A Growing Legacy

Saving Heirloom Seeds for a Sustainable Future

Kent Whealy is saving the Earth, one tomato at a time. Known in seed circles as America’s godfather of the heirloom seed movement, Whealy is the founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to systematically collecting and preserving heritage seeds from the past. Whealy started the exchange in 1975 with a few seeds passed down from his wife’s great-grandfather in Bavaria. It wasn’t long before he found other gardeners whose ancestors had smuggled seeds from the “old country” into America—tiny treasures carefully sewn into hemlines and tucked into handkerchiefs.

But the seed savers Whealy met weren’t simply interested in preserving the cultural and historical heritage of these family heirlooms. They expressed a deep concern over the dwindling genetic diversity and growing corporate control of the world’s food sources. The bottom line, according to Whealy, is that “heirlooms are genetic resources that are very much endangered.”

A Rescue Mission

Now headquartered at Heritage Farms in Decorah, Iowa, Whealy works with the exchange’s 8,000 members to rescue endangered heirloom fruits and vegetables from extinction. “Our mission is to increase the genetic diversity that’s available to families who grow healthy food,” says Whealy.

What makes heirloom seeds different from their hybrid cousins? By definition, heirloom seeds can be traced back at least a century. Because they aren’t hybridized, they reproduce through a natural, or open, pollination process. The seeds are “true” in that they exactly duplicate their parent plants. They can only be obtained from another gardener or seed exchange with the unwritten promise to propagate the seeds season after season.

Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, are bred for qualities such as longevity or disease resistance. To get these characteristics, the plants have been bred to two parent varieties. The seeds are often sterile, or if they do germinate, the plants aren’t identical to the parents. “Hybrid seeds have become the cause celebre for the large seed companies around the world because they are far more profitable,” says Judyth McLeod, author of Heritage Gardening. “They can be made to a secret recipe just like Coca-Cola. And they’re a non-renewable resource needing to be repurchased every year.”

But, these critical differences aren’t stopping some major seed companies from passing hybrid seed off as heirlooms. According to Craig Dremann, owner of the Redwood City Seed Company in Redwood City, California, mainstream seed companies recognize that the word “heirloom” strikes a chord of nostalgia in many home gardeners. But, says Dremann, “Just because a seed variety is touted as an heirloom, gardeners need to be aware that true heirloom seeds aren’t available commercially.”

Since the world’s governments place such a low priority on the future of our food supply, Dremann adds, it’s up to individual gardeners to ensure the survival of these precious plant varieties. “We consider every order a vote for that variety to continue,” he says. “Consumers have a real impact on whether these seeds will stay around.”

Seek And You Shall Find

Finding seeds to sow may take a bit more effort then a trip to your local Wal-Mart. Nurseries and garden outlets don’t carry heirloom varieties. Neither do mainstream seed catalogs. If you’re shopping for true heirlooms, beware of imposters trying to cash in on heirloom’s nostalgic image. Burpee’s, for instance, produces a catalog that the company claims contains heirloom varieties. While such creatively named temptations as the “China Rose Radish” and the “Dragon’s Tongue Bush Wax Bean” are advertised, some of these seeds are hybrid. Others may be old-fashioned or traditional seeds. (Although open-pollinated and not hybridized, old-fashioned seeds are usually less than 50 years old and so don’t qualify as a pure heirloom.)

The easiest way to find true heirloom seeds is through member organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange. The Exchange has a variety of publications available, including a listing of members who have seed to share and a catalog of rare varieties offered by the exchange itself. Until recently, only members could obtain these seeds, but now some of the most popular varieties are available to the public. You can support and join the Seed Savers Exchange for $25 annually, but non-members are welcome to order the free catalog. For those looking for old-fashioned seeds, the Exchange also publishes the Garden Seed Inventory ($24, softcover; $30, hardcover), a catalog that lists 250 U.S. and Canadian mail-order seed publications offering open-pollinated, non-hybrid seeds.

Saving Seeds—and Money

While some organic heirloom seeds obtained from exchange catalogs may initially cost slightly more than hybrid nursery varieties, in the long run saving seeds will save you money. Making your garden last from year to year eliminates expensive annual seed orders. And, learning to save seeds is easy.

Some varieties, such as black and pinto beans, need only to be left on the plant until they’ve dried, usually when the plant has died. The pods are then removed and stored in clear, airtight jars. Books such as Seed Sowing and Saving: Step-By-Step Techniques for Collecting and Growing More Than 100 Vegetables, Flowers and Herbs, by Carole B. Turner, can help get you started and fully-equipped packages like the Garden Keepers Seed-Saving Kit, make it a snap.

You don’t even need a backyard. Apartment dwellers can participate in community gardens, such as San Francisco’s League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) and New York’s Green Guerillas. These urban garden enthusiasts are dedicated to preserving organically grown heirloom seeds in vacant lots around the country. Not only do they provide a gardener’s paradise among the sidewalks, these cooperatives are happy to share knowledge, seeds and other gardening resources with their members.

Growing heirloom seeds can be an adventure since they don’t always produce uniform, picture-perfect results. You may not end up with a plant that looks like the one on the seed packet. But, to many heirloom gardeners, that’s part of the fun. Since they aren’t necessarily disease resistant or easy to cultivate, heirlooms can also be a challenge. Different climates and conditions can affect the way they grow. Success often depends on experimentation.

If you want to try your hand at heirloom seeds, but live in a particularly hostile climate or have a short growing season, look for a seed exchange that specializes in your climate zone. Desert dwellers can carry on the tradition of Native American cultivation in the Southwest with seeds from Native Seed/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona. Northeasterners may want to check out the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy in Great Barrington, Maine, for seeds suited to their particular growing conditions.

Just growing one antique bean or tomato variety each year, saving the seed and sharing it with friends and neighbors will help protect our cultivated plant diversity. “This is something real and concrete you

can do for the world, something that can make a difference,” says McLeod. “And, the traditional and heirloom fruits and vegetables you grow will return your kindness with the intense flavors of childhood memories and a willingness to grow as if they remember their traditional harmony and partnership with humanity.”