The new year brings catalogs by snail mail and email invitations to online catalogs, each sender hankering for a fraction of my seed money for 2012. I know something about the business of selling garden seeds. My first paying job in horticulture was with the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C., a position I eagerly accepted when it became clear, back in 1975, that a master’s degree in botany plus 50 cents would buy a cup of coffee.
Back then, hybrid vegetable varieties were the rage. Those were the salad days for anything stamped “new,” “disease resistant” or “easy to grow.” There may have been a few heirloom varieties in the catalog, but they were shoved into the back pages.
In recent years, heirloom vegetables, the old open-pollinated varieties with origins in gardens around the world, including varieties from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, have experienced something of a comeback, with most seed catalogs offering at least a few varieties.
Some seed companies (see sidebar) specialize in heirlooms.
Why should gardeners choose heirloom varieties over hybrids? Most importantly, heirlooms are superior in flavor and nutrient quality to hybrids, largely because the efforts of hybridizers have been focused on uniform appearance, adaptation to mechanized harvest, convenience in packaging, tolerance for long-distance travel and disease resistance. Apply these criteria as priorities in plant breeding programs and the results are predictable: The number of nonhybrid vegetable varieties available to gardeners from seed catalogs had shrunk from about 5,000 in 1981 to 600 in 1998.
Through generations of selection on family farms around the world, heirloom vegetable varieties are the champions of flavor and their genetic diversity prepares them to weather the insect and disease storms that may come their way during any gardening season. Hybridizers, on the other hand, are not focused on the home gardener but rather on the demand for “fresh” vegetables of all types, all year long, even if they taste like mealy cardboard. They are breeding vegetables for the supermarket, not the farmers’ market, certainly not the home gardener.
Many gardeners, and I count myself in this group, grow heirloom vegetable varieties not only for their flavor and nutritional value, but also to ensure their continued existence. They are a part of our heritage. Passed down from one generation to the next in the form of seed saved from the garden’s best performers, their names reflect their origin, history or something of their character: Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean, Boothby’s Blonde cucumber (from Livermore,
Maine, where the Boothby family grew it for several generations), Chadwick’s Rodan lettuce (developed by Alan Chadwick, the English leader of the organic movement), Early Hanover melon (first introduced in Virginia in 1895), Sweet Chocolate pepper, Collective Farm Woman melon, Mortgage Lifter tomato.
A third reason for growing heirlooms, for some of us, is a desire to save seeds from some crops from one year to the next. These seeds can be shared with gardening friends. Growing hybrids nixes seed sharing. A hybrid, the one-time product of a cross between two dissimilar varieties, will not come true from seed, instead producing a spectrum of characteristics, most of them undesirable. Hybrid seeds have to be purchased every year from the companies that create them.
A final, perhaps the most important, case for growing heirlooms is that the loss of thousands of locally adapted vegetable varieties translates into serious reduction in the pool of genes for resistance to plant diseases. According to Jack Harlan, a 20th century plant geneticist, “These resources [locally adapted varieties] stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. … The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner.”
I have resolved to include more heirloom varieties in our family’s vegetable garden. In the 2010 gardens we grew Black Prince tomato, an heirloom from Siberia, thinking that any tomato that grew in Siberia would produce fruits in the coolest Maine summer. Sure enough, through July and August we picked dozens of purple-black tomatoes with a rich, fruity flavor.
And we grew Boothby’s Blonde cucumber for the first time last year. This white to light yellow cucumber, native to India and grown first in this country by the Boothby family of Livermore, Maine, is nearly seedless when picked young, only 3 to 4 inches long. It has a sweet, delicate flavor, perfect for summer sandwiches and salads.
If you grow an heirloom vegetable that you would like other gardeners to know about, drop me a note by email or snail mail and I will pass it on to my readers in upcoming columns.
Seed companies specializing in heirloom vegetables varieties
You can purchase seeds of Boothby’s Blonde cucumber and many other heirloom vegetables from the following companies:
Abundant Life Seeds: www.abundantlifeseeds.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: www.rareseeds.com
The Cook’s Garden: www.cooksgarden.com
Fedco Seeds: www.fedcoseeds.com
High Mowing Organic Seeds: www.highmowingseeds.com
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds: www.kitchengardenseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds: www.johnnyseeds.com
Territorial Seed Co.: www.territorialseed.com
Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Include name, address and telephone number.