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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Jay & Hollis Wild


Jay and Hollis Wild have lived in Ashe County, NC, for 43 years. Jay was born in Connecticut but lived in Winston-Salem before moving to Ashe County, and Hollis was born in Tennessee but grew up in North Carolina where they met. Jay and Hollis moved to the county in 1980 and began growing Fraser fir transplants in 1985. Jay explains, “In 1985 we finally bought our own farm and [...] really cranked up our own flowering tree and shrub nursery. We were still growing Fraser fir and spruce from seed and transplants, but we tapered off on Fraser fir and spruce and focused more on flowering trees and shrubs. [...] We ran a commercial nursery for almost 30 years. We? Hollis ran a commercial nursery. I worked with the state park service, so it was mostly on her.”

Hollis says they quit the tree and shrub nursery in 2008 and then began growing vegetables and vegetable plants to sell, before shifting primarily to herbs several years later. About six years ago, they quit selling commercially altogether. Jay describes their experience further, “My specialty was three-foot-tall tomato plants for the farmers market. We did tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and Hollis specialized in herbs. [... Then] we got tired of loading and unloading a truck four times a week. […] It got to be unenjoyable. We do it now for ourselves and some friends. We don’t sell [commercially] anymore.”

“Last year we had close to 400 Genovese basil plants. We grow Genovese basil, sweet basil, Thai basil, cinnamon basil, holy basil, and we do some of the little globe-shaped basils. I grow parsley, cilantro, chervil, chives, sorrel, [...] fennel, dill—pretty much the full range of herbs, except for things like tarragon, sage, rosemary, and lavender. […] Cucumbers, all kinds of winter and summer squash, and of course cabbage, kale. […] We do kohlrabi, and then Asian greens of different kinds, and Chinese cabbage.”

One of Jay’s favorite heirlooms is the Roark Big Red Oxheart tomato. Seeds of this local heirloom are available at the Ashe County Seeds Library. “It makes an absolutely huge and flavorful tomato, probably one of the best ones that we grow. […] The other one that we grew out of the seed collection here [at the library] was the Ruby Wallace Old Time Little White cucumber. They’re delicious little things, and look nice on the plate.” In contrast to many Ashe County growers, the pink tip bean is not a favorite of Jay’s. He says, “The pink tip bean is a coarser bean than I like. It’s a texture thing more than anything else. [...] I prefer Provider and Blue Lake beans and Tema beans. [...] Then, my other favorite is an Italian flat bean called Roma.” 

Jay talks about a few other heirlooms from Ashe County Seed Library that they enjoy growing.  “We grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes; that’s one of our favorites. [We’ve] been growing those since we started. And we grew this Bradford okra last year; it did great. It made a moderately sized okra plant, but it yielded a pretty good crop of okra. […] I grow it from transplants, so I’ll start those seeds early before the frost comes. We also grow Cajun Jewel Okra. That one really has been selected for cooler climates, so it does better than Clemson Spineless or some of the ones that are developed for the South. And we do the Ashe County Pimento Peppers. We’ve been growing them for a long time. I think my first Ashe County pimentos came from Seed Savers [Exchange …]. Another one that we do in the squash line is cushaw. The Cushaw is a green-and-white-striped large squash. […] We also grow Long Island Cheese, which is an heirloom. Long Island Cheese squash makes some of the best pumpkin pie ever. It’s a pale tan pumpkin; it gets to about the size of a basketball. It looks kind of like a head of cheese [...] and it’s ribbed.” 

“Our favorite cherry tomato is the Sungold. Although I grew the Honey Drop cherry tomato that were in the Seed Library last year, and they’re really pretty good. They’re not as good as Sungold, but they’re really good little cherry tomatoes. In the paste tomato line, we grow Amish Paste, Hog Heart Paste, Blue Beech paste. Blue Beech is a giant-sized paste tomato with very few seeds. [...] Another one of the heirlooms we grow is Black Krim tomatoes. They’re a real dark green tomato that has a smokey flavor. […] Our other favorite tomatoes are German Johnson, Kellogg’s Breakfast for orange, and Yellow Brandywine. [… The Kellogg’s Breakfast is] a very meaty orange tomato, and large. It probably produces a two-pound tomato, but it’s a long season. You have to wait 80 days before you get any ripe fruit off of it.”

Jay says that he starts his tomato seeds indoors in early spring. Then, he says, “the trick that we use for growing tomatoes is we grow them primarily in the hoop house, that way we can control the moisture on the foliage because [...] it does not take long for the blight to just grab hold and take them over in less than two days.” 

When asked what conditions can cause blight, Jay responds, “Cool nights, moist foliage, and wind, because the wind brings the spores basically from Florida and southern states. You can actually go online and track the progress of the blight as it comes our way. [...] The solution for outside growing is, about the time you know that blight is coming, you do some proactive care with­­­­­ copper fungicides. The layer of copper will keep the spores from developing and growing. […] If we do get an infestation of the blight, [we either] use that hydrogen peroxide spray or there’s a product out there that is organically certified called Oxidate. Oxidate is basically a different form of peroxide.”

Jay says, “I start all of my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants indoors. […] I direct sow beans, and I direct sow Asian greens and lettuces and spinach.” The hoop house provides a real advantage in getting the most from the relatively short growing season in the mountains.. “By starting seeds early, and the early being February, I can go ahead and plant into the hoop house earlier in the spring and get a crop earlier.” Jay’s hoop house is not heated, but it still gives some protection from the unpredictable Ashe County spring weather. He says kale, lettuce, collards, Asian greens, and mache all grow through the winter. “When we get to zero and below temperature, we’ll have to add another layer of fabric over the top of them. It’s called a low tunnel, it’s probably two feet tall and covers a three-foot-wide space. If it gets really cold, we’ll add double layers of fabric.”

When asked to weigh in on his preference between heirloom and conventional tomato varieties when it comes to battling blight, Jay says, “I would say the tomatoes that have been developed for blight resistance are a better bet. The heirlooms are more flavorful [than hybrids], absolutely. Other than the Juliets, there’s no blight-resistant tomato I’ve grown that I’ve thought tasted as good [as the heirlooms]. And so, that’s why I grow the heirlooms.” Hollis admits she is not especially committed to growing heirlooms but is more interested in what tastes good and what is disease resistant. 

Jay goes on to describe many of the peppers he enjoys growing.

“My most successful pepper that I grow is one called King of the North. It makes a big grocery-store-size bell pepper, [...] and about August it starts to turn red. [...] I [also] like the Ashe County Pimento. [...] The King of the North is a little sweeter, and the Ashe County Pimento is crunchier and [...] not sweet-sweet.” Neither Jay nor Hollis cares for banana peppers, but they grow a variety of hot peppers. These include a long, black-green thin pepper called the Chili Negro, Anaheim, Jalapeno, Padron, Esplette (from the Basque region,) Thai hot, shishito, Yummy Orange Lunch Box, Carmen (a sweet pepper), and Hybanada, which has the pineapple-like flavor of a habanero without the heat. Of all these pepper types, only the Yummy and Hybanada are hybrids. They also grow tomatillos for salsa verde. Jay says they grow very well in Ashe County. Hollis’s favorite vegetable is “theYummy Peppers. […] They’re a little pepper [...] They turn yellow, and they’re just really sweet and crunchy. [… The Ashe County Pimento] is thick-walled and crunchy, and it has a good flavor.”

Jay says they also grow horseradish and potatoes. “I finally have been able to temper myself on potatoes,” said Jay. “I used to grow about twenty different kinds of potatoes, and now I’m down to about five. [...] We grow Red Pontiacs, we grow Kennebecs, [...] Russian Banana, or if we can’t get those, we grow a variety just like that called [La Ratte]. I grow a few purple potatoes, and there’s a nice little new potato that Cornell developed, that is called Adirondack Gold. [...] Just perfect for new potatoes, sweet as they can be.” 

Jay also grows a couple of types of corn, including Silver Knight. “The Silver Knight comes in at about 75-80 days,” he says. “We have such a problem with crows that we sow the corn and then put fabric down over the top of it, and let it germinate under the fabric. Keeps the crows out, and when it gets about three inches tall, we’ll take the fabric off. [And then] they leave it alone. [...] I’ve never had much trouble with anything but raccoons on the mature corn, and they know exactly when it’s ripe. They’ll leave it alone, and all of a sudden they’ll pull down a row of stalks, and sure enough, it’s all ripened. [...]. I actually (used to) electrify my corn patch, and that solves the problem.”

Jay says some folks will hang up a black plastic bag to look like a dead crow to try to keep the others out. But crows are known to be very intelligent. For instance, Jay and Hollis used to use deer or bird netting over the just-planted corn to keep them out, but they found a way to get under the netting and still get to the corn seed without getting tangled in the net.

Jay goes on to describe the amount of space required to grow all of their plants. “The hoop house is 20 feet by 9[5] feet, and then outside I grow probably 450-500 square feet of potatoes, and probably 800 square feet of corn. The winter squash, they’re two beds that are 3 feet by 80 feet. [...] They need a lot of room. I grow the transplants in a 20 by 9[5] greenhouse. [...] I’ve built two seed boxes that have bottom heat. The seed boxes are four feet by eight feet, and they’re covered in quarter-inch hardware cloth to keep the mice out, because the mice will get in there and eat every single thing I sow otherwise. Then at night, this time of year [early spring], I’ll cover the top of the seed boxes with greenhouse plastic and over the top of that I use bubble insulation, [...] and that holds them pretty well overnight, even in these low 20-degree temperatures they’ll stay around 70-75 degrees.” Jay said they learned this trick from the days when they were growing trees and shrubs from seeds. 

Hollis enjoys the adventure of growing plants from seed and eating the fruit of their labors. “It’s always fun to sow seed and see what comes up. I would sow dogwood seed and some years I would get two variegated dogwoods out of a pound of seed. Some years I get a weeping dogwood. [...] It’s just always amazing to see what comes up. [...] You just never know what seed’s going to do.” Hollis adds, “And eating. Not in the case of dogwoods and Japanese maples, but eating the garden produce.” 

She continues, “Always, always, until about six or seven years ago, we always had a frost on Memorial Day weekend. A killing frost, it wasn’t just a frost. And we always had a killing frost by the twentieth of September. Always. Not anymore. [...] Mother Nature always throws something at us. We think we know, but she knows best.”

No matter what Jay and Hollis grow, whether it is trees and shrubs or heirloom vegetables, they thoughtfully consider the best methods, which they have developed over many years. They know when to start growing, how to keep the plants alive in the cold, how to keep the pests away, how to harvest, and when to harvest. Their retirement from commercial growing has not diminished their desire to keep planting, experimenting, and sharing these plants and their hard-earned wisdom with friends, family, and, through this project, the community as well.

Interview with Jay and Hollis Wild by Brenda Smith 3/30/2023 and 4/19/2023

Jay and Hollis Wild'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.

Photographers: Jay Wild & Hollis Wild

Interviewer: Brenda Smith