|Not your typical market tomato!|
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
This is the time, when closeted indoors and dreaming of spring and warmer temperatures, that gardeners start planning. Many keep records of what was planted each year and where, what was successful and what might be done differently, what standard plants to use and what new ones to try. This planning stage is a dream of what is to come.
Some gardeners keep seeds from what they grow – taking from the best fruits of their labors. Others order fresh each year. Many like to try different things, and a growing number of gardeners are turning to heirloom seeds.
Heirloom plants are ones that were commonly grown at one time, but never in large commercial ventures. At one time there were a diverse number of the same kind of plants, and people ate many different types of the same food. Think of tomatoes, that come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are hundreds of kinds you could plant, but the average grocery store only stocks a few kinds.
|Image courtesy of Wikipedia|
The industrialization of agriculture led to monoculture – the practice of growing very few varieties of a plant in order to get consistent, marketable crops. The varieties chosen are further developed to be resistance to disease, produce an abundance of the crop, and have a long shelf life. A plant’s ability to tolerate pesticides and weather fluctuations, mechanical picking and packaging, and being shipped long distances comes into play. This, however, doesn’t mean the fruit of that plant is tastier or healthier. On the contrary, many plants lose both nutrients and taste from selective breeding and the marketing process.
Gardeners have different reasons for planting heirloom seeds. Some plants have historical interest, some have slightly different tastes, some want to preserve the plants for future generations and to widen the gene pool. A more political motive is that gardeners don’t want seed companies or the government to control seed distribution. Since hybrid seeds will not be the same as the original plant, this creates a dependency on seed distributors for future crops.
|Image courtesy of Wikipedia|
This is not to say that some seeds you have from Grandma’s prize tomatoes will taste just like hers. Unfortunately with so many developed seeds being planted everywhere, it’s hard to avoid cross-pollination with other types of the plant. But depending on where you are growing, you have a chance to produce something much more akin to what used to be grown.
As the trend is catching on, especially with organic gardeners, there are a growing number of seed companies that carry a diverse variety of types of plants. One day I hope to have a large area of tomatoes – at least a hundred kinds – to sample and dine on. In the meantime, here are some of the companies that I have bought seeds from and continue to patronize.
Number one in my book is the Seed Savers Exchange. This non-profit group of gardeners has been dedicated to both saving and sharing heirloom seeds since 1975. Although they concentrate on preserving North American seeds, they offer seeds from many different countries around the world. They have a 890 acre farm near Decorah, Iowa, where they maintain and grow approximately 25,000 endangered heirloom plants – veggies, flowers, and herbs. Although you don’t need to be a member to purchase from them, membership allows you a 10% discount and the knowledge that you are funding their worthy endeavor. We are proudly life members. They also publish a yearbook for members, which last year offered over 20,000 seeds member-to-member. This makes Seed Savers one of the greatest sources of heirloom varieties in the world.
Seeds of Change began in 1989, and they offer seeds produced from a network of certified organic family farms and professional growers. They also offer original varieties, created through traditional plant breeding techniques, which are hybrids but not bred with commercial interests in mind. Their catalogs are gorgeous, with pictures that will make you salivate.
Bountiful Gardens in Willits, California, is a project of Ecology Action, who also works with projects all over the world. EA is devoted to ending world hunger by teaching sustainable agriculture. They have developed a system of gardening that allows for large yields from small spaces, while improving the soil each year, called GrowBiointensive™. Their selection is great, sometimes unique, and they offer great gardening tools as well.
For varieties that produce best in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, although most do well anywhere, there is the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They offer more than 700 varieties, specializing in heirloom and, specifically, open-pollinated (or non-hybrid) seeds. Their seeds come from growers. A percentage of their profits on some things are donated. Their website offers lots of information and includes a blog.
These are just a few of the many companies that offer heirloom seeds. Most have excellent and informative websites, and offer valuable information, books, dvds, tools, and other things of interest to gardeners. Remember, you don't have to have a large plot of land to garden. One of our friends has a wonderful container garden on the balcony of his condo, and keeps a steady supply of lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, and squash. Another friend, who does have plenty of space, grows her own popcorn. (Corn that produces eating corn, and corn that produces popcorn have to be kept well apart.)
Part of the delight of being a gardener, besides eating great tasting and healthy produce, is looking through catalogs and choosing what to grow. On a cold winter’s day, drinking some herb tea by the fire, surrounded by catalogs and some graph paper and a pencil – it doesn’t get much better than this.