Some think heirloom vegetables and fruits are plants with traits frozen in time, so that the seeds you plant in your garden produce the same plants as those grown in your grandmother’s garden. “Impossible!” says Frank Morton, co-founder of Wild Garden Seed at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Ore.
Morton works to maintain and strengthen the genetic stock of heirloom varieties. To him, the idea of the frozen-in-time heirloom is a myth, unless you’ve been storing lettuce seeds from your great-grandmother in the basement. Even then, after the seeds have germinated, the plant population will adapt to its new locale.
Insects, plants and pathogens are locked in an endless struggle of adaptation, Morton says. Plants create defenses to ward off threats from pathogens and insects, and insects and pathogens in turn develop ways to get around those defenses. Plants also evolve to cope with soil and weather conditions, so that carrot seed harvested from a dry year will often show different (sometimes subtle) characteristics than carrot seed saved from a wet year.
For the past two decades, Morton has been on a quest to strengthen seed stock of organic vegetables, especially heirloom varieties. He breeds heirlooms and organic vegetables to harvest the seeds of the strongest and most desirable plants. Sometimes he makes new varieties, and other times he rehabilitates heirloom varieties for future gardeners. Wild Garden sells seeds online and directly to farmers, as well as to most of the organic seed companies.
As a farmer in the 1990s, Morton sold heirloom produce to restaurants for salad mixes. Chefs always wanted variety in produce, and Morton grew heirlooms to accommodate. However, heirloom vegetables often were smaller and less vigorous than their hybrid counterparts. Morton knew if he could find a way to make heirloom plants higher-yielding, more vigorous and easier to grow, all while retaining their uniqueness, he’d have an edge.
“I instantly saw a demand in the marketplace,” Morton says.
As he experimented with different varieties, he began to talk to other heirloom enthusiasts about his work. Sometimes, he encountered resistance: Some gardeners argued that he was violating the principle of heirloom preservation.
“They felt an heirloom was a gift from the past, and you shouldn’t mess with it,” Morton says, summing up the argument. Something about the discussions made him want to explore heirloom seed breeding even more.
A Rainbow of Lettuce
It is love for the pursuit of good seed that drives Morton’s work. One day while tending a crop of an heirloom green ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuce, he noticed a red lettuce plant in the row. Morton realized that somewhere along the way, the heirloom was crossed. He liked the color, so he decided to save the seed of the red lettuce and plant it the following year.
“I had sort of naively expected that I would get a lot of red ‘Salad Bowl,’ but what I got was a rainbow,” he says. He knew about genetics and the breeding experiments of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, but he says, “There’s nothing like having it apply to you … It was sort of my Mendelian experience.”
Strengthening disease resistance in lettuce has been a preoccupation for Morton in the moist atmosphere of Oregon. Northwestern lettuce farmers routinely lose some 50 to 60 percent of their crops to mildew and mold.
In 2001, Morton was approached by John Navazio, a plant geneticist with the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash. Navazio encouraged Morton to apply for a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to breed disease-resistant heirloom lettuce from 40 varieties on a half-acre of land. Morton received the grant, and he and Navazio created the optimum conditions for disease by densely planting lettuce, inoculating it with disease and watering it at the wrong time. The results were not pretty.
“Man, talk about an ugly half-acre of lettuce,” Morton says. “It was incredible. We called it ‘Hell’s Half-Acre.'” The two men found six varieties that clearly fared better in the trials and began to breed them.
Last year, Morton began growing the offspring of those lettuces, and says they’re absolutely beautiful. Wild Garden Seed offers a lettuce mix called ‘Freedom Mix’ of the varieties that fared well in the trials.
Heirloom Seed Rehab
Morton’s work often involves rehabilitating an heirloom variety reaching the end of its genetic rope. While efforts have been made to preserve heirlooms in recent years, sometimes not enough seed is collected to keep the variety healthy, Morton says. That can result in genetic “bottlenecking” (a loss of genetic variability in a plant variety).
Such was the case with a beet variety called ‘McGregor’s Favorite,’ which Morton was asked to rehabilitate. When Morton grew the beet, it had low vigor and often wouldn’t overwinter to produce seed. By looking at the plant’s traits, Morton realized ‘McGregor’s Favorite’ had been crossed with another variety at some point.
Morton began to grow the beet out, culling any plant that wasn’t strong and didn’t have the true McGregor characteristics. He succeeded in keeping the variety from disappearing, but he admits the victory may be somewhat hollow for heirloom purists.
Morton’s rehabilitated ‘McGregor’s’ has distinctive and delicious salad leaves. The magenta-purple leaves have a metallic sheen, and tend to be longer, narrower and more tender than other beet or chard leaves.
Morton could put his name on it to reflect the changes (such as calling it a ‘Morton McGregor’), but renaming a plant can be a headache. The name probably would be dropped by many seed companies, and most growers would not know whether they were growing a ‘Morton McGregor’ or a regular ‘McGregor’s Favorite.’ Morton’s rule of thumb is that if the new plant keeps the same appearance and taste as the original, it keeps the old name. If he has to rename a variety, he usually provides a clue to the variety it came from in the new name.
Morton also does preventative maintenance on heirloom varieties in order to keep them healthy. His job, he says, is to cull any plant that isn’t strong or doesn’t fit the characteristics of the variety. It’s a brutal but essential type of housekeeping that’s required to maintain heirlooms.
Seed management is an important part of organic agriculture that is frequently neglected, Morton says. The organic farming movement often focuses more on changing farming practices to avoid using chemicals to prevent crop loss. Tomato growers in some regions graft their heirlooms onto hybrid tomato plants to prevent soilborne diseases. The practice is effective, but takes more time and care.
Working on seed health can prevent problems before they occur, Morton says. He would rather work on the seed stock of those heirloom tomatoes until they are more disease-resistant — the same way he bred lettuces to resist mildew and mold.
“In organics, we have really undersold the potential of plant breeding,” he says.
Morton is heartened by the influx of young, professional seed growers entering the field. When he began seed breeding, Morton felt like a loner in the organic farming community. Only 40 seed farmers attended a meeting of organic seed producers in 2000. If that meeting were held now, he says, there would be at least 400 seed farmers, many of them with advanced degrees.
“The interest in seeds in organic agriculture is growing exponentially,” he says. “I get résumés every week from people who want to work for me.”
Ultimately, Morton views his work as completing the equation for maintaining heirlooms for future generations.
“Preservation is absolutely essential,” Morton says, “but you’ve also got to keep up the evolutionary dance.”