Sprout Update, and Why Heirloom Seeds?

Our grow light just arrived yesterday via UPS, so we have been able to reclaim at least a portion of the dining room counter (there are still several cherry trees there, enjoying the natural sunlight). The majority of our sprouts, however, are adapting to their new home in the basement, right next to the twin bed that used to be mine and will eventually belong to our child, and the C2 rowing machine that we put inside for the winter (really, who would want to row in the freezing cold?) We have no fancy horticultural set-up, but we do have over 400 seedlings, and they are doing quite well. The squash especially are going gangbusters, and I am worried that they will soon outgrow their hockey puck-sized starter homes. The tomatoes were our slow starters, but now they are growing slowly and steadily – and I hear that usually wins the race.

We ordered all of our seeds online from an heirloom seed company, and I wanted to write just briefly about why we chose heirloom seeds. I mean, beside the fact that you can get really interesting varieties of tomatoes – yellow, white, purple, jumbo, cherry, whatever your fancy.

Before the industrialization of agriculture, we grew a much wider variety of plant foods for our consumption. Today, for efficiency’s sake, most crops are from hybrid seeds, grown in vast monocultural plots. To maximize consistency, these plots include very few varieties of each type of crop. These hybrids tend to be very uniform from plant to plant, which is a boon for the larger scale farmer. Everything ripens at the same time, and the tomatoes on one plant look just like the tomatoes on the next. Such characteristics are not nearly as valuable to the home gardener or small-scale farmer. I would prefer my tomatoes to ripen over time, so that I have a chance to eat and preserve them. One hundred pounds of tomatoes all at once would be, well, difficult to manage. Also, heirlooms were generally selected for the best taste and vigorous, healthy growth in their particular home region.

Hybrids are not outstanding for their taste or nutritional value, but rather for their high and consistent productions, tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides, ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and attractive appearance on grocery store shelves. The vegetables in our grocery stores today are the end result of much selective breeding but unfortunately taste and nutritional value are not the foremost selection criteria. Heirloom seeds, however, produce plants that are closer to their natural state and rich in nutritional value.

Seed is not cheap and if you save seed, you only pay for it once. Another benefit is that the cultivar adapts, through the generations, to your garden’s conditions. If you grow several plants of one cultivar each year and continuously save seed from only the best-performing plant, you will develop a strain that is resistant to the pests and disease in your area, and is adapted to your specific soil and your climate.

Without the ongoing growing and storage of heirloom plants, the large seed companies and the government will control all seed distribution. Most of their hybrid seeds, when regrown, will not be the same as the original plant, thus ensuring farmers’ dependence on corporate seed 
distributors for future crops. This brings me to the issues of self-sufficiency and food security. Apocalypse-readiness, as Nick would call it. (And we will have plenty of apocalypse food in our root cellar – like gigantic squash.) It might seem somewhat paranoid, but man-made and natural disasters happen (Japan? Australia?), and I personally would rather not be dependent on the government in place and the agricultural powers-that-be to keep myself well fed and thriving.

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