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Instant ancestors

January 14, 2010

I have written about the subject of heirloom vs. hybrid seeds before, but with many people just starting to plan their gardens and purchase seeds for this years garden, I thought this would be a good time to share my thoughts.  There are also a ton of ads circulating about a survival seed vault with heirloom, open-pollinated varieties guaranteed to grow and thrive and feed your family when the SHTF.

My mom and her parents - 1913

I wonder sometimes if the longing to save seeds and grow heirloom varieties in our gardens isn’t a way to make instant ancestors like decorators do with old family photos gleaned at estate sales and flea markets.  Just grow those old varieties and we’re in business, no matter that for the last 60 years or so, we have been steadily marching the other way and not paying attention to Gramma and her apron pockets stuffed with seeds.

I am luckier than most, I have gardened continuously since I was a child, and I have inherited seeds from people who were dear to me and when I was a child, got me to believing that kohlrabi was a great snack on a hot summer day.  But I have had to bear the brunt of saving and growing heirlooms here on our farm that at first I thought I needed to save.   Not all the varieties are worth saving.  Many are, but not all.

I started with fruit,  since our present-day holdings consist of the farm where my mom grew up, and the homestead where my dad grew up, and the fruit is plentiful.  One has great apple trees, and one does not.  The one with the great apple trees had a poor performing table grape-vine, and the one with the crappy apple trees had a wonderful table grape-vine.  At first I saved everything – and with grapes it takes a while to see the results.  I rooted cuttings, planted them and waited.  I was so patient – 5 vines vigorous new vines of each grape, I triumphed and saved those grapes.  Or so I thought – the wonderful grapes continued to be wonderful, but the crappy grapes were still, well, crappy.  I had made excuses in mind, when I was taking the cuttings.  I thought the original location was too shady and damp, and the vine was poorly taken care of – if only I gave the crappy grape a new lease on life in a sunny site, with ample pampering and compost, it would reward me with ripe grapes!  Silly girl, the wonderful grape existed in even worse conditions and continued to thrive but I did not see that – I was like a zombie propagator chanting, “100-year-old grape-vine, must root cuttings… .”  I was sure that if it had survived all those years, it deserved to live on.  I was wrong.  Zombie propagator, changed the chant, directing Hangdog to the Cat with a 6 way blade, this time it was all sign language.  The crappy grapes are no longer, I have plans to replace those 5 vines with 5 more of “Wonderful grape.”  But I wasted at least 10 years in the process.

So to get back on track here… .

While I think we are on shaky ground in the world these days, I don’t think ONLY growing open-pollinated seeds is the way to go if you are a beginning gardener.  While I think having extra seeds in your very own weather-proof seed vault is a good idea, I think you need to know what to put in that vault for starters.  How do you know what seeds to put in the vault?  You need to know what grows in your area and what your family will eat.  And think of what your family would eat under stressful situations.  If you have a family that doesn’t like vegetables too much,  during a disaster isn’t the time to introduce your kale cake.  They should be eating that kale cake beforehand, so it isn’t a shock.

I grow open-pollinated varieties and I grow hybrids and I save lots of seeds.  But I also need to eat, we garden like we can’t go to the store.  So I can’t screw up too much.  Our garden is not a hobby, it has to feed us,  with hopefully some surplus if we have a crop failure of some kind.  Our garden is a work in progress and when we look at our seed list, we know that the hybrids fall heavily in the category of crops we wouldn’t grow if we were in a survival mode.  Most are blowsy vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and sweet corn.  All heavy feeders and highly evolved from their original humble beginnings.  Even open pollinated varieties of these types of crops are very different from their ancestors.  And I have found that many OP varieties are just not that productive.  If your space is limited, it is important to realize as much food as possible for your efforts.

new ground is tough - Cocozelle

Seed catalogs are very seductive, leading us to believe that every item will excel in our garden, and many varieties do.  But, experience makes us wise and helps us make better choices.  Knowing what mistakes we are making can help us troubleshoot our gardening and keep it a successful venture.  Our lives may depend on it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 11:09 pm

    I think that OP and F1 seeds both have their place, and you’re right about growing what you eat. Before last year some time, I would never have considered growing kale, but having figured out a great way to eat it, it’s now one of my favorite foods. I eat more kale than spinach, which is probably a good thing- it’s easier to grow and a lot more cold-hardy. I think it’s important that folks grow both kinds of seed- we need to save seed from heirloom varieties that we like, because when the SHTF, we may be on our own for seed, and survival could depend on that. F1’s do typically yield more produce, so for the present, they are good to have. I’m planning an early F1 corn, and an heirloom for later in the season. We’ll just see how well both do. I don’t have the advantage of your years of production, though.

    As for grapes- I’ve read in several different places that the worse the soil, the better they like it. In the best vineyards in France, they grow in limestone- almost straight limestone, and the grapes dig it (pardon the pun). The growers leave the largest rocks on the surface because they reflect heat they’ve collected during the day back on the grapes at night.

    At any rate, since you are pretty close to me geographically, and have a LOT more experience growing food, I’ll keep looking to you for good advice. You seem to give it.

  2. Jerry Leverenz permalink
    January 14, 2010 11:40 pm

    An interesting blog.

    Because of the size of my garden I can not grow a large variety of every crop to buffer us against the differences in weather and pests that occur from year to year. Varieties that give more than we can eat in one year and are a bust in the next are not as useful as ones that give a moderate yield every year. Therefore I prefer varieties that yield reasonably well in both good and bad years. Year to year variation may, of course, be more to do with the gardener than the varieties chosen.

    Incidentally, after great success with F1 tomatoes resistant to Phytophera (a big problem because of all of the potatoes grown in my neighborhood), this year I am trying 3 open pollinated varieties that are said to be resistant. With luck I will be able to produce my own resistant tomato seed.

  3. January 15, 2010 3:43 am

    Thanks so much for the grape story; I loved it!

    Well-written post. It made me think about my own record-keeping as far as my garden is concerned. Every year, I think I’ll “find time” along the way to record the varieties and make specific notes as to success. And every year (after the seed packets have been opened and little fingers have helped plant) I can’t always find the top of the packet where the variety name is located. Thanks for helping me think of this way in advance.

  4. January 15, 2010 5:34 am

    Great post! I love an honest straight shooter and that’s what this post was. Thanks!

  5. January 15, 2010 5:54 am

    Makes complete sense to me…. what I’m struggling with right now is that I have no sense yet of what will grow. Right now I can still visit farmers markets, and if worst comes to worst in my garden, I can still go to the supermarket. I figure these next few years I NEED to find some instant ancestors, and figure out what will grow, what can be sustained through OP. So I’m disciplining myself to avoid the seductive hybrids that I know will grow (advice from neighbors) and spending my seed money searching for the unknown… what is it that will grow and produce well enough here?

    I know they’re around, but I’ve yet to meet anyone here who is growing OP varieties and saving seed, so for now I figure I’ve just got to grow a lot of different stuff and see what works.

    For me right now, figuring out the OP sustainable seeds is more important than producing all of my food. I expect that the balance will shift in a few years, but in the meantime, I’m scrambling to figure it out.

  6. January 15, 2010 5:57 am

    I appreciate this post. I planted my first garden last spring, and I am looking forward to this year’s garden. Your advise comes at a good time for me, as I pore over seed catalogs. I do want to *play* around with some interesting heirloom varieties, but my seed vault is full of vegetables that have stood the test of time in my area. 🙂 Melissa

  7. January 15, 2010 7:12 am

    Great post as usual. Timely topic too. I have to add something though. I do not believe in a “vault” as a viable means of securing our future seeds. Plants are constantly evolving and now more than ever the climate is changing, the suns intensity is changing and certainly the pollinators are changing. The plants that you place in your vault may not be able to flourish in a distant future garden. I believe in an ever-revolving vault of seeds that are used yearly and then re-stored. This would ensure that many years down the road you will still have a lovely garden to feed your family.

    • January 15, 2010 7:32 am

      John, I don’t believe in a vault either, I just wanted to use the term loosely to show that yes, I believe you do need to keep extra seeds on hand, but they should be seeds you know will grow and thrive in your area. I think those seed packages are a rip-off, and I know people who have bought them and think that when the time is right, they can just start gardening, meanwhile they live their lives the same. Gardening and farming take continued dedication.

      I really believe that people should learn what grows in their own bio-region and go from there. Too much attention is paid to zone numbers and not enough to actual growing conditions.

  8. January 15, 2010 9:04 am

    Do you have any advice to keep voles/gophers tunnelling critters out of the garden? I’m planning now and don’t know whether to get a cat(husband doesn’t want),or put mesh wire down in raised beds or garden in metal horse troughs for water retention, no critters tunneling underneath.I’m dealing with occasional frosts, wildlife and tunneling critters and wonder if i shouldn’t just build an earth bermed greenhouse with concrete beds or hoophouse or biosphere! Any advice would be appreciated as I am planning now and want to avoid problems from previous years. Thanks

  9. January 15, 2010 9:36 am

    Great post! I save certain seeds but you’ve inspired me to do a better job of it. Problem is these shiny seed catalogs come in the mail with such pretty pictures I get carried away and disappointed when its far too late. I have found some keepers though 😉

  10. January 15, 2010 11:55 am

    Love the old photo of your mom and your grandparents. Is this the grandpa who built your house? And that gardening tot makes me want to go hug a baby!

    Your post is geared perfectly toward novice gardeners such as myself. And although I’ve accumulated a wee bit (a very wee bit) of experience recently, there is so much to learn. Seeds, starters, saving seeds, planning, etc. … it’s a big job for the new gardener. Trial and error will most likely play a role in my continued education. One of the best pieces of advice you gave was to keep a notebook. With my taxed memory, that notebook is going to be a heirloom someday!

    Catalogs and even emails from seed companies zero in on me as I am easily mesmerized by all that they offer. I’m a good girl, though, in that I realize my eyes are bigger than my talent. Still, visions of overflowing bounty make my eyes glaze over in a good way.

    Think about you all the time. I’ve been studying, most diligently, on how to make fermented food. So much to learn … haven’t attempted it yet, but I think I can do it. Hope my family will warm up to fermented cabbage and kimchi! Had typed up a big email to you about it about a week or so ago, then the computer hung.

    How’s Della? Hope all is well on your side of the mountain.

  11. granjeronovato permalink
    January 15, 2010 12:47 pm

    Sometimes common sense is the most important tool we have in the garden. Great post.

  12. Deb permalink
    January 18, 2010 4:25 am

    I have started to think about what seed i am planting and if I can save it and it comes back the same. most don’t so I try not to buy anything Hybrid.. last year I planted pencil cob corn, the kids loved it… little ears.well little cobs but big enough for them and not real sweet, it was very good. will plant some this season, but you have to watch it and pick when ready,good for cornmeal too… i saved a lot of okra seed, big okra.. with a reddish tint, good…

  13. January 18, 2010 2:12 pm

    How timely a post. I was contacted a while back by a company that wanted me to promote their survival seed emergency pack, or something like that, but it was a head scratcher to me how anyone can promote that without it being zone and climate specific, at the very least. One thing Jack and learned so far is that some things will grow well, but the fruit is half-hearted or not dependable, and other things might grow well but it’s no guarantee they’re hardy in general if the weather varies much from its ideal. Some things come up great down here, but you can practically hear the insects buzz-sawing them to the ground as you sleep, and they’re decimated overnight. I was thinking it might not be a good idea to depend on any saved seeds that haven’t been trialed right in our own gardens to select for the most vigorous of the surviving plants. I’m pretty sure the seeds in my own grandma’s pocket came from this and that plant that were the best survivors over decades of harvests and would be so specific to HER garden that they wouldn’t likely even be relevant one state over, or maybe even one county. Love your post…relieves folks of the “non-heirloom guilt” if they choose a hybrid. There seems to be some confusion that hybrid also means GMO, which is not always the case.

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