Friday, January 27, 2012

Saving The Past and The Future

Those of you who have been reading this blog for any amount of time know I am an organic gardener, and dead set against science messing with plants.  I know that heirloom seed is important, for a lot of reasons, but I was shocked to find out how many species of tomatoes, peppers, garlic and other vegetables disappear every year because they "slip through the cracks" as it were. Not sure exactly what a heirloom plant variety is? Neither was I when I first started down this path. Generally, an heirloom cultivar is a plant species introduced  before 1950, and is usually understood to be a "true-type" variety. Which means that if you plant, let's say, a Brandywine tomato, let it grow, save those seeds and plant those next year, your crop of tomatoes next season will be exactly like it's predecessor the prior year. Now, a hybrid tomato will be one that has traits from two different parent plants, and is bred for specific reasons; color, size, productivity, etc. This is how we've been able to buy green cauliflower, orange watermelon and so on.

So why should we save heirloom seed? To preserve thousands of species that have a lot to offer, to preserve our agricultural heritage, and in many cases to preserve nutritional heritage that hybrids can't meet. I've posted before Who Killed My Tomato? on the rapidly diminishing nutritional value of our vegetables, and the facts cannot be brushed aside. Generally, we are lacking in natural nutrients, so we tend to eat more of what's not good for us, leading to obesity, and many other health challenges. Part of that solution is to take a hard look at what we grow. There's more to it, but that's a lot of information to cover, so we'll leave that for another time. No one can deny that the tomato that you buy in the grocery store is a hard, round, tasteless little thing. That's because they are bred to grow as many  fruits as possible, in as little time as possible and as uniformly as possible. These  are picked green, and gassed to make them an appealing red. Yup, gassed. Ever wonder why the "on the vine" tomatoes offered at some grocery stores are  more expensive than their "hothouse" cousins? Because they are allowed to ripen a bit more on their plants. Not completely, mind you, but a bit more. The tomatoes allowed to stay on their plants have increased flavor, but most people still have no real idea how a tomato is supposed to taste. (This is why so many people put  salt on their tomato sandwiches. Otherwise that sandwich would have no taste at all) So a return to flavor is a very good reason to grow heirloom vegetables.

In today's agricultural world, chemicals reign supreme. Many farmers, gardeners and growers don't know how to grow without hybrid types, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Fans of genetically engineered crops  like to say that the solution for famine is to grow crops that are bred for increased yield. So they focus on hybrids that can be tampered with at a cellular level. Every time a farmer or gardener plants hybrid seed, the demand and market for an heirloom variety disappears. I disagree with those folks for a lot of reasons, but here, I'll pick just one that's relevant to today's post. Did you know that through political influence, there are many countries in which it is illegal to save one's own seed? The easiest way to guarantee that folks cannot trade seeds over the water pump is to pass laws that make it illegal to buy seed other than government approved types. Hybrids. Varieties that Monsanto and the like have developed and made available. It's true. Many of these countries have an ever-growing hungry populace that would benefit greatly by growing and saving their own seeds, but it's against the law for them to do this! This is wrong on so many levels, and a crying shame that politicians have allowed Monsanto and their cousins to poison and starve growing numbers of people that deserve better. But I digress.

Here is just a short list of endangered tomato varieties, although the long list numbers in the hundreds.

*My Girl Tomato
*Kenilworth tomato
*Ryder's Midday Sun Tomato
*Whippersnapper Tomato
*Beefsteak Tomato
*Broad Ripple Yellow Currant Tomato
*Pink Cherry Tomato
*Hugh's Tomato
*Tomato Tiger Tom
*Aunti Madge's Tomato

And here is a short list of endangered heirloom vegetables, whose long list also numbers in the hundreds,

*The Runner Bean
*The Dwarf French Bean
*The Kale Daubenton
*The Afghan Purple Carrot
*The Red Elephant Carrot
*The Shetland Cabbage
*The Walla Walla Sweet Onion
*The Giant Tree Tomato
*The Macedonian Sweet Pepper
*The Crimson Giant Radish
*The Salford Black Runner Bean
*The Boothby's Blonde Cucumber
*The Colossal Leek
*The Loos Tennis Ball Lettuce
*The Rousham Park Hero Onion
*The Mrs Fortune's Climbing French bean
*The Blue Coco Climbing French Bean
*The Gravedigger Pea
*The King of the Ridge Cucumber
*The Jeyes Pea
*The Brighstone Dwarf French Bean

Remember, neither of these lists are complete or extensive.
So now that I've laid out what's at risk of disappearing, and why we should all save heirloom seed, how does one get started on this path? Learn all you can about heirloom vegetables, or flowers if that's your thing. The other big step is DON'T BUY HYBRID!!
Use your hard-earned dollars politically. Buy from suppliers that carry heirloom types. This takes some legwork, but not as much as you'd think. If you Google heirloom seed suppliers, you'll find lots of resources. There are some online resources that are better than others. Seed Savers has an awesome website focused on saving heirloom varieties. From their website,

"Our mission is to save North America's diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.
At the heart of Seed Savers Exchange are the dedicated members who have distributed hundreds of thousands of heirloom and open pollinated garden seeds since our founding over 35 years ago. Those seeds now are widely used by seed companies, small farmers supplying local and regional markets, chefs and home gardeners and cooks, alike."

 Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds also has an educational and informative website. From their website,
" Baker Creek carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. The company has become a tool to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage. Gardeners can request a free 196-page color catalog that now mails to 310,000 gardeners nationally.
Baker Creek started hosting festivals in 2000 as an idea to bring gardeners, homesteaders and natural food enthusiasts together to exchange thoughts, seeds, listen to speakers and enjoy vendors, old-time music and much more. These festivals gave birth to the idea for our pioneer village, Bakersville. Other projects include our trial gardens, seed collecting expeditions, our popular online forums at and educational produce exhibits.
Over the last several years, Jere Gettle and his wife Emilee have branched out into other related projects as well, including the nationally distributed, Heirloom Gardener magazine, which is now in its eighth year of publication.
They also work extensively to supply free seeds to many of the world’s poorest countries, as well as here at home in school gardens and other educational projects. It is their goal to educate everyone about a better, safer food supply and fight gene-altered, Frankenfood and the companies that support it.
All of our seed is non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated and non-patented.
We do not buy seed from Monsanto-owned Seminis. We boycott all gene-altering companies. We are not members of the pro-GMO American Seed Trade Organization! We work with a network of about 100 small farmers, gardeners and seed growers to bring you the best selection of seeds available! Many of our varieties we sell were collected by us on our travels abroad.
We offer over 1300 fine varieties! Unique seeds from 70 countries!"

If those of us who grow plants, both flowers and vegetables, do not focus on growing, saving and preserving endangered varieties, we risk losing even more of our heritage, and losing our nutritional resources. By growing heirloom varieties you can help preserve genetic resources that can help feed your family, as well as help prevent possible food shortages. Not to mention the fact that you'll discover a whole new world of tasty vegetables!


Jacquelineand.... said...

Don't forget one of the big risks entailed in grow just a few varieties of any one plant type....plant diseases and parasites.
Remember learning about the Irish potato famine in school? This was a direct result of growing only one or two types of which were attacked by potato blight; something which could have been prevented by growing many types of potatoes; as well as avoiding monoculture. (Growing only one type of crop.)

farmgal said...

I have been reading your blog for awhile now, and just wanted to let you know how very much I enjoy your posts.

writer ruth said...

Too true about the beefsteak tomato. You have to buy seeds at an heirloom nursery(?) Fortunately we have one just a few miles down the road from us.

It might be worth mentioning sometime that the lack of flavor in store bought tomatoes is why so many people grow their own tomatoes. It's what inspires me, even though coffee cans don't inspire abundant harvests.

Carolyn said...

That's true, Ruth, and it's what originally inspired me to grow ours. Mind you, I never got any tomatoes due to too little sun, but I have high hopes for this summer. I think coffee cans make a fine planter. Better than filling up the dumps! I think I will be sending larger seed orders the first few years, and as the garden gets healthier and I get better at saving seed, I'll need to order less. My plan is to grow a few different kinds of tomatoes if I can (slicers and paste tomatoes), and those seeds are easy to collect and keep. Let me know how your coffee can tomatoes do this summer, please?