What is Heirloom Gardening?
If you are a gardener or have ever desired to be a gardener, then you are being called to preserve the heritage of our ancestors. I first wrote an article about heirloom gardening in the summer of 1999. There had been a wild lot across the street from the home I just moved into and one afternoon I came home and found that they were ripping out the trees one by one. In less than a day they cleared over an acre. All the wild animals, plants and trees that had been there the day before were now gone. I couldn’t stop crying as these huge “clippers” just kept felling the trees as if they were weeds. That is when I felt moved to do something to counteract the daily destruction to our environment and I started a newsletter on heirloom gardening.
What is heirloom gardening? If you save the seeds from your flowers and vegetables this summer and plant them next summer, and if you did that for 50 years…you would have heirloom seeds. In just my lifetime I have noticed that the weeds along the roadsides have become less colorful, less plentiful and less diverse. White Daisies, yellow Black-eyed Susans, blue Bachelor Buttons, and white Queen Anne’s lace were the basics. Now to enjoy their beauty I must grow them myself because they are no longer growing naturally along the roads. Thankfully there are people that have been saving these seeds for all of us to grow. Having a diversity of plants is beautiful, delicious, ecologically sound and of life preserving importance.
Do you remember when fruits and vegetables had a full flavor? My mouth would water over Long Island peaches when they came into season. And the first peas, corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers were eagerly eaten before they got to the kitchen. Now much of our grocery produce has been bred to resist travel, disease, insects, and now herbicides. In that genetic conversion to mass production, taste has often been sacrificed. But did you know that there are growers who specialize in seeds for gourmet gardens?
The more seeds we have to choose from the more likely we will find ones that we can grow in our environment. That is how plant diversity helps us to adapt our gardens to our ecological niche. Gardening requires trial and error. Some plants like more sun than others, wet feet or soil high in nutrients. Some species can’t thrive in the northern states where spring and fall evenings become quite cool or seasons are short. Years ago we removed many of the native species that did do well in our neighborhoods. Now, we have to rediscover which plants we can grow successfully in our own gardens.
But perhaps the most important reason why we should support those that grow and preserve seeds from as many garden plants as possible is that the new generation of seeds under development for the new millennium farmer are often sterile, suicidal, or unable to adapt to changes in its environment. I always let a least one lettuce plant bolt in the summer. I watch the inside leaves reach toward the sun and sometimes that small lettuce plant reaches three or four feet before falling over. I let it stay there. In the spring my garden is covered with little lettuce plants which I gratefully spread out. This cycle, which has occurred for thousands of years, is coming to an end for some agricultural plants.
What does GMO mean? Agricultural seed commonly in use has already been genetically modified to resist the application of herbicides that are routinely used on large farms. But now, some seeds that have been modified, genetically modified organisms (GMO), are from the new “terminator” generation and they won’t germinate unless a chemical is applied. And the following year’s seeds will be just as sterile. So the farmers cannot save their seed, they have to buy seeds each year. This means that unless they continue to purchase and apply the “promoter” chemical each year, their seeds will fall to the ground and never germinate by themselves.
Heirloom seeds pre-date hybridization, disease and insect resistance straining, and genetic engineering. Heirloom seeds have been handed down from one generation to the next, preserving the diversity and the beauty of our gardens, the taste of our food, our ability to adapt to changing environments, and now to preserve plant reproduction itself.
Can you save any seeds? No! Most of the seeds that you purchase in garden centers are hybridized. That means that the pollen from one species was used to fertilize the flowers of another species. The resulting seeds combine the characteristics of the parents, but if you save their seeds the offspring revert back to the parents! They do not breed true. If you want to save seeds, they must be from plants that are not hybridized, not genetically modified, and not sterile. Do you know that many of the “decorative” trees and shrubs we buy at garden centers are non-fruiting varieties? Pear trees are a good example. I guess they thought the pears were a bit messy, so even if the flowers are pollinated they are unable to develop into fruit.
Where can I get heirloom seeds? There are so many dedicated farmers devoting their life to the preservation of our heritage. Some of these sources do offer hybrids, but if they are not identified as hybrids, the seeds are open-pollinated varieties which can be used for saving seeds. Now these sources all have websites; ten years ago they didn’t. Here are some of my favorite sources: Bakers Creek (www.rareseeds.com), JL Hudson (www.jlhudsonseeds.net), Victory Seeds (www.victoryseeds.com), Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), and Pinetree Garden Seeds (www.superseeds.com). My favorite catalog of all is from Johnny Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). This catalog has so much information about starting temperatures, days to maturity and other environmental requirements that I find myself referring to it regularly in the spring. Both Pinetree and Johnny’s are in Maine so they particularly specialize in seeds for New England.
How do I save the seeds? There are several books written just about the seed saving process. But know that it is as simple as picking the dead flowers or scraping out the seeds from a ripe vegetable and allowing them to air dry completely…did I say completely?… before putting them into plastic bags or baby food jars for the next year. This is the part that takes a little practice. And even if you do it perfectly, seeds may only be viable for 1 to 5 years. That means you have to keep growing and saving seeds on a regular basis to preserve our heritage.
I no longer write the newsletter, but I feel as passionate about encouraging everyone to do what they can as I did that day almost ten years ago. Here is something so simple to do, just saving a seed from one year to the next, and yet so incredibly important to our future. I would like to leave you with one more reference called the Garden Seed Inventory. Every three or four years or so, the Seed Savers Exchange prints a database of all the open-pollinated seeds that are available by species and where to get them. So you can look up Carrot and in the 1999, fifth edition, they list 145 varieties of carrots and where to get their seeds. But they also have a chart for each species showing how many varieties were available in 1981, 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1994. Back in 1981 there were 168 varieties of carrot. So you would think that 23 of them are no longer available within just a 20 year time span. But that isn’t entirely true. They actually tell you how many of those original 168 varieties are still available and the answer is 49. So we lost 119 of those varieties! Fortunately as more and more home gardeners realize the importance of those seeds from grandpa or grandma they have become members of the exchange and we find new varieties each year. But this is a precious and fragile resource that is eroding.
So save a seed this summer and explore the world of heirloom gardening. If you don’t have a sunny yard, consider joining one of the community gardens. Come with me on this journey to rediscover our garden heritage and preserve our future.
Kristen Howard formerly founded, edited and published her own newsletter Heirloom Gardening. Kristen was later guided to support a center of positive energy and is currently the owner of Pymander Books and Gifts, an oasis for inspiration and transformation.