Save the Tomatoes: Plant the Seeds of Biodiversity
The last tomatoes are ripening on the vine. Bean pods are turning brittle. Summer is coming to an end. Now is the time to become a guerrilla gardener. You can do that in two ways.
One is to save seeds. Seed saving is relatively straightforward for most plants, but sites such as Seed & Plant Sanctuary for Canada offer tips that will increase your chances for success.
The other way you can improve your garden is to support seed companies that sell organic, open-pollinated varieties. Open-pollinated seeds are the best choice for home gardeners because, unlike hybrids, they tend not to be as hungry for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and water. The big seed companies prefer to sell hybrids because their customers have to buy new seeds every year. If you save hybrid seeds, your next crop may look nothing like the one you planted this year, if the seeds germinate at all. (There is an excellent overview of hybrid vs. open-pollinated seeds on Primal Seeds.)
When you order your dream (i.e., seed) catalogs this winter, pay attention to what they offer. If you want hardier plants and more intense flavor, forget the hybrids and drool over the open-pollinated (aka heirloom) varieties. They are the ones that can learn how to adapt to your ecosystem, unlike their vigorous but ecologically limited hybrid cousins.
In my years of gardening on plots ranging from the friendly Zone 6 (which can grow nearly anything) to Zone 1 (where a stretch of 30 frost-free days was a gift), I have daydreamed over catalogs from virtually every North American company that offered varieties for my climates. At first I would snap up seed packets on a whim, never bothering to read the fine print. I can honestly say I had reasonable success with most, including some early trials with beans that came coated in a pink substance I did not know to question.
My decision to refuse to plant anything that has been raised with chemicals or that is not a candidate for seed saving came gradually, as I came to realize that my small plot could contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity or be part of the problem.
So I cheer when hard-working, risk-taking young farmers start heirloom seed companies. I bite my nails when they stretch in new directions and end up on financial tightropes. They are the vanguards in the struggle to maintain biodiversity. With half a dozen chemical companies controlling most of the seeds whose harvests stock our supermarket shelves, the small companies that sell a dizzying variety of open-pollinated seeds are taking a stand for our future, as are the gardeners who plant them.
Seeing any of these companies go under grieves me. One company’s current struggles are particularly poignant. D. Landreth Seed Company dates back to 1784, when David Landreth opened his company in Philadelphia. He studied demographics and found a pool of people with the wealth and leisure to plant gardens. Among his earliest customers were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Every U.S. president from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered seeds from Landreth. David Landreth brought the first zinnias to America in 1798, the white potato in 1811 and The Love Apple (tomato) in 1820.
Now creditors are circling. If the company cannot sell enough catalogs or seeds by the end of the month, the oldest seed company in America will have to close its doors. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds will still be available, whatever happens to Landreth, but one continuous piece of America’s history will pass into the history books.
And guerrilla gardeners will have one less source of revolutionary seeds.
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Photo from Ajith_chatie via Flickr Creative Commons