Old-Time Seeds, Modern Favorites
A few specialty growers and some catalogs offer heirloom seed varieties to interested gardeners
WEYMOUTH, MASS. — EACH year, I grow a cabbage in my garden that is my family's favorite. When planted in rich organic soil, it's sweet and tender enough to be eaten out of hand, makes great coleslaw, and with dash of pepper and a touch of butter is delectable as a cooked vegetable as well. You couldn't ask for more from a cabbage.
It's the Early Jersey Wakefield variety, unusual in that it's conical, rather like an upside down ice-cream cone in appearance. But what makes it remarkable is that it's still listed in many seed catalogs, even though its origins go back almost 200 years to the English Channel island of Jersey.
These days, only a few heirloom varieties are listed in commercial seed catalogs. This is understandable. For obvious economic reasons, commercial seed companies can list only a tiny fraction of the varieties that are out there. As a result, old-time commercial varieties are disappearing along with possibly priceless family heirlooms that were never widely known. And this has a growing number of people concerned.
One of them is Kent Whealy, who with his wife, Dianne, founded the Seed Savers Exchange based in Decorah, Iowa, with the specific aim of saving as many old heirloom varieties as possible. As he points out, because the United States and Canada are largely nations of immigrants, they have a tremendous heritage of family-maintained seed stocks. He knows this from personal experience.
When the Whealys were married back in 1975, Dianne entrusted Kent with a responsibility that had been thrust upon her a few years earlier by her grandfather.
Just before her Grandpa Ott died, he had given Dianne a few seeds of his favorite plants, with instructions to keep them growing. They were seeds of a sweet-tasting pink tomato, a vigorous climbing bean, and a purple morning glory boasting a red star in its throat. The Ott family had brought the seeds with them from the Bavarian Alps in Germany when they immigrated to the United States four generations earlier.
That got Kent Whealy, an avid gardener himself, to wondering how many other important plant varieties were being preserved in a similar way and to what degree they might be threatened.
"Whenever people emigrated to North America, gardeners invariably brought the best of their seeds with them," he said in a recent interview. "So there's a tremendous heritage of this type of material that's been handed down from generation to generation that's not been available commercially."
But he now knows that all too many of these seeds have been lost, particularly in the past two decades as record numbers of people have left the land and as succeeding generations in individual families failed to see the importance of saving family seeds.
"From a genetic standpoint, saving these heirlooms is tremendously important," Whealy says. "Whether we're talking about traditional plant breeding or biotechnology, scientists are going to need these building blocks to come up with varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases that are always evolving."
Now in its 17th year, the Seed Savers Exchange has about 6,000 members in North America and several hundred others in some 20 countries overseas. Anyone can join, Whealy says.
Each year the Exchange publishes a yearbook, which now lists about 10,000 rare varieties. Individual members maintain seed stocks and freely exchange samples with each other, thereby broadening the seed-stock base. In addition, the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Decorah maintains collections of some 3,000 tomato varieties, 3,500 different beans, and 500 different peppers.
While many heirloom varieties would not meet the needs of modern-day agriculture, which requires fruits and vegetables tough enough to withstand mechanical harvesting and packing, they offer other qualities that simply aren't available in the supermarkets. Take some of the tomato varieties the Whealys grow each year on their 40-acre farm.
"Some are large beefsteak types that are yellow but have red stripes when you cut into them," he says. "The flesh is marbled with red and yellow and is incredibly flavorful."
Flavorful, yes. But what about vigor and disease resistance that are so strongly associated with F1 hybrids? (See story, left.)
Whealy acknowledges being unsure on this score when he first began this work. But he quickly found a tremendous amount of resistance in the older varieties. As he now explains it, they wouldn't have stayed around so long if they had been weak or vulnerable.
John Jeavons, whose writings and seminars have spread organic minifarming techniques to every continent, confirms the hardiness of heirloom and other open-pollinated (seeds that breed true to the parents) varieties. In general, he says, "the best heirloom varieties will outperform hybrids in the home garden."
Jan Blum is another avid promoter of heirloom variety seeds. The founder 11 years ago of the mail-order company Seeds Blum, she says she didn't start the company to "make money or find fame. I did it because, as a gardener, I had discovered the excitement of heirloom varieties and wanted to ensure their continued existence."
As she sees it, the commercial seed industry has mounted such a successful advertising campaign for F1 hybrids that a majority of gardeners now believe they are invariably superior. Even many otherwise objective garden writers have swallowed that line, she says.
For his part, Kent Whealy sees good reason for F1 hybrids in mainline agriculture. Large farming operations need uniformity of both size and maturity to allow for mechanical harvesting. But those are the last qualities a gardener needs in his crops. For instance, gardeners want to pick beans fresh for dinner over several weeks, not all at once to be stored in the refrigerator until the family needs them. And, he insists, with few exceptions, F1 hybrids cannot match heir-looms for flavor and taste.
Mail-order seed companies specializing in the home-garden trade usually carry some heirloom and other open-pollinated varieties, some more than others. The not-for-profit Seed Savers Exchange (RR3, Box 239, Decorah, IA 52101) deals only in heirloom and other open-pollinated seeds, as does Ecology Action (5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, CA 95490), and Seeds Blum (Idaho City Stage, Boise, ID 83706). Historical societies that have gardens representing colonial or early-American periods maintain seed stocks of
heirloom plants used in their gardens and will generally make some available to the public.