Contributed by Peggy Harris 

In the cool basement of a farmhouse outside Philadelphia, Owen Taylor is carefully counting seeds, some tinier than a spider’s eye. He drops them by the teaspoonful into paper packets. It is seed-selling season, and Taylor is busy filling orders from farmers and gardeners. Spring is near.

Taylor’s new company – Truelove Seeds – offers uncommon varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, with names like Potawatomi Pole Lima Beans, Banana Legs Tomato and Feathery Plume Celosia. The rare seeds - some 80 organically grown varieties - are emblems of Taylor’s gardening ethic. 

Lunga di Napoli Winter Squash, Photo by Uwa Michael Williams

“This isn’t just a personal hobby for me,” he says during a lunchbreak for a meal of Sea Island Red Peas from a community garden in Philadelphia and peppers from his Mill Hollow Farm. “Food is kind of the great connector as a way to talk about bigger social issues and offer opportunities to people who need them.”

By opportunities, he means the chance to reduce reliance on commercially grown crops, feed one’s family, build community connection and strengthen cultural ties. Besides their unique character and fanciful names, Truelove seeds are rare for their stories and can bring growers literally in touch with their heritage.

The humongous Lunga di Napoli winter squash “can feed your whole village,” Taylor says on his website. They were grown in the Italian villages where his great-grandparents were born. The Fish Pepper plant, used by black caterers in Baltimore in the late 1800s, makes an excellent hot sauce. Bloody Butcher corn, popular in Virginia and North Carolina generations ago, is good for several satisfying (and colorful) servings of grits.

“I fell in love with Owen because he is not only a keeper of the seed. He is a keeper of the story,” says city farmer Nykisha Madison of Urban Tree Connection, which produces as much as 10,000 pounds of food a year.

Paul Robeson Tomato, Photo by Lan Dinh

Last summer, Urban Tree grew a tomato variety from Russia, named in honor of the renowned black actor Paul Robeson, who loved and was loved by Moscovites for their shared egalitarian ideals. The undertaking, not far from where Robeson spent his final years, was a way to teach children and others about “the excellence within our own community,” Madison says. Seeds saved from that crop are sold by Truelove.

The company also sells bitter melon seed from Resilient Roots Community Farm, a New Jersey community garden in Camden, tended by Vietnamese War-era refugees and younger generations. Gardener Lan Dinh says they’ve been seed keeping for years, but Truelove is a way to possibly bring in some funds to support their half-acre operation. Bitter melon, known among Asians for its health benefits, is an important cultural crop that can’t be found in local grocery stores, she says.

Smooth Bitter Melon, Photo by Lan Dinh

Taylor’s spent more than two decades immersed in the practical and cultural aspects of food and farming since he started his own vegetable garden when he was 14. He worked on farms in Virginia and his home state of Connecticut, studied urban agriculture in San Francisco and worked for years with neighborhoods in New York City that at one point included building 20 chicken coops. After meeting Pennsylvania food-historian William Woys Weaver, he became manager of Weaver’s Roughwood Seed Collection.

“Managing his collection of around some 4,000 varieties of heirloom seeds was a four-year crash course in seed keeping,” Taylor says. “I fell in love with not just the particular heirloom seeds that we worked with, but the whole art and science of keeping seeds.”

For Truelove, Taylor collaborates with urban and rural farmers from Maine to Georgia to California to cultivate, save and disseminate rare seeds. The seeds are planted certain distances from other varieties to prevent hybridization and preserve their genetic code. They are open pollinated, meaning naturally by wind, bees or other insects.

For those who work in the dirt, Truelove’s seeds are as easy to grow as any and produce flavorful bounties. And while he wants customers to return each seed-selling season, he will gladly swap information on how to save them for planting next year.

Taylor runs the Philadelphia Seed Exchange and organizes workshops in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia and other groups. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His website is In a nod to his own heritage, he named his company after his great-great-grandmother Letitia Truelove.


Peggy Harris is a freelance writer and Truelove Seeds volunteer.