun.”  

Donnie often stacks two recycled planting trays, which he says adds stability to these sometimes flimsy containers. Donnie puts empty potting soil bags between the two trays to catch water. Next, he describes his process for using these planters. “Put a layer of soil, get it wet, [...] plant your seeds, whether it’s on a paper towel or not. Wet the paper towel or wet the seeds. Put a light coat [of soil], and spray it in. That will be enough moisture. When you shut it up it will start sweating. Then the seeds germinate. [...It needs to be] in a warm place, I put it somewhere where the sun can hit it. [...] And then I just open it up on occasion and check it and make sure it’s moist enough. [...] If you get it too wet, the seeds will rot. That’s why you use a spray bottle.” 

“When they get big enough in a couple weeks, get it real wet and they’ll come out real easy. [...] What I use, everybody makes fun of me.” Donnie uses the handle end of a spoon, another supply that he has collected for free from a place that was just going to throw it out, to help remove the seedlings from the trays.

Donnie’s greenhouse is made of all kinds of recycled items, mostly glass windows that he gathered and placed in the walls so that three sides of the building are glass. He also used discarded shower doors in the composition of the walls.  Using the discarded windows has worked well because if one breaks, he can just unscrew it and replace it with another window. There are also standard-sized doors at either end of the greenhouse. “While they’re growing, it will get cold of a night, but 100 degrees of a day. Last year when it got so cold, I had plants out here, I had heaters out here […] and they lived.” But another year, without the heaters, he lost a thousand plants. Donnie explains that you have to watch how the sun hits the spot where you plan to build your greenhouse. 

Donnie’s latest experiment is with strawberries, which he gets 1500 plants at a time. He points to larger pots where he has spread the strawberries out. “This is called hilling it in. Where I take, like, 25 strawberry plants, put potting soil underneath it, around it, and water it.” These containers are what the customer takes home, to transplant into the ground where they want them.

Besides tomatoes and peppers, Donnie also saves beans to grow. He grows a white pink tip heirloom that has brown beans. He also has a greasy bean that grows to about four inches long. Another bean he grows is a double-back pole bean. He says, “They look like a regular green bean, like a half runner, a long half runner.” He got the double-backs from his grandmother’s freezer. The double-backs are about six inches long, like a regular half runner. 

When asked how the double-backs got their name, he replies,

“The only thing I can say is that you have to string both sides. That’s all I can figure out.”

But people love the flavor. When he picked beans for his wife’s mother, he says, “The first mess I picked her [was] half runners, the second mess I picked her double-backs and took it to her. She said, ‘Them beans was the best beans I ever eat,’ the second mess.” He says that the beans were handed down generation to generation and that a lot of older people remember double-back beans. Donnie also describes what he calls a horse bean that is a big butter bean with many different colored flowers.  

Donnie is able to sell his plants at a fair and affordable price because he is so committed to saving and reusing the seeds and materials he uses for every stage of his growing operation. He reuses all of his supplies until they absolutely fall apart. This mindset extends to his consideration of how his customers pack the seedlings they have bought. He saves fruit boxes especially for this purpose, seeing little point in buying something plastic when it is likely to end up at the landfill. 

Before he started growing to sell, Donnie and a friend would buy plants from a greenhouse that always developed blight.

"Every year you lose most of it without spraying. [...] So, we found two, the Oxheart and the Stripey, and we [grew them]. And I’d only grow for me and mom and dad, our brothers, just the immediate family. But the word got around, and I had a friend of mine said, ‘I want some of the plants,’ so I give him some of the plants that first year. I growed, like, a hundred. The next year, I had people come to me [and say], ‘Grow me some of your tomatoes,’ so it came out to be two hundred and fifty. [...] And then they came up and said, ‘I want you to grow me this one. I want you to grow me that one,’ so it got up to a thousand. Well, the next year I went up to two thousand. Sold out. [...] Last year I grew 15,000, but they all didn’t sell. It worked me to death—too many. It takes 2-3 hours every day in here. [...] This year I cut it down [...] because too many people went into it. Everybody and their neighbor went into planting. The first year of COVID, when it hit, I sold everything. You know, everybody comes. Then I get calls, ‘You got yellow tomato plants?’, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ [...] Everything I’d make would go back in for the next year. I didn’t make nothing for myself. It went back in to buy everything for the next year. [...] And now I’ve cut down, and I’m not making nothing, really, if you count my time.” 

But Donnie doesn’t do it for the money. He grows heirlooms and saves seeds and recycles everything because he loves the work of growing things well and helping others do the same. 

Interview with Donnie Calhoun by Brenda Smith 3/27/2023

Donnie Calhoun's Interview Transcript



This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.

Photographer: Brenda Smith

Interviewer: Brenda Smith