On seed choices: a pro-diversity rant

I’m a bit dissatisfied with what I find in this year’s seed catalogs. Maybe I am a seed snob.

I think of all the flower/ornamental gardeners out there. Do they have an issue with seeds? I think it might be different: their plant suppliers are constantly hybridizing and upping the ante, keeping things fresh, or at least garish. Also, flower/ornamental gardeners often expand their holdings by getting plants and bulbs, not seeds. I know many a great gardener who deigns not plant seeds. This does not make them any less of a green thumb.

It’s not so if you’re a vegetable gardener. Seed sowing is something you danged well better be able to do, or you’re…well. You’re toast, or you’re certainly going to spend a lot more cash to get a garden going. (Your choice, I’m just saying.)

But maybe I should simply cut myself some slack. Am I a snob if I just want…choices? Like, LOTS of choices, lots of NON-HYBRID choices? I stand here atop this small mountain of seed catalogs (and rhetorically so, with my online sources) and I just KNOW it’s not even the tip of the iceberg, botanically, of what is out there. Any one featured variety of seed is simply the one variety that has somehow outdone its challengers. We weren’t all Homecoming Queen, yet that’s what our seed catalogs feature: beauties of some stripe or another (best taste being only one possible criterion). What about the REST of the class, I’m asking you. Where are the runners-up, where are the nerds and Goth chicks who wouldn’t have gotten chosen.

And then there’s the other also touchy issue of seed marketing. Yes, I’m going to talk about anti-Americanism. Actually, I am just going to bash traditional American seed choices. It’s, er, touching that most catalogs have finally gotten around to featuring open-pollinated Asian vegetables. Considering that part of the world has been gardening continuously on the same patch of land for millenia you would think that we’d have raided more than a couple of mustards, pac choy and tatsoi for our gardens, yes? What about all those beautiful little bitty pea-sized eggplants I saw with such regularity at the Hmong stalls in the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market? But maybe Asia is too foreign: well, let’s just go back to Europe, where many of us originally hail. Why only three or four choices of chickory in most catalogs? Where are all the other greens, turnips and beets? Whither the rampion? Are they simply not American enough?

I know that food preference is just about the last thing that people change when emigrate/immigrate to a non-similar country. I also know it’s the hardest thing to change if you start out life (and are thus encouraged to be) a fussy eater. “Oh, geez, he’s got to eat something, let’s just shut up and fix him a hotdog, okay?” I know, in other words, that food is a…tetchy issue, as my esteemed Southern friend Tim says. I live with a fussy eater who has enormous food issues, a ton of them garden related. (And no, it’s not our daughter. She eats anything.) And I am also sure that traditional American food choices is a factor in the limits I see even in my favorite catalogs. But we know how badly we as a country eat: why would we WANT to replicate our grocery stores in our gardens?

Seed companies, like all commerce, are going to sell what freaking sells. I know that, too. Does it make me happy that all they sell are Homecoming Queens, or F1 copies of the Queen with the Homecoming King? Nope, not in the least. And yes, I seed-save, and yes, I am a member of a seed-saving organization, and yes, I have a lot more choice ahead of me than I let on. It’s the rest of YOU I worry about.

I think we all need to fight for bigger, deeper catalogs. Especially so if you’re a new gardener, fed up with grocery store holdings and now itchy to dig. The world is sadly diminished if all you’re offered are Kentucky Wonder and Fortex pole beans.

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17 responses to “On seed choices: a pro-diversity rant

  1. Do you use the Seed Savers group?

    http://www.seedsavers.org/

    All heirloom, open pollination seeds.

  2. Matt: Guilty.

    The point of the rant though is not about me.

  3. There are too blatant errors in the Wikipedia article.

    In agriculture and gardening, hybrid seed is seed produced by artificially cross-pollinated plants.

    Hybridization happens in nature too. A bee moving from plant to plant cross pollinates. There’s nothing artificial about that. I have hybrid tomatoes pop up in the garden every year because of pollinators doing their job. I’ve saved and planted seeds from one specific cross and have been growing it out for seven years. I should be true to type and no longer be a hybrid. It then becomes an open pollinated variety.

    Hybrid seed cannot be saved, as the seed from the first generation of hybrid plants does not reliably produce true copies, therefore, new seed must be purchased for each planting.

    Hybrid seeds can be saved. That’s misinformation probably passed along by a writer who only repeated what s/he read, not someone with first hand knowledge. See the above comment on tomatoes in my garden. While you’re not gong to get the same thing you planted you are going to get something in most cases. The result could be far better, equal to or inferior to what you started with. There are several factors that determine the outcome of any kind of seed (soil quality, weather, length of day are some examples).

    I don’t favor one over the other. I go for taste and what will thrive in my field regardless of whether a bee or a person pollinated the parent in the field. There are some really crappy choices in both hybrids and open pollinated. Since I don’t have to grow food that will be picked before it’s ripe so that it can be shipped 1500 miles to a store and come out looking great (but tasteless and lacking nutrition) I can make a lot of choices on my farm that commodity farmers can’t make. Without hybrids we wouldn’t have rutabagas, a cross between turnip and cabbage.

    I am a huge seed snob in another way. If it comes from Monsanto, even if it’s an organic OP seed, I won’t touch it. I don’t use seed companies that support Monsanto so that leaves most of them out.

    Being a snob can make growing complicated but you know, it’s worth it. Better to have exactly what we want than settle for less.

  4. oops – typos. Sorry!

  5. I hear ya! I seem to remember someone naming a source for Italian vegetable seeds, available for American gardeners, but I can’t find it right now, and I wanted to, because I think you would like it.

    Keep looking, there are seeds out there for you somewhere!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  6. I hear ya! I seem to remember someone naming a source for Italian vegetable seeds, available for American gardeners, but I can’t find it right now, and I wanted to, because I think you would like it.

    Keep looking, there are seeds out there for you somewhere!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  7. El, amazingly, this is one of the first times I’ve ever found myself disagreeing with you. I’m of the mind that anything that gets people to start a home garden is fair game. Hybrids are more dependable producers than a lot of open-pollinated varieties, in general. If someone has never gardened before, I want them to be successful, so if it means they grow Big Boy tomatoes or Kentucky Wonder beans, that’s better (to me) than them growing no tomatoes or beans at all. That hybrid is going to taste miles better than the grocery store version anyway. I hardly think anything’s being lost there.

    Most people just aren’t where you are where variety in the garden is concerned. Even me! I mean, I tend to grow the same things (with a couple of new intros a year) season after season because I’ve found what works for me and my climate. Long Pie Pumpkins and Costata Romanesca and Jade green beans each year may not make for the most exciting garden around, but I like knowing I can count on them.

    So I’d say, don’t be worried about the countless new gardeners out there. Let them get a taste for what a patch of ground can offer, and be comforted in the knowledge that, after a couple of years, they’ll start itching for different and better options. Too much choice can scare even the most enthusiastic newbie away. People will always find their way to more info.

    One more thing…. you’ve mentioned several times that you like Johnny’s. They often turn me off because it seems every other seed is marketed toward market growers. They really push “cut and come again” culture, looks, and disease resistance, not often talking about how the dang veg tastes. And that’s just one more reason why I always come back to Fedco…. I want to know about taste and storage, first and foremost.

  8. I’m a big Seed Savers fan, myself. If you become a member, you get access to all the other members’ seed stashes too, in a way, via a big catalog-style publication called the Yearbook.

    More info here. I haven’t re-upped my membership in a few years. Maybe it’s time, because I agree with you.

    Oddly, the vendors at our farmers market (and it’s a great market) have tendency to be pretty samey from year to year in their choices of what to grow. I’d love to see more diversity.

    Hmmm.

    I really enjoy yr blog.

  9. In a word Baker Creek Heirlooms

    http://rareseeds.com/

    I completely agree with your opinion about most hybrids. Not so about sweet corn I like the SE varieties, not the super sweets but the “sugar enhanced” well what can i say I am just a fool for sugar.

    lol

    Shelly

  10. When you start gardening hybrids or even seedlings from the store do get you started and often success with them will encourage you to keep gardening.

    However, variety and choice are essential to my garden, to food politics and to one’s palate. Sure we all like to grow things that we know will work and give us a good yield but what about that unexpected success from trying something new. If you don’t try, how will you ever know!

    Moreover, the preservation of variety is essential to keeping what’s left of our plant diversity strong. Same thing applies to livestock.

    Often I will buy seeds based on their story; grown by one family for 70 years and so on. To me the anticipation of what will unfold in my garden with these seeds is almost as riveting as Tolstoy!

  11. Hi all, what considered responses.

    Matt: Yes, I am a member. My point is not everyone can pony up $35 ANNUALLY to get access to that seed bank. There has to be a better way is all.

    Robin: Hah! Wiki sucks and you see why. I simply included it because not everyone knows what hybrid seeds are, or open-pollinated ones. I’d say what’s happening naturally in your (and my) gardens is more of the latter: hybrid, in the instance I think of it, is an intentional crossing. As a blanket statement, yes, saving intentionally hybridized seeds is not going to keep your garden going in the long term, though. I’m talking going for 30 years going. (And don’t worry about typos!)

    Carol: Well, try growitalian.com and then there’s a favorite shop of mine in Indiana called Harvest Moon which stocks a ton of Italian and French seeds. They take forever to deliver, though; keep emailing them and you’ll get them. Happy hunting!

    Liz: I thought a lot and went back and forth about whom I was most concerned with when I wrote the above post. Is it me, because frankly I can find any seed if I put my mind to it, or is it everyone else? I think I am considering the fourth-year vegetable gardener. The first year s/he got seeds off the grocery rack and seedlings from the big box store, was hooked, then the second year got deluged with catalogs, and for the last two years this is how they’ve been gardening. This year, s/he has BIG plans. Why then so few choices? Historically, this was not the case. People saved seeds, and historic catalogs like Henderson’s took aim at keeping traditional seeds going.

    I am not anti-hybrid per se. I am just ruing the lack of diverse open-pollinated seeds of yore. You read books like Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat and you are just floored, the knowledge the natives of the American Southwest have known, living where they did. That is just one foodshed. Most people have stopped kitchen gardening and farming, though, the last 50 years. Like your knitting, some folks have picked it back up again. Something VERY valuable was lost in the meantime, though, since convenience foods were made popular in post-war America. And now, we’re seeing its effects.

    And Johnny’s? Yes, commercial. But it is still my go-to source for things like trellis netting, Reemay and all the other last-minute dang-I-forgot-to-order-radishes place. That I get my order in two days STAGGERS the mind.

    Lisa: Yeah, I appreciate Seed Savers. The average backyard gardener probably doesn’t need it. And your farmer’s market folks are also just growing what they can! You can always ask them if they have more interesting things elsewhere: often, they grow the cool stuff for their family’s use, or just figure if something has a few bug bites people won’t buy it, so conditioned are we to grocery-store visual (tasteless) perfection.

    Shelly: I have had HIGH hopes for Baker Creek in the past, but I have been very disappointed in their seeds (germination, mixed-up seed packets, more than one variety in an envelope, on and on) but it is the one place I know where I can get pea-sized eggplant, and 30 varieties of cowpeas and countless melons. They’re cheap enough I could just risk it, but I won’t.

    Nada: I do feel bad that many of my rants are so American-slanted, because I know and so appreciate my international readers. But you hear me regarding diversity! Considering your drought and the fact that it is going to be 65* here (yes, twice the daily high, and yes, a record) I think things like open-pollinated seeds will be a small piece of our salvation in a rapidly warming world. (Oh, and winter is why I read Tolstoy! Too much going on, drama-wise, in the gardens in summer!)

  12. El – I’ve been very satisfied with Seeds of Change. And, I’ll give another push for Baker Creek. Its a small family owned company with a huge push AGAINST GMOs. I’ll support them (mixed up orders or not) any day.

  13. El – I’m sure you may have run across this post at eatlocalchallenge today, but I though it most appropriate for this particular thread!

    http://www.eatlocalchallenge.com/2008/01/going-to-grow-y.html

  14. Pingback: On seed saving « Grandiflora

  15. My immediate response was that Seed Savers Exchange is the answer but you are right that the tarriff can be high for many people. Based on my own experience I think we have to have faith that new gardeners will always start looking for new plants and seeds, and think about new aspects of their diet and flower gardens as they talk to other gardener. It is the way new ideas appear and new windows open through friendships, books, and now BLOGS

  16. Frankly, I’m diggin’ edible weeds more each year! An easy way for new gardeners to have success! Go, lamb’s quarters!

  17. I agree here with many of you, Monsanto is a monster-they have their bid on more seed companies than we know, ’cause money and power talk to much it seems. I like Johnny’s, perhaps not the best offering over all-but their germination rate does beat the above company mentioned-by far. So-I’ll keep trying to do my best-but I have to have reliable seed so I can keep sustaining my gardens,way of life, and my bank account-flimsy at best-but germination is a big key to yields that deposit the goods for me.
    A few seeds from here, and there but mostly Johnny’s for me(if unhappy ever with an order, they walk the walk when making it right)…and I do save seeds like a madwoman.

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