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by Garrett Pittenger


As you enter the fireside gardening season, reviewing the latest seed catalog offerings for 1996, do you notice any changes in the varieties offered from those a few years back? Do you find that favorites you ordered only a few years ago are no longer offered? Do you notice an increase in hybrid varieties in place of open-pollinated varieties? Do many of the varieties seem the same from catalog to catalog? How many are advertised as locally adapted to the gardening conditions in your area? How many are suited to the way you prepare favorite recipes? If you are an organic farmer, can you find the varieties you need to meet special customer demand? ;

Consider for a moment how these changes have affected the plantings that you were planning for this year and what those changes mean for the gardens you plan in the years ahead. Many of our heritage varieties, and these include many of the commercial products of past Canadian experiment station breeding programs as well as varieties handed down from generation to generation outside commercial channels, are the ones best suited to the methods and outlook of organic growers such as low inputs and minimal use of appropriate pest controls. But where can you find these seeds in the flood of hybrids and mass marketed sorts that are taking their places in the catalogs of major suppliers?

You can take control, just as you have done in your choice of the growing methods you’ve deliberately chosen for your own garden or farm. You can become a discriminating user of genetic resources in the same way you apply your own chosen values to decisions about what is most suitable for your own purposes. Broccoli hybrids that mature all at once are completely appropriate for those who are growing for rapid, once-over harvest on a large scale, but of what use are such characteristics to gardeners who want a dependable supply for the kitchen over an extended season? Many of today’s highly marketed crop varieties are fine for the market segment for which they were developed, but why should you, a grower with different concerns, be content with these limited choices when you can take control for yourself?

Become a critical consumer by ordering seeds from the emerging number of new suppliers who recognize the benefits of offering a selection that includes heritage varieties and types specifically adapted to your growing conditions, individual tastes and markets. Patronize the larger firms that continue to offer these varieties and write to tell them that you want to see these kinds in the coming catalogs. Urge them to bring back favorites that they no longer offer.

Support farmers who grow heritage varieties of vegetables and fruits, recognizing that flavor and quality are often disguised by peculiar shapes and unusual colors. Educate yourself to discover the special qualities behind unusual appearances and pay fairly to help keep these choices available on the market.

Make the ultimate personal choice in taking control and become a seed saver. Join with the members of Seeds of Diversity in Canada and the Seed Savers Exchange in the U.S. in discovering local heirlooms, adopting seeds from fellow growers and reoffering them next year to others. Reintroduce the age-old tradition of saving seed from your own crops, selecting and refining your strains over time and increasing their adaptability to your local conditions.

My own adventure in seed saving began because I was no longer able to buy seed of my favorite open-pollinated sweet corn, ‘Luther Hill’, on the market. I was completely dissatisfied with the commercial hybrid alternatives and decided I would take control, supply my own seed and exchange with others so that I would be able to get back a new start in case I lost my own stock. Exchanging with others introduced me to current favorites such as ‘Pruden’s Purple’ tomatoes, which made large, early staking tomatoes possible for me in my short-season garden, the purple-fleshed ‘B.C. Blue’ potato that is such a superlative baker and the small ‘Slovenian Crescents’ that make a perfect potato salad.

Contrary to conventional opinion, most heritage varieties are not mere curiosities or outdated cultivars. Many represent the culmination of long years of selection for special qualities. Although these qualities may not be prized in current high-input agriculture, they may be precisely the ones appreciated by organic growers. If we assume responsibility for keeping these premium cultivars in cultivation, they will still be around to enjoy when the sort of agriculture that appeared to doom them moves into the pages of history.

The Heritage Seed Program was recently incorporated as Seeds of Diversity Canada and received charitable status from Revenue Canada. The program can now accept charitable donations and issue tax receipts for federal income tax purposes. The official charitable registration number of Seeds of Diversity Canada is 1038389-56.





Copyright 1996. Garrett Pittenger

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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