'Art of Heirloom' puts designs for seed packs on display.

AuthorTortorello, Michael

Byline: Michael Tortorello

A seed should be fecund, no apologies. Yet certain vegetables may advertise their potency a little too insistently. That is, anatomically. OK, pornographically.

Ten years ago, Ken Greene founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, New York, to disseminate the kind of heirlooms that once abounded on nearby farms. Not modern hybrids and genetic dead-enders.

This brings us to the case of the exhibitionist cucurbit (a mystery that sounds more suited to Clouseau than Poirot). When the Hudson Valley Seed Library commissions original art for a seed packet, Greene makes a point of matching the vegetable to the artist. In this instance, he enlisted Joan Lesikin, a Hudson Valley oil painter who specializes in depicting textiles.

"I thought, how cool would it be if we had a fabric draped over a vegetable?'' Greene said last week. "I made the mistake of assigning her squash.''

The mock-up for the seed packet presented a shape that appeared, um, a little overenthusiastic in its masculinity. "We very quickly decided to go with pumpkin instead of squash,'' Greene said.

The 59 seed-pack designs collected in a new exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden are as wholesome as the Holiday Train Show. But Greene, 42, holds a passion for the way seeds relate to the birds and the bees. The "Art of the Heirloom,'' as the title goes, is ecological, historical, commercial and, he hopes, participatory.

After you've seen the full-size art in the Ross Gallery, there's a rack of seeds for sale in the gift shop. Gardeners can also find them online and in some 200 retail sites across the country. ("Art of the Heirloom'' remains on display through Jan. 17, before going on a yearlong tour, with stops at the Philadelphia Flower Show; the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, outside Worcester; and the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California.)

With the little art packs -- 31/2 inches square -- Greene hopes to provoke the same big conversations that have become commonplace around the dinner table: "Where do my seeds come from? Who grows my seeds, and how do they grow my seeds?''

Originally, Greene and his partner, Doug Muller, raised most of the company's stock on their ramshackle farmstead near New Paltz, New York. The wooded, 27-acre site was once a Ukrainian summer camp and, before that, a Catskills resort. ("Picture 'Dirty Dancing,' '' he said, but with beet greens instead of borscht.) Soon, a few dozen cultivars turned into 400...

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