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Growing and Saving Heirloom Seeds in the Garden

Growing and saving heirloom seeds of diverse plants in the garden, including purple fava beans, beet varieties and seed hybrids.

| October/November 1997

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    Beet varieties: Detroit Dark Red, Lutz Salad Leaf, Yellow Intermediate Mangel.
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    Seeds of Change research gardens in Corvallis, Oregon, planted by family, show plant origins and relationships.
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    Guatemalan Purple Fava Beans.

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Use your own backyard for growing and saving heirloom seeds from extinction. (See the heirloom vegetable photos in the image gallery.)

Consider the seed, a tiny speck, seemingly lifeless, that one day will expand thousands of times its size to become a sunflower or corn stalk, or a 60-foot redwood. Think of the potential waiting in each seed, the diversity of life it carries, the memory of its ancestors of how to grow and make more seed, how to adapt to the sunlight and soil around it.

Now consider your relationship to the seed. Once a society of foragers, our food supply today depends on agriculture. We've intervened in nature's flow of continually fruiting and re-seeding itself and carrying on each species' evolution. We've become stewards of the seeds, domesticating many of them, taking responsibility for their success or demise.

We may shop at the farmer's market or whole foods store; we may even consider ourselves self-sufficient, growing our own produce. But where do our seeds come from? Most likely the garden center or the pages of seed catalogs that appear every year in our mailboxes.

So we plant these seeds and harvest their fruits and next year start the whole process again. And there's the catch. Every year we must return for a fresh supply of seed because what the large, modern seed companies provide us with are hybrids—the products of mixed parentage with seeds that are sterile or simply won't reproduce true to form. Open-pollinated varieties, on the other hand, are the keepers of genetic diversity; they can't be owned. Just as we come from different cultural backgrounds, evolving through diverse social and environmental conditions, so have the plants around us. This genetic diversity enables them to survive the most difficult situations, to naturally resist predators and disease. Diversity, after all, is nature's protection against extinction. Traditional open-pollinated varieties carry all the genes of the parent plant, so we can save their seed each year to create our own supply. Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down through generations, selected, and treasured because they're the most flavorful—and the most nutritious.

Every year new hybrids emerge, and traditional varieties are crowded out. They can never be replaced, nor can the 20 to 40 animal and insect species that relied on each variety. Where farmers once grew hundreds of kinds of each crop, they now grow three or four. This loss of diversity not only affects our food supply but our health when nutritional value is compromised for traits a commercial grower demands. We've become unwitting victims of a dependency on hybrid-producing conglomerates as the source of our nation's food supply and of the seeds we grow in our own gardens. What's most distressing is that we're giving up our right for saving heirloom seeds. We're ending the co-evolution that began when we brought these plants from the wild into our backyards.

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