As I wrote about last week, if you are planning your edible garden, you might want to make it a “themed” garden. One theme you can try is to plant an heirloom garden.
What is an heirloom garden? According to Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening heirloom plants are “cultivars of plants grown in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Were they not preserved in backyard plots by quietly dedicated heirloom gardeners, many of these old cultivars would not survive today.”
In fact, many have survived because they have been passed down for generations, a few seeds at time among family members and friends. Just how many have been lost? As I have written about before, it is estimated that farmers produced about 80,000 species of plants before the advent of industrialized agriculture, now they rely on about 150.
This has resulted from a number of factors but, over the last two decades, large, multinational companies like Monsanto have taken over family-owned seed companies and focused on producing their own hybrid and patented varieties.
Why is this an issue? These hybrids don’t produce viable seeds and cannot be collected legally and used by farmers or home gardeners.
This means that both home gardeners and farmers must buy new seeds each year from these corporate sources. It also has meant that we are losing the knowledge and techniques of traditional seed saving and plant propagation.
Growing heirloom varieties is increasingly becoming more popular because they are often tastier, provide more interesting and unique varieties, and because they do preserve heritage and history, and ensure greater genetic diversity.
Local, heirloom, seeds are better adapted to a local region and become better seeds for that area. While they may not be as productive as many modern hybrids, many spread their harvest out over a longer period and offer greater disease and insect resistance.
If you aren’t familiar with them, or haven’t tried a variety before, incorporate them in your existing vegetable garden slowly, starting with just a few; to make sure they will work well in your climate.
If you haven’t had any seeds passed down to you, how do you get some? Join a seed saving organization, like a seed library.
Seed libraries, modeled after the public library, allow members to “check out” seeds in the spring and in exchange, they agree to grow them and “return” the seeds after harvest from the mature plants they have grown in the fall.
If you don’t live near a local seed library, you can save and share heirloom seeds via Seed Savers Exchange. This non-profit organization mission is “to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.” So far, they have saved about 25,000 varieties of heirloom seeds.