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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Larry Denny


Larry Denny, owner of Denny’s Nursery and a prolific heirloom grower, is a native of Ashe County.

“My great grandfather used to own this whole mountain. It’s Pond Mountain. When he died, he had several sons, and it was broken up. Each son got so much land. When they died, it just started subdividing. My mother sold off about 30, almost 40 acres, [...] and I actually have eleven acres.” Larry’s great grandfather was a Greer, and he says the beans that he has shared with the Ashe Seed Library “came through the Greer side of the family.” (See below for more about these seeds.)

His father’s people, the Dennys, moved south from Pennsylvania but had a falling out. “My dad’s people settled here in Ashe County, one of the other boys settled in Alleghany, and one in Wilkes.” But Larry didn’t stay in Ashe County after he got out of school. “Most jobs, the people that hired were very selective in who they hired. If you were in the wrong political party, you didn’t get to go. I wound up going to Pennsylvania, and I lived and worked up there.”

Larry then went into the service and spent 16 months in Germany. “Right during the heat of Vietnam, the Lord was watching over me. He knew if I went to Vietnam, I’d get shot, so he sent me to Germany. Over there I was well accepted and had a wonderful time.”

While he was in Pennsylvania, Larry worked in tractor sales and service. He was a mechanic for nearly 20 years. Then, he says, “I was called to preach in the early 80’s, and I started pastoring a church on Big Laurel, the Mennonite Church on Big Laurel. [...]  I pastored until I got my legs crushed and I had to give up pastoring. I also serve as an associate pastor at the Rainbow Mennonite Church in Mountain City now.”  

When Larry’s legs were crushed and broken, he lost circulation in his left leg and was eventually airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. “They opened the leg, and for 10 days they left it open. Every other day they went out and took the dead tissue and muscle out. When they finished, I had one muscle left in that leg. [...] I can't pick it up. I can't move it side to side. I can't wiggle my toes or anything like that. [The doctor] told me, he said, ‘We're going to have to take that leg out.’ He said, ‘If we don't, you'll never walk on it.’ He said, ‘We can put a prosthetic on,’ and he said, ‘you'll do fine.’ I told him, I said, ‘No, I'll take my chances.’ I still got it and still walk on it.” 

Larry started his nursery in 2001.

“I started [the nursery] more as a hobby, because when I broke my legs, it was six months that the doctor wouldn’t let me put any weight on my feet. And I had to sit with my legs straight out. That just about drove me up the wall. I had a friend that had greenhouses, and he told me, he said, ‘Why don’t you build a little greenhouse just to take your time in it?’ I thought, well, that sounded like a good idea.”

Once he was able to walk again, Larry built his first greenhouse.

“I’d get in there and I’d plant a few peppers and tomatoes, [... and] the next thing I knew, neighbors are coming in, ‘Hey, have you got some plants you’d like to sell?’ It just got bigger and bigger. I built a [green]house here and started expanding. [...] After I went to Boone [to the farmer’s market], my business just tripled. I built the little [green]house across the road to supplement this one, and over the years, we got into herbs and other things. I built the one back here to take care of the herbs. I’ve expanded into tomatoes to the point that this house is totally tomatoes. That’s how it got started.”

He also explains how they get their perennials and lettuce started so that they thrive. Lettuce needs it to be cooler, so they put it under the tables. His grandson, Matt, took some spearmint cuttings and started them under the tables. Then the lupines started growing after some seeds fell out of a bag that wasn’t fully sealed. Larry shares some advice for growing lupines. “Stay away from the whites and yellows. [...] The purples actually do the best. The pinks, they will generally survive pretty well.”   

When asked to name his favorite heirloom tomato, Larry says, “My favorite heirloom is the Mr. Stripey.  [...] I [also] like the Brandywines, but not nearly as good as I do the Mr. Stripey.”  Larry describes how a lot of the German tomatoes have a potato-shaped leaf. “We sell a lot [of those] at the market.  [...]  The favorite at the market as far as tomatoes is the Cherokee Purple. I’m not fond of the Cherokee purple; it’s too acidic.” 

Where cherry tomatoes are concerned, Larry says he is a “tommy-toe man.” Sun Sugar, a hybrid variety, is his favorite. “It’s yellow and it’s really sweet. I like to just go out and pick them by the handful and eat them right off the vine.”  

According to Larry, the Rutgers tomato is now considered an heirloom.

“That was the tomato that everybody grew for canning when I grew up. It's just a good, all-around tomato. It's good for eating. It's good for canning. When I was probably 8 or 10 years old, well, before that really, but I can remember back when I was 8 or 10 years old, we used to go to the hardware store, and we'd get Rutgers tomatoes bare-root. They were in bundles of 25, with a rubber band around them. What they'd do, they'd raise the Rutgers down in South Carolina and Georgia, and places like that. The ones that didn't get harvested, would come up volunteer. So, they would pull those plants, and sell them in bunches. Just like a lot of people do with cabbage plants, and stuff like that now. That's my earliest recollection on the Rutgers.”

Larry has grown heirloom Ashe County Pimento peppers for many years, but when he tried to order the seeds this year, they were out or backordered at the time they needed to be planted.  Larry planted his peppers the last week of January because they take a long time to germinate, and also, a long time before they start producing. By the time Larry sells his pepper plants in late spring, they are quite far along with blossoms, and sometimes even small peppers already appearing.  

Few of these are heirlooms, but Larry points out one that is. “The long, slim cayenne is an heirloom. I raised this particular variety because a lot of people don’t like the new cayennes.” 

The heirloom seed that Larry shared with the Ashe Seed Library is a climbing pole bean.

“As best as I can find out, it originated in Worcestershire, England. But today, it’s called a Woochester Shelly. The seeds haven’t been available commercially since back in the ‘30s.  We save the seed each year. It is imperative that we save the seed because once they’re gone, I only know of one other woman that had them here in the county and she passed away a few years ago. I’ve been asked several times to send the seed to the Southern Seed Exchange, but I don’t have a lot of extra seed. Now I will share with the library since it’s local. It’s one of the few climbing shellies on the market. A lot of people, when they see the shelled bean, they’ll confuse it with the Christmas bean, because it’s kind of tan with red streaks on the bean. But the Christmas bean is not a climbing bean. [..]  It’s got a distinct flavor. I’ve never had another bean that will come up with it flavor-wise. When you cook it, it makes its own sauce; it thickens itself.  When we cook them, we’ll put a little fatback in them, and just cook them. I like to cook them on low heat in the pressure cooker. They’ll get very tender and very good.” Larry cooks them fresh, not dried, but acknowledges that you can dry them. “They’re considered a dry bean. If you’ll actually use it right after you shell it, in my opinion, it’s a little better than it is dry.”

“The way that we came across the bean was when my ancestors moved over—the Greers—when they left Germany and came to the New World they brought the seed. The seed's been in our family for several generations. [...] Matt [his grandson] had said he wasn’t going to do a garden this year, and I thought,well, I’m going to have to find someone to carry the bean on, but now he’s decided that he is going to plant them. Hopefully they’ll continue in the Denny generations a while longer.” 

“One plant will have numerous beans on it, but they do have to be staked. You can’t let them run on the ground [because] the nailhead rust is awful bad to get on them because the bean vines, they'll run eight-foot. If you just let them run on the ground, they tie themselves together to the point that you can't even get through them. Or they lay on the ground and the beans will rot. It's imperative that they are either staked or put on a string.”

When asked about planting the beans near other varieties, Larry says, “I’ve never had a problem with them crossing. I’ve raised them with the Kentucky Wonder pole beans, I’ve raised them with the Blue Lake beans and the half runners, and I’ve never had them cross with anything.” However, he notes that “occasionally, we'll get one that has got a purple hull rather than a pink streak [...]. The hull was a lot tougher. They're harder to shell. I can't tell any difference in the flavor of the bean.”

This observation leads Larry to share how he uses selection to preserve his seeds.

“If I get one that’s got a purple hull, I won’t save it for seed. Over the years now, my mother, it didn't matter, she would just set a section aside of a row and save them all for seed. It didn't matter if it had the purple streaks or not. I'm a little more particular, if they've got the purple streaks in them, then I'll use those instead of saving them.” 

His parents always called them a Woochester shelly. “They’re similar to a lima, they’re more of a butterbean-type bean, but with an entirely different taste.” Larry then goes on to describe that the Woochester Shelly is a heavy producer that requires a strong trellis to grow well.

Larry Denny has watched many things change in the mountains of Ashe County over the years, and he knows the importance of carefully preserving heirlooms and other local varieties. Fortunately, his entire family feels the same, and they work together to do just that. They grow and sell all kinds of plants at their nursery and in their own garden, but they take special care to be sure that the seeds entrusted to them by family, friends, and neighbors continue to thrive in these mountains.

Interview with Larry Denny by Brenda Smith 4/25/2023

Larry Denny'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 & Brenda Smith

Interviewer: Brenda Smith