Gardening in the Southeast - COVER


Ira Wallace, author of The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, is a Central Virginia Master Gardener and a worker/owner of the cooperatively managed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. . She serves on the boards of Organic Seed Alliance, Virginia Association for Biological Farming(VABF)  and  the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association(OSGATA) , the lead plantiffs in OSGATA ET AL v Montsanto. She co-organizes the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello and speaks throughout the southeast.  She blogs at  and  She is also in my humble opinion, one of the recognized and foremost African American voices in the organic gardening movement today.  

1.How did Ira Wallace get started in gardening?  Tell us about your roots.

I grew up gardening with my grandmother in Florida. New Year Day brought me back to memories of a kitchen filled with the delicious order of black-eyed peas and collard greens simmering on the stove. The oven filled with fresh ground corn muffins and sweet potatoes baked until they are bubbly with the caramelized sugars oozing out. Growing up in Florida gardening was always a year-round affair. We had lots of fruit trees, citrus, sapote. avocado, even a big old pecan tree that gave a little shade for the summer garden. But as far as I can remember in July and August the garden was limited to okra, blackeyed peas, sweet potatoes and a few peppers(mostly hot) but the rest of the year what abundance and variety, We lived near Ybor City  so we were introduced to a lot of  food from Cuba. I learned to love homegrown season meals but I really didn’t think gardening would be my life’s work when I went off to college.  But my grandmother died the year I started college and having a garden was a way to keep her memory close. Icarried that interest forward as a student at New College in Sarasota, FL studying native plants, starting an organic gardening coop, and volunteering at the Sarasota, Succulent Society.

2. Ira, some people know you about your work through your involvement in the literally groundbreaking Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Tell us more about your history and role there.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was founded by Dr Jeff McCormack and his wife Patty. In 1999 Jeff wanted to sell the business and pursue his interest in herbal medicine. Acorn Community where I live and work had been growing some seeds for Jeff as well as running a CSA her in Louisa County. A few members worked for Jeff  in the Southern Exposure Offices during the winter. Well Jeff offered Cricket Rakita the opportunity to buy Southern exposure and continue its’ mission. We asked Jeff if he would consider passing having the community take on the stewardship of Southern Exposure. He agreed and also agreed to offer guidance that first year. Cricket was the manager during the transition to Acorn and when he and his wife left  the community I took on a larger role in coordinating the business. My strength is in networking and education. So I have built up our network of seed growers, written, taken pictures, blogged and done a lot of public speaking as well as event organizing. As Southern Exposure has grown I have been able to offer our support to other sustainable ag groups all over the Southeast. And of course there are the many interns who pass thru the farm and so forth to be a part of the growing local food and seed saving movement.

3. The Heritage Harvest Festival, which I have partcipated in, sponsored by Southern Exposure and Monticello has grown and become an institution and event in its own right, tell us about it!

Presenting at the Heritage Harvest Festival 2011
Presenting at the Heritage Harvest Festival 2011

In 2006, I approached Peggy Cornet who was then the Director of the Center forHistoric Plants (CHP) at Tufton Farms/Monticello. I proposed a festival to highlight seed saving, sustainable agriculture and local foods and showcase CHP and Southern Exposure. I said that if she provided the location, Southern Exposure would get speakers, raise funds and provide volunteers. And what do you know, she said “yes”. Then I said to myself, “shoot, now I have to actually do all that!” I brought the Master Gardener organizations in as co-sponsors that first year. We expected 500-700 people. 1200 showed up. It was so exciting. At that moment, we realized that movement had traction and our voice was being heard.

The second year brought rain, torrential rain, but when  Peter Hach and  I showed up to Tufton Farms early in the morning to hang signs saying that the event was canceled, people were already there. I had to call back some food vendors who had already given up and left; and ask them to come back so the people would have food. Despite the nasty weather,we had even more people than the previous year. Some of those food vendors sold out! Those initial years we didn’t charge anything. We just relied on donations and a silent auction to raise money for the event. I leaned on friends in sustainable agriculture to come and lecture free. Whole Foods gave us an initial grant of $3000 and have remained a partner  joined by many other local businesses each year. By the fourth year the Festival had grown enough for us to move to Mr. Jefferson’s west lawn at Monticello.We had climbed the mountain and satisfaction was sweet.

Now there is something for everyone in the family at the Heritage Harvest Festival. There are old-timey games on the lawn, pioneering skill-sharing with the Backyard Revolution, tours of the Monticello gardens, educational workshops for gardeners and farmers, chefs’ demos, music and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s tastings, with over 100 different tomatoes, peppers and melons. What a fabulous celebration of the harvest and Mr. Jefferson’s gardening legacy.

4. As a garden expert, what do people wanting to establish a vegetable garden in 2014 need to know before they start? Are there any gardening trends you’ve seen more of that we can look forward to as the year progresses?

Michael Twitty's Cymling Squash

First thing that I say to new gardens is start small. Get a soil test and add any organic amendents recommended. Correcting soil pH is the most cost effect place to start because it makes the nutrients already in the soil more readily available to your plants. A small garden well tended will produce more food than a larger patch gone wild.  Season extension is all the rage and I love it.  Although we think of summer as garden season, spring and fall are the easiest seasons to work in the garden. With proper planning and protection you can have garden fresh vegetables ready to harvest all winter.

5. You’ve written a masterful and comprehensive guide to Southern gardening, why did you decide to share your years of learned garden wisdom with us?

You could say it was Tom Burford, “Professor Apple” who lead me to write a book. When his editor at Timber Press asked him who would he suggest for a book on vegetable gardening in the southeast. Well, when she contacted me I had just come out of a successful surgery to remove a brain tumor  and was feeling like if I had things to do I better get them done now. So I submitted a proposal, spent a year working on the book  and now my brand new baby book is out in the world and I hope it will prove a useful resource for gardeners in our region.

6. Who is this new book for? Who is your audience? How do they get the most out of this book?

The question of what is going into our food and where it comes from has led many of us toward local and organic food. And what food is more local than the food from your own backyard? Whether you are new to gardening  or perhaps new to the southeast or just an experienced gardener looking for tips, The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast will help you save time and energy while growing your own food sustainably and give you the tools and motivation to get gardening right now!

Let me lead you into a new world of seasonal, fresh, local food. I hope this will be the go to book for gardeners in the southeast, with month by month garden guides, step by step directions for building new gardening skills , a detailed dictionary of edibles that lets you go straight to the varieties you want to grow, a monthly calendar that helps you build your soil naturally using cover crops and homemade compost, a perennial listing that makes it easy to integrate small fruit trees like figs, tips on simple seed saving and good heirloom varieties that promote self reliance, and suggestions about succession planting, variety selection, trellising, and season extension tools that will maximize your yields.

 7. In your years of being involved with and creating the organic Southern homestead scene, what are some of the most common challenges Southeastern gardeners face or bring to your attention?

Planning before planting helps to void many of the common problems we face as gardeners in the southeast. The right variety in the right location avoids so many problems. For example fungal diseases like early and late blight are difficult to avoid but when we select resistant varies we are able persevere and still have a harvest.

Insects are always a challenge but creating year-round habitat for beneficials can help while bringing beauty and diversity to your garden and landscape.

Summer planting for abundant fall and winter harvests means starting fall brassicas in the “dog days of summer”. My book is full of tips, tools, varieties, timing and techniques to help you succeed.

 8. Ira Wallace can bring just a handful of her favorite food and ornamental plants to a colony in space. What does she bring?

I love greens from old fashioned collard like Georgia Green to baby Wild Garden salad mix. I adore our Thai Red Roselle for it’s beauty in the garden, the delicious teas and jams you can make from the bright red swollen calyxes. Joe Brunneti grew a lovely hedge along the entrance to the Smithsonian Victory Garden  on the national Mall. So many okras so little time but if I had to pick on maybe it would be Hill County Heirloom Red or Cajun Jewel.  Maybe Floriani Red Flint or Texas Gourdseed corn for muffins, polenta and polenta.

9. Finally what do you like about your corner of the world, the north-central Virginia Piedmont? What do you enjoy most about your community’s food and farming scene?

Virginia Heirlooms, 2011
Virginia Heirlooms, 2011

Vine ripened tomatoes, succulent figs, crisp winter salads, corn on the cob, and sweet braised greens are just a few of the fresh from the garden delights we enjoy. Working with our long hot summers and mild uneven winters we feast abundantly in every season and are blessed to be among a community of folks who love good food and value organic gardening and cooperation. I didn’t even mention fermented foods at every meal. Come join us for the 2nd  Central Virginia Festival of the Fig and  the Tasting we have at the 8th Heritage Harvest Festival of our 100 tomatoes, peppers and melons and you’ll know what I’m talking about!

You can find Ira’s new book here!:

Or here:

3 comments on “Meet Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

  1. I had not heard of that festival before this, it sounds SO fantastic.
    I looked over the website, but did not see any mention – I know that the festival has more of a gardening focus, but is there any lectures/attention given to the slaves that were doing the farming/harvesting/cooking/etc? Otherwise it seems like a sanitized use of the site
    Thanks for the great interview Michael- I shared this on Baker Creek Heirloom seeds facebook page.


  2. Terrific interview. Ira Wallace is a true force of nature and a treasure for is gardeners south of the Mason-Dixon line!


  3. linda shifflet

    I have lived in Charottesville, VA and been a customer of SESE since the early 90′s. I could never attend any festival at Monticello considering the horrific events that to place there. Jefferson was the worst example of human being I can imagine. My ancestors were beaten, raped, tortured, worked to death and killed under the Jefferson family. Sally Hemmings was 12 when Jefferson,32, first raped her. I hope that SESE will reach out to Black community in Charlottesville and Albermarle county and support local community gardeners.


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