Personal Business: GARDENING
A MODERN GARDEN WITH GRANDMA'S SEEDS
Dissatisfied with produce that is rough and ready rather than tender and tasty, more backyard gardeners are getting to the root of the matter by planting heirlooms. These fruit and vegetable varieties, usually 50 years old or more, owe their existence to families who passed prized seeds down through the generations, like so many tintype photos.
Old-timers such as "Get Set Red" onions, "Pink Pearl" apples, and "Yellow Ruffle" tomatoes have heritages as rich and colorful as their family-given names. Furthermore, "their flavor is absolutely outstanding. That's why people were motivated to save them," says Craig LeHoullier, a research chemist who grows hundreds of heirlooms as a hobby in his Raleigh (N.C.) garden.
Hybrids, the mainstay of most commercial seed companies' inventories since World War II, are the result of intraspecies cross-breeding. Like cattle owners who pair their best stock to produce superior calves, breeders selectively pollinate plants to create exceptional seeds. However, what is exceptional to major seed suppliers may not be so to the backyard gardener. Large companies breed hybrids to suit commercial growers, who want seeds that ripen simultaneously and yield identically shaped produce with skins tough enough to survive the bumpy road to market.
Backyard gardeners want their harvests to spread throughout the season, are bored by uniformity, and needn't tolerate toughness since their produce doesn't travel. "Hybrids may have good timing, be good for shipping, and have good color, but the good taste and texture are missing," says Tessa Gowans, seed coordinator with Abundant Life Seed Foundation, which tracks down heirlooms and makes them available to the public through its catalog (table).
Organizations such as Abundant Life are few but far-reaching. Kent Whealy of the Seed Savers Exchange says his group's membership has doubled in the past five years. When he started Seed Savers in 1975 as a clearinghouse for endangered heirloom varieties, six people comprised its seed-swapper network. Today, more than 8,000 gardeners in 32 countries exchange seeds, cultivation techniques, and plant histories by referencing the 390-page Seed Savers Yearbook. The tome lists more than 15,000 rare and unusual fruits and vegetables along with names and addresses of members with seeds to spare.
Seed-saving networks also preserve plant varieties that might otherwise become extinct. Flight to the cities has left aging horticulturists with no land-owning heirs to pass their seeds on to. The networks help carry on strains brought to this country by immigrants centuries ago.
Salvaging seeds from genetic oblivion and the desire for a hands-on "connection with history" inspires Raphael Sher to grow heirlooms such as "Red Deer Tongue" lettuce and "Lemon" cucumbers when he is not working as a software consultant in Houston. Plus, heirlooms are cost-effective because he doesn't have to replenish his seed supply every year.
MOTHER NATURE. How so? Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they rely on nature (the wind, insects) to spread the pollen that helps reproduce their genetically pure strains. Thus, they're self-sufficient when it comes to seed propagation. A hybrid cannot naturally reproduce a plant with an exact replica of its characteristics, so new seeds must be purchased every season. LeHoullier says that before he started planting heirlooms, he was always shelling out for the "standard six-pack of hybrid seeds."
Beyond cost savings, heirloom growers report that heritage crops are just as easy to care for as hybrids. Seed catalogs indicate ideal growing conditions as well as other instructions often scripted from family diaries. Heirloom gardeners say the plants exhibit a natural pest resistance and have plucky sprouts. "If you think about it, heirlooms have staying power by definition," LeHoullier says. "If they weren't hearty, they wouldn't still be around."
ABUNDANT LIFE SEED FOUNDATION P.O. Box 772, 1029 Lawrence St., Port Townsend, Wash., 98368; 360 385-5660. The $30 membership fee covers the catalog and newsletter.
JOHNNY'S SELECTED SEEDS 310 Foss Hill Rd., Albion, Maine, 04910; 207 437-9294. Catalog is free upon request.
NATIVE SEEDS/SEARCH 2509 N. Campbell Ave. #325, Tucson, Ariz., 85719; 602 327-9123. A $20 fee includes 10% discount on Native American seeds ordered from the $1 catalog.
SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE 3076 N. Winn Rd., Decorah, Iowa, 52101; 319 382-5990. Membership is $25 and includes the extensive Seed Savers Yearbook, summer and harvest editions.
SHEPHERD'S GARDEN SEEDS 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif., 95018; 408 335-6910. Catalog is free upon request.
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE SEED Exchange P.O. Box 170, Earlysville, Va., 22936; 804 973-4703. Send $2 for catalog.
DATA: BUSINESS WEEKKate Murphy