Better Heirloom Vegetables

This Oregon farmer breeds and rehabilitates heirloom vegetable varieties. Find out how he skillfully leads the evolutionary dance to help create better food for us all.

| April/May 2011

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.

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