On heirlooms

Jimmy Nardello’s sweet Italian frying peppers:  find them in my garden and on the Ark of Taste

The true spirit of this holiday season, Greed, showed up right on time for me with Tuesday’s arrival of the 2012 Fedco seed catalog.  Whee!   Time to get out the highlighter and tally my wish list for next year’s seeds.

I have had to become a lot more serious about my gardens now that I’ve started a pseudo-CSA.  My usual mania for no unplanted ground has been a good policy, but keeping up with my customers’ vegetative demand has required that I likewise be ruthless about harvesting and doing away with any spent plants.  Precious, every square inch, that garden space!  So you would think that I would be stocking my garden with hybrids, right?  Grow big, grow fast, grow uniformly, grow hardy F1 seeds:  the great guarantee for yield!

Yeah, right.  Perhaps you should step over to a very non-judgmental description of hybrids and heirlooms right here; read it, get educated, then come on back.

Okay.  Here’s the deal:  I love heirlooms.  Heirloom, or open-pollinated, or standard plants (the names are interchangeable) appeal to me on many levels.  I am naturally thrifty, so having a plant whose seed I can save and perpetuate puts these puppies in the LIKE category for me:  I will go through the trouble of growing seed if it spares me from buying them year in and out.  I enjoy the natural variation found in a planting of seed:  they’re not all exactly alike, either as seedlings, as growing plants or as the yield of seeds (fruits) they produce…close, but no cigar.   This slight variation enables me to save seed from the plant whose qualities most appeal, whilst eating its slower-growing or smaller or leafier siblings…very nice, especially in a row of, say, cabbage, when having 18 heads of F1 plants ready and huge right now is more burden than blessing.  I’d prefer the variation of the small, the big, the wooly and the sprouting.

(Not all heirloom seed produces such crazed variation.  I’m generalizing here as there are loads of other factors all along the plants’ growth that could cause those differences.  Also, I like to pick on cabbages.)

My other insistence on heirlooms has to do with the vast gene pool from which they spring.  When I picked up a copy of The Vegetable Garden (web version here) about ten years ago I began to understand just how few varieties of open-pollinated seed are available to home gardeners today.  The more I looked into it the more ill I became by how little of that seed heritage remains.  Here’s a graphic that should shock you:

which can be found in a probably more legible view at National Geographic, make sure you read its attendant article too.  We’ve squandered our inheritance, it seems to me, with our happy pursuit of Early Girls and Big Boys.

I won’t step into the waters of patenting seeds (you don’t have all day, do you?), trademarking life forms and bioengineering.  Producing F1 seeds typically enriches just one seed producer.  Problem is, a successful hybrid will most likely get bought up by a seed conglomerate who also is in the gene-splicing business.  And frankly I am not keen to support the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, even by buying a lowly packet of hybrid onion seeds.  Why feed the beast?  Here is a list of seed sellers that have signed the Safe Seed pledge, wherein they don’t knowingly* produce or sell GMO-tainted seeds.  (*”Knowingly” is telling.  It’s up to you to research that the hybrid you wish to buy is not owned by or modified by a company that genetically modifies its seeds.)

Probably the biggest reason I love heirlooms is that they’re an unbroken link to our past.  Perhaps I am simply a romantic at heart, but it’s truly humbling when I hold a handful of that savoy cabbage seed over a freshly-scratched trough of earth, as it’s a link to the past.  Think about it:  SOMEBODY, actually a whole chain of somebodies, has tirelessly grown and saved the very seeds in my palm.  It is living history.  In growing and saving seed myself, I become the latest link in that unbroken chain.  The only other thing that I have actively done that has even come close is to become a mother:  that, likewise, is a mighty long chain.

Sigh.  So Tuesday night I curled up onto the couch with my highlighter and my catalog.  Sure; 1/3 of all the seeds therein are hybrids:  hybrids equal cashmoney, after all, and even Fedco isn’t above that.  (I read and circle Fedco for its politics and its writing, of course, and not necessarily for its offerings.)  And it is equally true that my garden, likewise, is home to a few safe hybrids.  I might be strident, but I am not an absolutist, except maybe on GMOs….

Here’s a great source for home-saved heirlooms:  Become a member of Seed Savers and get their annual catalog. I love Fedco but I also support TerritorialVictory Seeds and Southern Exposure, but please, I hate Baker Creek so don’t try to persuade me otherwise.  You Canadians have lots of options:   Salt Spring Seeds and a whole bunch of others in the comments.  Lucky ducks.

Oh:  You may also be wondering why I would need more seeds if I save so many.  ahem.  Avarice!  Rapacious greed!  and an overwhelming sense that I “need” more types of veg! that’s why.   I am an American after all:  consumption is my birthright, isn’t it?

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16 responses to “On heirlooms

  1. As a Canadian, I have to take exception to the Salt Spring Seeds recommendation. Salt Spring Island is somewhere around 4600 km (2800 miles) away from me.

    How well adapted do you think those varieties are to my region? How well, compared to the seeds from the grower that lives less than 30 km away (Tree and Twig Farm)? Or the one that lives 2-3 hours away (The Cottage Gardener)? Or the one that lives in the next province over (Heritage Harvest Seed)?

    Salt Spring Seeds is not the only seed source in Canada, although it seems to be the only one I regularly see written about. Personally, I prefer to support local businesses, including seed growers, when I can, and there are MANY great seed growers across Canada.

    Oh, and his articles, especially the one about “genetically engineered swine flu”? Yeah. I know it’s his right to post his opinion, but it’s also my right not to support someone who promotes conspiracy theories and bad science.

    • Who knew, KB? Frankly it was the only one I had heard about. And in Michigan, the closest seed house to me is a good 500 miles away in Iowa, but it doesn’t mean their seeds will be perfectly adapted to my region too. So thanks, and I have changed what I wrote.

  2. I also use more heirlooms than hybrids. Hybrids do have their place. For me, a hybrid’s place is in those plant that I never intend to save seed. Carrots would be a great example. I’m still fairly new to seed saving, and I don’t have the expertise or time to save carrot seed yet. So I don’t even check to see if a carrot is heirloom or hybrid.

    My seed store of choice is Southern Exposure. They are fairly local to me and offer what I’m looking for. I’ve also had great service from them. Last year I bought watermelon seeds from them. I planted half the pack and not a single seed sprouted, so I planted the other half and 1 sickly sprout started. I contacted them and they offered to send me a replacement. I had the replacement 3 days later.

    But I’m on the same page about that GMO crap. As far as I’m concerned, GMO is an abomination that should have never been created. I feel that they are messing with stuff that shouldn’t be messed with. Don’t get me started on the USDA/Monsanto relationship.

  3. Excellent post. I learned a great deal of information. I was not aware of practically any of this information. I am new to homesteading and this is valuable information!I hope that you will visit me @http://www.mommiesandbeyond.com Please feel free to offer any advice that you are willing to lend! Have a nice day and Happy Holidays!

  4. I like the seeds from Salt Spring Island, but I wouldn’t say they’re my top recommendation in Canada.

    Become a member of Seeds of Diversity – they’re a Canadian organization, who were responsible for “grandfathering” a lot of seeds in to our legislation, making them un-patentable in Canada. As a member, you get the annual seed swap directory, which allows you to stay as local (or not) as you like with regards to getting seeds, and most only ask for the postage to be paid (ie. no cost to the actual seeds).

  5. I’ve got another for you, Dear::: High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont. Fairly near to you. http://www.highmowingseeds.com/Where-our-seed-comes-from.html
    I have been saving seeds from a Rutland heirloom tomato that you might like some of. The Pratico tomato was brought from Italy in the early 1900s, the best seeds saved each year just so the family could grow it. For the last several years I’ve got them growing in several regions of the US:: Michigan should be next.
    Thanks for the nice, atmospheric, post.

  6. I definitely use a lot of heirlooms (especially tomatoes) but am also with Fritz in that hybrids have their place. We have to keep in mind that heirlooms are good for the place and use they were grown for, and in the wrong spot they can be ornery divas that don’t produce well. It can take time to figure out what works, and for newer gardeners, success in the first few seasons is pretty important to encourage them.

    For folks with less space, who probably don’t save seeds (yet–until we’re forced to by a zombie apocalypse), hybrids can be a big help. I had terrible luck with pickling cucumbers until I switched to a rather vigorous hybrid, and now I can grow what I need in the space I have. Also–a seed pack for me can last years, so economically it’s sensible, and I like to support the smaller producers who are maintaining both hybrid and heirloom seeds stock in ethical ways! 🙂

  7. I LOVE heirlooms too! I wouldn’t grow anything else.

  8. So…I’m curious. What’s the deal with Baker Creek? Yours is the first negative comment I’ve come across with regard to them, and since I value your opinion, I’m curious as to what caused it. I find that they seem to specialize in a LOT of Asian crops, which is fine but not for me. Otherwise, they seem to be pretty good. Is there a hidden side we should know about?

    • Hi Ellen: it’s pretty easy, as I have gotten (this would be a 2005 order so maybe they got their act together since then) packets of dirty seed, moldy seed, seed NOT what it said it was and seed with two different varieties of tomato in them. This would have been out of a small (12 packet) order. Never, ever again, I don’t care how cheap they are, or if they’re the sole sellers of my dream vegetable. Fuhgetit.

      • I was hoping you would respond to that. I too have had problems with Baker, although I love their beautiful catalog and their prices. I stopped using them because I had (in 2 orders) 3 packets of seed that were wrong. I planted cucumbers and got patty pan, green zebras and got big red slicers. I don’t have enough space to be surprised with what I planted. When I called to complain, they kind of said without actually saying that that had been a problem. (This was also 2 years ago)

      • Once burned, twice shy, eh? Can’t blame you. I feel that way about my potato source. Was loving her until this last year, when the spuds arrived moldy – both the seed potatoes and the sweet potato slips. I probably won’t order from her again.

  9. Good post! I think there is some murky stuff in the background of Jung’s but they are online, mail catalogues, and are local to me here in central WI, so I thnk are within 500 miles of you in MI, and certainly closer than IA. Just looking at the heirlooms they offer is a treat. And there is somethng to the fact they are grown and saved practically next door. That whole proximity and locally grown indviduals of more widely grown seed counts a bit more everyday.

    Love the side note from S on the Zombie Apocalypse! For my son and I that is code for when the whole mess of Big Everything breaks down. Shocked too, by the number of radishes, peas, and the like we have lost; although having planted some heirlooms, I can’t help but think some were just the same genetics with different names in different regions.

  10. Yes, I’m shocked by the genetic loss but I wonder how the taste was. . . did people just stop growing the stuff that didn’t taste “wow” because as fewer people grew, they focused only on tasty stuff? I don’t know. I grow only one hybrid — the ever-present Early Girls, usually. But I don’t have customers depending on me. If they did, I’d have to hobble the puppy.

  11. Good post, El. I admit to planting a few hybrids now and then. Though my preference is always for heirloom if I can find one that suits my desires. I’m glad too to hear your reasons for disliking Baker Creek. I ordered just a few packets from them last year for the first time, and had no problems. I know they’re fairly new to the scene, so maybe they’re still getting their act together, as you mentioned. Gorgeous catalog, I have to admit.

    BTW, I’ll just put in a plug for Fedco on the gmo issue. I noticed that they had to cancel the offering for one of their corn seeds, last year I believe it was. This was because they had the seed tested by a lab for gmo content and gotten positive results. It sounded like a case where their supplier had acted in good faith but their crop had gotten some drift contamination. Sucks for that seed supplier, and my heart goes out to them. But as a grower, I’m glad that Fedco takes the trouble to do the testing and withdraws contaminated seed from their catalogs. I will gladly keep supporting them for that reason alone. Also, the rootstock I’ve gotten from them has been top notch.

  12. It’s not greed. It’s just so hard to choose between all the cool things that are out there that you want to experiment with! And I give you credit for pulling up spent plants in the garden. I only just pulled up my struggling cherry tomatoes b/c they were still giving a few tomatoes a week. But now I wish I had used that space for more potatoes. Sigh. Gardening takes so much discipline!

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