Wednesday, January 14, 2009


January is a time when post office boxes are stuffed full of seed catalogs and those of us planning gardens can brush off winter with dreams of spring shoots and tasty vegetables by pouring through pages of prospective plants.

If you are new to growing your own food, choosing your seeds can be a daunting task. I'll try to shed some light on those choices.

Many of the larger seed companies get their seeds from the same source and offer seeds from plants that have been hybridized. What is a hybrid plant?

Some plant hybrids combine different species, such as the Loganberry which is a hybrid between a raspberry and a blackberry, a Limequat which is a hybrid between a lime and a kumquat, and Triticale which is a hybrid between wheat and rye. Although there do exist examples of natural hybridization, most hybrid plants are ones that would never have occurred in nature had a human not been involved. Why are plants hybridized?

Humans hybridize plants in order to produce what they consider are "improvements," such as seedless fruit, showy flowers, new flower colors, and disease resistance to name a few. Unfortunately since the dawn of giant agribusiness, plants have also been hybridized for productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to pesticides with little concern for flavor.

Some of them are entirely unable to reproduce on their own and all F1 hybrids are unable to reproduce the exact traits of the parent plant. This means growers are unable to save seed from year to year and are beholden to the seed companies for future purchases. Since most industrialized food comes from hybrids grown in huge mono-culture plots, is it any wonder why store bought vegetables taste like plastic compared to homegrown?

Many home gardeners and small market farmers have turned to growing heirloom vegetables. Heirloom growers may be motivated in preserving a plant's cultural history, increasing genetic diversity of the gene pool, saving seeds for the future, or just preserving real flavors. What is an heirloom?

When most of us talk about heirlooms we are speaking of important belongings that have been handed down for generations in our family. An heirloom plant is not genetically altered and must be able to grow "true to type" and produce plants like the parents from seed for generations. Just like family heirlooms, many of these seeds have been handed down by families over generations and come with interesting stories.

For instance, some southern beans have family histories in America since the founding of our country. Some melons can be traced back to the 1700's in Europe, and the 1400's in Asia. Some vegetables can even be traced back to prehistoric times. For a list of heirloom seed companies visit this link. You can also join seed saving organizations to swap or buy seeds not available elsewhere. For a list of these organizations, visit this link. For those of you with smaller gardens I will have some heirloom plants to sell or trade in the coming months.

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