Growing and Saving Heirloom Seeds in the Garden

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PHOTO: SCOTT VLAUN/SEEDS OF CHANGE
Beet varieties: Detroit Dark Red, Lutz Salad Leaf, Yellow Intermediate Mangel.

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.

Heirloom Seeds and the Growing Narrow Food Supply

The sweet crimson peppers that hung in shapely clumps in
grandfather’s garden, the crisp green cucumbers that
grandma cherished for her pickle jars may only be memories.
Of the food crops available to our relatives in 1900, an
estimated 90 percent have already disappeared. In the last
decade alone, we’ve lost a steady average of 6 percent of
traditional and heirloom varieties each year. That means
our food system is based on an ever narrowing handful of
crops–a mere 150, of which only 20 produce 90 percent
of the world’s food. Of these 20 crops, only
three–wheat, corn and rice–make up half of our
food supply.

The danger of this limited food base is that the more
homogeneous our crops, the more susceptible they are to
disease, pests, and drought. All it takes is one fungus to
wipe out an entire crop. Genetically similar potato
planting led to the Irish potato famine of 1845, leaving
millions starving when the country’s supply was all but
obliterated. In 1970, a leaf blight struck a gene that
plant breeders had introduced for easier harvesting and
destroyed half the corn from Florida to Texas.

Hybrid Supremacy

Four major companies dominate the US. mail-order market
today, according to Seeds of Change president Stephen
Badger. These multi-national corporations are swiftly
buying out small, family-owned businesses with continued
consolidation of the seed industry occurring all the time.
From 1984 to 1987, almost a quarter of the mail-order seed
companies were taken over or have closed down. Many
traditional collections have been replaced with more
profitable hybrids, their seeds often raised with chemicals
and coated with fungicides and pesticides. “The insidious
part of all this is that (the companies) selling the seeds
are also often selling the chemicals,” says John Sabella,
who represents the Rodale Institute in international
training programs related to agriculture. This starts a
cycle of dependency on chemical inputs necessary for the
plant to grow, resist disease and pests, and basically
survive.

Large seed companies breed hybrids to target their biggest
customers, the commercial growers. Naturally, these
varieties must meet industrial needs–uniform ripening
for easier machine harvesting; firmer flesh that holds up
to handling, cross-country shipping, and storage; larger
fruits in eye-popping colors to please the American
aesthetic. Unfortunately, these same seeds are then sold to
the home gardening market. Rather than selecting plants
that provide the greatest nutrition and flavor through
generations of seed saving, they develop those that will
grow in many parts of the United States, appealing to
large-scale farming needs rather than those of a specific
region. Some of these companies have begun offering
heirlooms but more for their quaint and nostalgic
connotations than issues of diversity. Of the almost 5,000
non-hybrids offered in 1984, two-thirds were dropped by
1994. Those left are not so far from extinction themselves;
over 50 percent of all available varieties are only offered
through one mail-order company. We need to grow and
circulate these single-source varieties. We must also grow
the plants that are easiest to hybridize and, therefore,
are disappearing the fastest. These include broccolis,
cauliflowers, cabbages, onions, peas, and sweet
peppers–all of which have shown at least a 25 percent
decrease in varieties offered since 1981.

The good news is that new seeds are appearing on the market
at a rate of 10 percent each year. From 1991 to 1994, 1,794
new varieties have been made available to the home
gardener. But this is as deceiving as it is
promising–the increase is concentrated in relatively
few plants. Crops such as corns, garlics, lettuces, hot
peppers, potatoes, and squashes have shown a 200 percent or
more increase in varieties since 1981 while the rest of the
vegetable kingdom continues to decline. (Remember we’re
still losing that 6 percent a year mentioned
earlier–gene sources we can never regain.)

In the last decade, seed diversity has moved from an
environmental issue to a political one. The need for
control and ownership has prompted seed industry
conglomerates to begin patenting their varieties as
proprietary. Imagine patenting a living, breathing life
form as if it were an invention or commodity. “This is not
like patenting a mouse trap or a new hair dryer; we’re
talking about world food security,” says Hope Shand,
research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation
International (RAFI). Since 1981, RAN has been studying the
impact of intellectual property–new laws granting
ownership of life forms to patent holders–and how
this threatens farmers, agriculture, and genetic diversity.

“The most alarming trend is that farmers are losing control
over their own seed,” adds Shand, “even from their own
farms”. When a farmer, particularly in a developing
country, finds non-hybrid seed, he must often sign a
contract stating that he relinquishes his right to save
seed from his crops because they are under patent.

Breeding Plants for the Long Term

Not all hybrids are inherently evil. It’s the
first-generation hybrids offered by the large commercial
companies that we have to worry about. Some conscientious
plant breeders, like those at Seeds of Change, cross
varieties to yield more flavorful, nutritious food plants
by breeding through several generations beyond the first.
These become more stable with each generation until they
are open-pollinated varieties whose seeds can be saved and
replanted, showing some diversity in successive plantings;
some are bred through enough generations to become
stabilized hybrids, with seeds that will reproduce
identical to the parent plant. This is how plant breeders
initially created the traditional varieties we know today.

“This doesn’t make sense anymore for the big seed
companies,” says Kent Whealy, director of Seed Savers
Exchange, a grassroots organization that for over 20 years
has led the struggle to preserve genetic diversity,
tracking the status of every non-hybrid available in the
United States and Canada since 1981. “Why bother breeding
through several years when you can breed a first-generation
hybrid, keep the parent a secret, and have people come back
every year for more seed?”

On the surface, hybridization may lead to more offerings in
the marketplace, but not to greater genetic diversity.
Think of different varieties of the same species rather
than a diverse set of species. We’re still reliant on a
single source for the original gene. Moreover, it doesn’t
matter how many new varieties arise each year–we’re
losing countless others at the mercy of control and profit.

Planting the Future

You may think it impossible for one person to transform the
fate of the world’s food supply, but ironically it’s the
home gardener who has the power to keep our genetic
diversity alive. “Backyard gardeners are emerging as the
most vitally concerned stewards of this irreplaceable
genetic wealth, and we must quickly accept our
responsibility,” says Whealy. “Try to imagine what it would
cost, in terms of time and energy and money, to develop
this many outstanding varieties. But they already exist.
All we have to do is save them.”

As a nation of immigrants, we have access to seeds from all
parts of the world, seeds that made their way into this
country hiding in suitcase linings or sewn into dress hems.
If these seeds are not handed down, like when an elderly
seed saver passes away, the varieties become extinct. Start
with what you have, swap with neighbors and
relatives–who knows, you may be the only person
growing your grandfather’s prized pepper.

Then, instead of supporting the multinationals that have
grown to expect your yearly business, look to the new breed
of companies dedicated to bringing disappearing varieties
back into circulation. Take Kent and Diane Whealy who, in
1975, inherited from an elderly relative seeds that were
brought from Bavaria four generations before. With these
few heirlooms they started Seed Savers Exchange, a network
of everyday people across the nation saving and sharing
non-hybrid seed varieties. Since 1975, their members have
distributed an estimated 750,000 samples of garden seeds
not in commercial catalogs and often on the verge of
extinction. Their annual Seed Savers Yearbook lists the
addresses and holdings of more than 1,000 members whose
varieties number almost 12,000–twice as many varieties as
are offered through the mail-order seed industry of the
United States and Canada.

Of their many publications, the Garden Seed
Inventory
is indispensable. A catalog of catalogs, the
Inventory describes 6,483 non-hybrids and the
mail-order companies that carry them; it helps gardeners
locate hard-to-find regional seeds and charts each
variety’s rate of decline, flagging those about to be
dropped.

In Tucson, Arizona the staff of Native Seeds/SEARCH is
preserving traditional crops and farming methods of the
Southwest and northern Mexico. What started in 1983 as an
informal seed trading network by Native Americans from the
Tohono O’odham nation has become a 44,000-member
organization. Not only do they offer an extensive seed
catalog of native desert crops, they’re involved in
projects such as Desert Food for Diabetes, promoting the
use of traditional plant foods to combat adult-onset
diabetes, which affects 60 percent of the Native American
population.

Native Seeds/SEARCH’s most recent project is a Cultural
Memory Bank, addressing more than just the loss of genetic
diversity but the traditional knowledge and lore that fades
with the extinction of each crop. As they interview farmers
about how a crop is planted, harvested, and cooked, they’re
also recording its stories and songs. The information will
then be compiled into a database (with the farmer deciding
if access should be restricted to tribal members or open to
the public) and made available on CD-ROM.

Many organizations maintain seed banks where endangered
seeds can be stored and cataloged, but don’t underestimate
the power of the individual. Our backyards hold just as
much potential as centers of genetic diversity. “A seed
bank can be as simple as a garden,” says the Rodale
Institute’s John Sabella. Seeds are only viable for a
limited time, so they must be planted and new seed saved
regularly.

“Seed banks are not the solution in and of themselves,”
says RAM’s Hope Shand. “There has to be on-farm
conservation, maintenance of the seed on site.” And, seed
banks are not infallible. Whether due to power failures or
financial difficulties, “we’ve seen the destruction of gene
banks all over the world,” adds Shand. “We can never depend
solely on seed banks to keep genetic diversity alive.”

What to Save First?

So now that you have more varieties than you ever imagined
to choose from, which do you grow first? If you look at the
Seed Savers Exchange Garden Inventory, you’ll find
statistics showing the rates of decline and availability
for each variety. Buy those that are declining rapidly. Buy
the seeds that have only been available from a single
source since 1981. Buy those from Asian and European
companies, which are often only available for one year.
These are the seeds we have to save first. Beyond that, buy
and grow and share as many varieties as you can fit in your
backyard.

After your garden is buzzing with open-pollinated foods and
flowers, the next step is to save your own seed. The
process itself is simple, but garden planning will take a
little extra effort. Different varieties within the same
species may cross, producing offspring like hybrids. To
keep your seeds pure, you need to select the right plants
and plant combinations. Pollination particulars and methods
for seed cleaning and storage are discussed in detail in
Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth (Chelsea Green,
1995).

As our race continues to destroy the habitats where the
wild ones grow, as we manipulate nature to serve our needs,
it becomes our responsibility to carry on life’s processes,
to keep the chain of diversity alive. Our ancestors have
passed these seeds to us. Now we become ancestors to the
next generation. All it takes is a spade and a handful of
seed.