How buying heirloom seeds defends our habitat from invasion

By on Feb 24th

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

May Crops


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.

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.

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.

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About Cat Rocketship

I was the Managing Editor of Offbeat Home for a year and a half. I have a rich Internet life and also a pretty good real life. Hobbies include D&D, Twitter, and working on making our household more self-reliant. I also draw things.