By Christopher Marciello
Its’ starting to get closer to that time of the year when it’s time to plant seeds for summer. When you do really do consider using heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are somewhat fashionable as of late, so I’d like to begin by briefly mentioning the types of seeds available from most suppliers. I feel that this will be useful as a point of reference later.
Hybrid seeds are produced through manual cross pollination. They do not breed true to type, for purposes of yield and commercial resale value. Hybrid does not mean GMO. GMO will not be discussed in this article, as it is a larger topic in and of itself and would not be appropriate under the considerations of space within this article.
Open pollinated seeds are pollinated by insects, wind, birds or other natural mechanisms. Not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom, however. Many of our cultivars have developed in a similar manner to heirlooms but are more recent.
Why do I grow and save heirloom seeds?
Heirloom seeds have been around for a while and have proven themselves capable. Heirlooms have been bred to take on a variety of characteristics that have benefited the plant, evidenced by the fact that they continue to regenerate these characteristics of their own accord. There is a hardiness and a genetic diversity in these seeds, as they tend to be open pollinated.
Genetic diversity is a major reason for my usage of heirloom seeds. This diversity enables plants to withstand pathogens, pests and varied soil types, and makes regional adaptation highly desirable for long term vitality. As with other forms of life, too much inbreeding produces defects. Heirlooms, while they initially won’t have the same yields as hybrids, will continue to pass on the genes that make them regionally more viable and more productive long term.
With this in mind, there is ample evidence that strongly suggests mutually beneficial co-evolutions are often necessary for the survival of a species. Heirlooms fit this type of mutually beneficial co-evolution: our needs have been met by meeting the needs of the plants, thus securing the survival of both organisms. This is an important quality for me, and I’d liken it to any species that has been around long enough to witness major changes in climate and weather patterns. This strength is predicated by a diverse gene pool and adaptability.
This diversity and hardiness has given heirlooms a flavor component that just isn’t matched by hybrids. Of course there are exceptions, and any vegetable grown in your yard that is eaten freshly picked is going to provide a flavor experience that simply cannot be met by store bought produce. This is because hybrids were cultivated for specific market values, so consistently timed yields with uniform fruit shapes and colors have been the qualities bred into our vegetables. Until recently, flavor has not been a major factor.
Uniformity is not, however, the most effective means of cultivating a healthy food source. The lack of genetic variance translates into an overall depletion of our gardening system. If we are continually extracting the same qualities from our vegetables with successive plantings, we are creating “thin” genetic material. This is a form of monoculture, the growing of single food sources repeated. This practice, which famously produced our Dust Bowl in the Midwest and precipitated the decline of numerous civilizations that outgrew their ability to meet the food needs of their energy intensive societies, creates “thin soil.” This thin soil doesn’t allow for a thriving soil biology — bacteria, fungi and larger life forms that decompose and excrete nitrogen and other enzymes that the plants turn into food sources. Mineral deficiency in our food sources directly translates into our mineral deficiencies. Maybe this is a tremendous leap in logic, but I find it to be a salient point worth making.
We are living in an arid climate. Our water, while ample if harvested, comes in quickly and in a short period of time. This means we are dealing with drought conditions often throughout the majority of our year. Heirlooms develop the characteristics that will make them drought tolerant. Rather than die during drier times, they will produce less but continue to thrive, thus passing that ability onward in their genetic code. This is impossible with hybrids in the short term.
Sustainability is a major factor for me in the cultivation of my fruits and vegetables, but I’m also a lover of the heirlooms’ range of color and shape. This just doesn’t exist with hybrids. Heirlooms are often times bold in appearance and not what you would expect to find in your grocery stores — striking colors, odd protuberances, asymmetrical forms. This is art!
Hybrids do not reproduce themselves true to type. You cannot take hybrid seeds and reproduce the same vegetable next year. Because hybrids are pollinated by hand for specific qualities, they are unstable and usually will revert to the grandparent plants’ characteristics as opposed to those of the parent plant. Over time, hybrids can “stabilize” and I am aware of some varieties that have begun to do so. But as a general rule, you must purchase new seeds every year when working with hybrids.
This leads to the issues surrounding food security, worthy of a future in depth discussion. Food security, simply stated, is the ability to produce, harvest and regenerate the nutritional components necessary for family and community. Without the ability to harvest and store viable seeds, we are dependent upon external sources to provide us with food. This type of dependence is actually a pretty recent phenomenon.
Home garden farming and a greater degree of self-reliance were commonplace until after World War II. I would guess most folks can remember parents’ or grandparents’ victory gardens. Not only did this provide a much needed community identity, but from the figures that I’m familiar with, the victory garden was responsible for roughly 41% of the nation’s food supplies. For the folks who don’t remember victory gardens, this gardening was not done on private property only. Public land in urban environs was enlisted to help feed the nation. Ironically, hybridization as currently practiced didn’t become the standard until after World War II. This is commonly the arbitrary time frame that delineates an heirloom seed.
Heirloom seeds are a true growth stimulus package. Heirlooms, by definition, are not treated as a commercial crop. They are, therefore, overlooked by commercial production seed storehouses. This means often times that your money is directly going to a local farmer who sells at a local market. The concept of locally developed economies is old and, in my opinion, necessary to truly bring about a confidence in our social structures. Do we really need another superstore that pays a lot of folks minimum wage or low wage, or that farms out resource extraction and diverts funds to anonymous entities that obviously don’t exist in our communities? Is convenience that powerful of a force that we would undermine our own future health in all its forms?
I am of the opinion that in our culture there is a movement of reductionism that the author Milan Kundera refers to as “ the ongoing uglification of the world.” I am also of the opinion that this reductionism exists simply for the sake of maximizing profit through uniformity. This seems to have, as an inherent quality, the ability to dull the senses and the intellect. This abhorrent idea should be guarded against by all of the will and collective empathy we can muster to prevent the monumental force of commerce from eradicating biological diversity and beauty.
One tip is to whenever you buy heirloom fruits, flowers or vegetables is to save the seeds, dry them and use them to plant in your garden.
Those are some of the reasons I chose heirlooms.
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