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 Territorial, Victory 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?