Winter is a great time to sit down with a nice warm beverage and a seed catalog to plan your garden for next Spring. Unfortunately sticker shock usually strikes when you start tallying up everything that you would like to grow. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
At one time every gardener saved their own seed from year to year, prized varieties were handed down over generations – and there were thousands of varieties of crops in common cultivation around the world. Unfortunately we have largely gotten away from those sustainable practices, and now millions of acres of cropland worldwide grow only a handful of commercial varieties while gardeners and farmers spend money every year to buy seeds that they used to produce their selves.
Even before genetic modification was possible disasters were caused by loss of diversity. For example the Irish potato famine of the 1800s was caused by a plague of late blight disease which was exacerbated by the fact that almost all farmers in Ireland were growing the same genetically identical variety of potato – A situation where the rapid spread of a new disease strain is almost inevitable, just as it might be today.
In many cases seed saving is childishly easy. Some plants such as lettuce, beans, peas, herbs and tomatoes self pollinate, and usually breed true. Other plants – corn, cabbage, cucumbers, and squash will easily cross pollinate with other varieties, and are much more challenging for amateurs to breed. However even a small degree of seed saving will make your gardening more self sufficient and sustainable. Seed Savers exchange has this guide to planting and seed saving that will help you to decide which seeds will be most worth your trouble to save.
Some plants – potatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries, garlic, and horse radish for example – are propagated from divisions, layering or some other means which results in offspring which are genetically identical to the parent plants. This makes it very easy for gardeners to produce simple clones of favored varieties. Other heirloom cultivars such as fruit trees and grape vines can be reproduced by grafts or cuttings. However some plant varieties are patented and if propagated would result in pirated copies just as if you copied a music CD, although that is usually not an issue with heirloom plants.
When choosing heirloom varieties disease resistance and productivity should be taken into consideration – the truth is that some exceptionally tasty heirloom varieties are finicky to grow and not extremely productive, but that isn’t always the case. Fortunately the internet has made it much easier to research your choices. Just Google for the name of the variety that you are interested in.
When you save your own seeds or get them from gardeners who live near by you can benefit from a common sense breeding program that farmers have been working on for thousands of years. It works like this: You save seeds from the very best plants that you grow. Chances are that the healthiest most productive plants have good genes that they will pass on to their offspring. This kind of simple selective breeding results in a cultivar which continuously becomes more adapted to local climate, soil, pests, diseases, and cultural practices. You can also select for other characteristics such as size, color, or flavor. You might even develop your own unique plant variety.
Hybrid and Genetically modified (GM – or GMO) varieties are designed for increased yields, pest, and disease resistance, and profitable production on commercial farms. But new seeds must be purchased every year because hybrids don’t breed true, and the propogation of GM plants is controled by patents in order to protect the profits of the companies which own them. Widespread use of these plants in commercial agriculture has resulted in a huge loss of genetic diversity, and there is also a very real concern that transgenic (GM varieties which have genes from insects, bacteria or other species spliced into them) or otherwise genetically modified plants could escape into the wild and possibly out compete naturally occurring plants, polute other genomes or otherwise play havoc with the environment. There may be evidence that these plants could even cause health problems if consumed by people or animals. There is no doubt that hybrid and genetically modified plants make it possible for agriculture to be much more productive, and financially profitable, and have even been instrumental in the reduction of world hunger, but their continued widespread use could contribute to future ecological disasters.
As you plan next years (this year now – Happy New Year!) garden consider saving some of your own seeds for the next year and buy varieties that will make that possible.
Sources for Heirloom Seeds
Seeds of Change – All organic, many heirlooms, no GMOs. Wide Selection of seeds, trees, potatoes, vines, and supplies. Very nice website.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Heirloom Seeds – Many open polinated heirloom varieties mostly for the south and mid south regions. Often grown by the same families who have preserved the variety.
South Carolina Foundation Seed Association – Heirloom seeds from Clemson SC.
Bountiful Gardens – Heirloom, untreated, open polinated seeds for sustainable agriculture – You gotta love that.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Lots of hard to find seed varieties and information.
High Mowing Organic Seeds
Great information and a wide selection of organic (some heirloom) seeds. Information such as disease resistance, culture, and pollination requirements given on many items.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Organic Vegetable seeds plus an extensive selection of fruits, nuts, vines, bulbs – you name it. Plus very good prices – $.99 seed packs + $2 shipping for 10 or less – subject to change of course.