How buying heirloom seeds defends our habitat from invasion

February 24 |

IN THIS POST: Where do seeds come from? Why are seed banks important? Where can I buy heirloom seeds in my area?

May Crops
Mmm. If that's just MAY, you've got a bounty ahead of you! May Crops by OaklandOriginals.

I'm finally sitting down to buy my seeds for this summer. I'm flipping through the Seed Savers catalogue, and dog-earing the pages containing vegetables I need to research, and jotting notes on quantities of beans to buy. While I enjoy the slowness and ritual of selecting seeds, I know I'm already behind for the season — and I COULD save time by driving down to Earl May and getting most of what I want in 30 minutes, drive-time included.

But buying heirloom seeds is worth the time, I remind myself. It's more fun. They taste better. They'll do better in my area anyway.

I'm picking out beautiful varieties of rainbow chard, multi-lobed old-strain tomatoes, and packets of seeds to grow deep purple dragon carrots. I'm conjuring completely-unattainable vegetable garden fantasies in my mind. These are the kinds of fantasies where, come July, I have not only succeeded with BOTH my current beds I've ALSO added extra beds AND kept the lawn mowed AND the house clean AND my work done.

Dragon carrots photo courtesy Seed Savers.

I'm over-zealous, but I DO get better each year, so I have the same kind of fun leafing through Seed Savers as I used to have making Christmas lists. There are SO MANY varieties of everything, each accompanied by little snippets of strain history:

Capsicum annum — aka Tomato-Shaped Pepper — heirloom donated to Seed Savers Exchange by John Goldsberry of Elwood, Indiana. John received the seeds from his father, who got them from Amish near Shipshewana, Insiana. Gorgeous glossy red peppers anre thick-walled and have a delicious fruity flavor.

Cucurbita maxima — aka Golden Warted Hubbard squash — introduced by D.M. Ferry in 1898 but attributed to J.J. Harrison of Storrs & Harrison of Paineville, Ohio. Starchy, nutty, fine-grained flesh — good for baking and roasting.

I'm reading these short stories tracing the history of each seed family, with a cup of tea, my catalogue, and a notepad, totally engrossed with my romantic imagination garden. But it's not all in my head; starting with heirloom seeds starts my garden off right. I feel like my garden already has some curated soul in it, just by virtue of using these seeds.

There are three types of seeds gardeners or farmers might use:

  1. First Generation (F1) is a hybridized, patented, often sterile line of crop which can't propogate further seasons on its own.
  2. Genetically Modified (GM) seeds have been fiddled with in a lab to allow combinations of genes not possible through breeding — some lines of corn use information from cold-water fish to make themselves more frost-hardy, for example.
  3. Heirloom seeds are where it's at. These varieties are allowed to pollinate naturally, with traits only selected for by generations of breeding. They might have been developed quickly in the last 50 years, or proudly tended and passed from generation to generation since the Civil War.

Most of the seeds on store shelves are F1. A multinational corporation owns the rights to their genes, and it is in the best interest of the companies making these breeds to control their bloodlines, lest consumers find themselves with a more affordable/fertile product to spend their money on. Not that home gardeners are that much of Big Ag's market share, but it still matters.

Seed banks work to preserve biodiversity. Maintaining biodiversity means ensuring our ecosystems continue to host millions of species with billions of genetic variations, and this is especially important in the time of vast monocultures. Larger gene pools prevent organisms from species-wide destruction, and result in specimens less vulnerable to disease, climate change, and predators.

Illustration commissioned to accompany a London News story about the Great Famine. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Remember learning about the Irish Potato Famine? More than a million people died because a culture depended on just a few lines of potatoes — all of which were swept away by potato blight. Despite having a much better grasp on genetics now, we feed ourselves largely with monocultures; though there are about 10,000 heirloom species of apples, most apples we buy have been adapted to live grafted onto just a couple varieties of trees.

Seed banks are kind of like a genetic library: you may order a tomato-shaped pepper and continue fostering the line however you'd like — and even make changes to it! Seed saving yourself, or trading seeds with friends and neighbors, gives you a hand in preserving biodiversity — and seriously, using heirloom seeds tastes way better, too.

For more information:

Do you have another resource to share? As always, we want to hear about it! Pop it in the comments.

  1. ooh – thanks for the link! i'm completely behind on the gardening season already (or perhaps i should really be viewing it as a full-year circular process, in which case you can never be "behind", you just start wherever you start). anyhow, i'm excited to be able to find some heirloom seeds to get it started.

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    • Nope, I'm in Iowa. Thanks for sharing the resource, though! I'm partial to Seed Savers ONLY because they're in my state — glad to learn about other seed banks.

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      • You're in Iowa? I'm in Indiana! Any tips on what grows well around our region? I'm in full shade, too .. I seem to have such a hard time finding anything that will GROW.

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        • Mmm, with full shade you'll have a hard time with most veggies, but you may be able to do some herbs! If you have ANY accessible space in the sun, you could do more containtery things: a potato tower, a strawberry pyramid.

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  2. Hi Cat! I saw your post on Hipster Housewife with the picture of the beauuuuutiful seed packets, hopped on over to seed savers, and became completely, head over heels obsessed. For the past few days I've pretty much done nothing but fantasize about my garden. Prooobably bought more seeds than my tiny plot needs but there's next year and other people to convince to use heirloom this year. I'm so happy that this topic came over to Offbeat Home. Thanks!

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    • Oh yay!

      YES SO EASY TO GO OVERBOARD. I have a sizable garden — four 8×4' square foot plots, plus a 3'x30' terrace, plus pots…and I still bought too much. Like $100 in seeds? I feel no shame, though — We get so much good produce. It's worth every dollar!

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  3. Aaaah – the first Offbeat post to make me spend money! I went to Seed Savers and bought the Heirloom Collection. I've never even started plants from seeds before! Aaaaaahhh!!!

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    • OH FUN! I have a post for next week on seed starters, so FEAR NOT. We'll get through this. Together.

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  4. And so Jen's afternoon was lost to seed gazing…

    I have a little list going now. As Heron said, first post that made me spend money!

    So, I'm kind of worried because we're about to have an apartment with a balcony, but I'm pretty sure it is facing north, so I don't think we'll get much sun. Any suggestions for foods that will grow well there?

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  5. All these articles on OffBeat Home are really rocking my world recently. Today's my favorite though! I've just been approved for my 20'x30' community garden plot (as long as I'm on the up-n-up I can keep it for years) and I too spent nearly $100 on seeds. My boyfriend's mother has gardened his entire life and clued me on to tons of ideas for nearly year round production.

    Anyone have experience in saving the seeds for next year? I'd love to see an article, with helpful pictures or diagrams, guiding me through the process.

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    • Holy shit, big plot! My community garden plot was just 4×8!

      I do have experience in saving seeds — I'll make sure we have some content about that this season. :)

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      • " I'll make sure we have some content about that this season"
        Any experience in saving seeds for next year ?
        We don't need those answers later ,,we need them now . are you simply trying to maintain an audience or are you tryong to control us ?? please let us know

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  6. I LOVE YOU SEED SAVERS CATALOG.
    We've raised a garden since I was a wee tot and every year, I just love to stare longingly at all the wonderful plants and seeds that we could possibly buy–of course, my parents always just got blackberries, strawberries and corn.
    I've always tried to explain the importance of heirloom seeds, and she was like "But I don't get it… why would I pay somebody extra to sell me REAL seeds?"
    Why did you have to link a pepper?!?! I really want to grow peppers, but I don't think my apartment's porch gets quite enough light. I don't think my parents would be too put-out if they "had" to tend some peppers for me, though. HMMM. SCHEMING.

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  7. Jen you will have trouble growing things on the north side of a building. What I would try are kales, chards, and lettuces!

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  8. Hooray gardening! My mom is planning her garden for the year, and we had such fun looking through the Seed Savers catalogue. (Or, rather, I had fun. "Mom! MOM! They have purple watermelon! And yellow watermelon! And white watermelon! Let's buy ALL THE WATERMELON!!!" Somehow, I don't think she enjoyed it quite as much.) I was pleased to learn that she'd already decided to get the striped beets.

    I've got a black thumb, but I'd like to get some herbs to grow in containers on the windowsill. Hopefully I can keep those alive!

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    • Thanks for this resource! I'm going to edit these into the article. But not now. Now, it is late.

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  9. I'm in NC, so my heirloom provider is Sow True Seeds. I've already got a two page list of seeds I need in my life, even though that will be culled down to just a few seasonal varieties. But there's always next year, and the year after that, and the year after that…

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    • I'm in NC as well! Have you ever ordered beans from the Sustainable Mountain Ag Center? They specialize in southern Appalachian beans. http://www.heirlooms.org/catalog.html

      I've also found that southern Japanese heirloom seeds grow really well in the Piedmont. I order "dento yasai" seeds from Kitazawa. The soybeans, eggplants, and peppers seem to do best.

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  10. Urban Harvest is a great source for heirloom seeds in Canada (http://uharvest.ca/). Be careful though. I spent almost $300 this year, though the seeds should last more than one season, and I give lots of seedlings away.

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  11. Yay for gardening posts! Just a few points of (hopefully helpful) hints.

    Heirloom is an ambiguous term in the breeding world. What you want if you are interested in saving seeds are open pollinated varieties. These are often noted as OP.

    Heirloom doesn't necessarily mean "better" in the taste, disease resistance, bounty categories. Hybrid plants are bred with the goal of maximizing these things and often do better in some/many categories. This isn't to say that heirloom taste bad (well, maybe raw crabapples), but just to note that there are limitations.

    Finally, a lot of veggie seeds for the home gardener are bred at research universities,by breeders at the USDA, or by the researchers at the extension service. My guy works on plant breeding, and it can take decades and a lot of funding to produce great new varieties. These varieties are patented by the research institutions and it's easy to find lists of who the breeder is (i.e. who makes the little bits of money from the patent). It's great to support these folks who dedicate their livelihoods to making awesome veggie/fruit/berries for the local and home gardener.

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    • I work at a historic farm where we grow 1890s era varieties of fruits and veggies. While I personally prefer a plant with a little history to it, (cause I'm a history geek in general) farmers in the 1890s were crazy for hybrids varieties that would produce better, stronger, more delicious produce to feed their families and sell at market. I'd love to hear more about the ways seed patents work. I think of them as Big Bad Things that limit the right of people to grow food for themselves, but I've had a pretty one sided education thus far.

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    • You say its easy. Tell me how! I don't want to buy Monsanto seeds by accident …

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      • A quick google search of most varieties should pull up enough information to make a judgement call. You shouldn't have any problem avoiding monsanto if that's what you choose to do, especially since large corporations are generally focusing on things that are better for industrial farming rather than home gardening.

        Look for varieties that sound good to you, and then do a quick search to see if you can get some background on the variety. Specific to your concern I know there's a list of garden varieties that monsanto holds the rights to circulating around- you should be able to find that pretty easily.

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    • Also, F1's aren't necessarily sterile, you just don't know which parent the saved seed will take after. It takes a few generations of selection until you get seed that grows consistent fruit. This is how ALL OP and Heirloom varieties were developed anyhow. Seed was saved and crossed until the fruit was what the grower wanted. This year I'm growing Spring Giant tomatoes. An F1, very drought/heat resistant beefsteak tomato that is no longer produced commercially. (Thanks to Monsanto buying the seed producer and discontinuing a crap-ton of regional varieties) I wrangled some saved seed off a fellow who's been saving and growing his own for quite a while and says the variety has stabilized pretty well. It was the best tomato variety for producing here in North Tx and Southern Oklahoma.

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  12. How do you find a reputable/responsible place to buy heirloom seeds? I googled 'texas heirloom seeds' and I have to say I was surprised by the number of results. Now I'm
    Not sure where to start.

    LOVE this post and can't wait for the next one btw!

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  13. I first learned about the importance of biodiversity from a book I had to read in highschool called The Botany of Desire
    It's a great book outlining four human desires: control, beauty, sweetness and intoxication, and how humanity has utilized agricultural manipulation to feed these desires. It's a great read. Anyone here read it too?

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  14. P.S. I can't wait to see more and more gardening posts! They are my favorite. :)

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  15. So Seed Savers needs to become a sponsor because this is the first post I can think of that has made me spend money as well. I just spent way more than I should have on veggies I have no experience with. But there's only one way to get experience!

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  16. I garden at 7,000 feet high with a growing season that lasts from about June 1 (we got several inches of snow on June 8 a few years ago) to Sept. 15… SHORT. I get my seeds here http://secure.seedstrust.com/ They have stories about the seeds too – SO wonderful!

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  17. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) also carried tons of antique varieties. It was started by an 18yr old homeschool kid and has grown into a huge family business. His catalog is a money pit for me.

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  18. Okay, updating: just bought a bunch of seeds from seed savers: catnip, lemon balm, basil, borage, and two kinds of tomatoes. So excited!

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  19. Late to this party, but for Canadian readers, Lee Valley has a lot of heirloom seed varieties.

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  20. Cat!!! thank you so much for posting this!! my man-bear and i were just getting ready to buy our seeds for the summer. i'm so happy to know i can buy "local" since i live in eastern iowa.

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    • Oh rad! I love Seed Savers SO VERY HARD.

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  21. Heirloom/ i think they call them heritage varieties in the uk are so much more fun and interesting. I mean how can purple carrots and blue potatoes not be fun? Love the dragon carrots!

    Must stop buying seeds on sale from garden centre. These are good uk ones.
    http://www.thomasetty.co.uk/
    http://www.realseeds.co.uk/

    If you like Tomatoes try The Brandywines from Thomas Etty.

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  22. So, I just saw this post on the scrolling top bar. I know it's from last year, but I wanted to throw out a source for heirlooms in my area. I'm from NH, and we have an excellent source based out of ME – Johnny's Selected Seeds. http://www.johnnyseeds.com They have an excellent variety of heirlooms, and distinguish which varieties do well with cold and short seasons.

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