Sunday, June 15, 2014

SeedBroadcasting with Penn and Cord Parmenter

In 2012, right before the Mobile Seed Story Broadcasting Station national tour from New Mexico to Vermont, I spoke with Cord Parmenter on the phone and he talked about the many exciting high-altitude crop adaptations and greenhouse experiments he and his wife Penn were conducting. But, the plan to kick of the tour with them in Westcliffe, Colorado had to be changed at the last minute due to retrofits to the Broadcasting Station and time constraints.

But finally, two years later, on the last leg of the Rocky Mountain Tour, SeedBroadcast meandered (slowly) up over the Continental Divide and eastwards towards Westcliffe, Colorado, to meet up with these two joyous and dedicated small scale, four season, extreme gardeners, seed savers, and greenhouse innovators.

Penn and Cord’s garden began in 1991 with a camper, woodstove, and mixed wooded-meadow land in the Wet Mountains at 8120’ above sea level. With determination to prove wrong the accusations of assured failure, Penn states, “We grow food here because we were told we could not.”

And this, they have surely done.

Over the last 23 years they have experimented with designing and building thermal-mass greenhouses, implementing biomimicry as an efficient and provocative garden teacher, passing on this knowledge to others through workshops and lectures, and developing high-altitude corn, pumpkin, and Penn’s real passion, tomatoes. This has also encouraged a life-long relationship with their plants as seed keepers.

Cord recollects his first inspiration for his greenhouse design from a book called “Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse,” which someone had long ago borrowed and never returned. He remembered as much as he could and began building experimental prototypes in the garden and tweaking these to accommodate new design innovations.

The basic premise is to create a greenhouse that requires no additional heating or cooling from resource intensive outside energy inputs, such as electricity or gas. The key to this passive system is the sun, a southern facing structure with angled glazing, and the back wall lined with 50 gallon barrels of water to regulate high desert temperature fluctuations. These basic elements can pull tomatoes through a -31 degree F winter night!

This simple structure is not only hyper-efficient, it can also maximize growing potential with both permanent perennial beds and hanging gardens accommodating hundred of start flats and pots.

They have also designed many other passive structures that function as permanent bed high tunnels, half tunnels, boxes, and understory beds and hanging baskets, which are protected by the natural canopy of evergreens.

In their permanent growing areas, Penn and Cord use John Jeavon’s Bio-Intensive method of growing which allows for closer plantings, creates resilient soils, and retains moisture, reducing the need to water in this arid mountain climate.

Penn’s seed saving adventure began with her desire to grow tomatoes where everyone else gives up, in the high mountains. She attended Seed School in 2010, came home and harvested over 10 lbs of seeds, and never looked back. She now grows over 130 varieties and offers her adapted seed for sale through her seed company called High Mountain Seeds, through Seeds Trust, at the local Westcliffe Seed Library, and she is now a part of the newly formed Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.

She said, “I didn’t know I was a seed saver until it happened to me.” And this begins her life long acquaintance with not only seed, but also other seed keepers around the world.

Here is a one of many seed stories that Penn shared. This one about Pop’s Tomato, an heirloom tomato entrusted to her and the journey it took to reconnect with its lost heritage.

You can also hear more on this story at A Sense of Place, Episode 2: Pop's Tomato, by Sarah Stockdale at

Penn not only grows out all these tomatoes and seeds she also is developing an online archive with images and descriptions. She relishes this time sitting down with each tomato in hand and tasting its delicate nature, while poetically naming its characteristics.

And with all her success growing and adapting Candy Mountain Sweet Corn, Kinko 6” Chantenay Carrots, Northern Bush Pumpkin, and a motley crew of tomatoes, all this effort does not always end in success. Sometimes failures are also important, teaching us to stretch our thinking and our practices to learn and grow with seed.

In 2013, Penn agreed to grow out the instantaneously famous Carl’s Glass Gem Corn for Seeds Trust. With an unusually cool and rainy summer all the crops where thriving in green. As Penn said, “It was bizarre, but the corn seemed unconcerned about its destiny to reproduce and make seed. It just seemed happy growing and swaying in the breeze.” By late August and with the relatively short growing season at 8120’ Penn began to worry when no tasseling occurred. It just kept growing and growing, until a hail storm became its destiny, stimulating this corn's need to get moving, tassel, pollinate, and make seed…..or was it Penn’s Corn Dance?

In the end, it was too late. Even with the effort to build an instantaneous greenhouse around it, all the corn grew, tasseled, and began pollinating, but not before rains and the heavy cold of fall settled.

Penn relates this as extremely devastating, but not the end of her effort. In fact, in 2014 she is planting another trial of Carl’s Glass Gem and she is determined to keep trying what might seem impossible.

“If a ponderosa can grow out of rock, you can grow seed in soil” – Penn Parmenter

To keep up with Penn and Cord visit their garden blog at:

No comments:

Post a Comment