Heirloom plants Seed companies Seed politics

The unScientific American on heirloom tomatoes

In which the Extreme Gardener’s buttons get pushed…

How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes

The product of archaic breeding strategies, heirloom tomatoes are hardly diverse and are no more “natural” than grocery-store varieties. New studies promise to restore their lost, healthy genes ….by Brendan Borrell

Famous for their taste, color and, well, homeliness, heirloom tomatoes tug at the heartstrings of gardeners and advocates of locally grown foods. The tomato aficionado might conclude that, given the immense varieties—which go by such fanciful names as Aunt Gertie’s Gold and the Green Zebra—heirlooms must have a more diverse and superior set of genes than their grocery store cousins, those run-of-the-mill hybrid varieties such as beefsteak, cherry and plum.

No matter how you slice it, however, their seeming diversity is only skin-deep: heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred—the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug—that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.

read the full article at the Scientific American.

Whose toady are you Borrell?

First of all, clarify your use of the term “heirloom” tomatoes. The statement “heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred…” is about as scientific as saying “Americans are obese.”

Are you trying to say that open pollinated tomato varieties are universally inferior to hybrid and genetically modified varieties?

And, what do you mean by “archaic breeding strategies?” Your pug analogy could be relevant to particular open pollinated or heirloom tomato varieties, but once again, it’s a foolish statement applied to the broad category, as is stating that heirlooms typically bear only 2 fruits per plant. It sounds to me like you are using the Brandywine tomato as a representative of all heirloom tomatoes. That’s not good science.

Open pollinated and heirloom tomatoes have come through the hands of thousands of breeders, who run the gamut from backyard gardeners to those who derive a salary from breeding plants, and the quality of their work is diverse, reflecting diverse needs, goals, abilities and intentions.

I have been involved in growing (and seed saving) open pollinated and heirloom vegetables for 30 years, and this includes tomato varieties of fine culinary quality and excellent plant vigor. I am not a luddite, and I don’t have romantic delusions about heirloom varieties. There are robust heirlooms and yes, there are feeble heirlooms.

It’s a good idea to try to improve disease resistance using some of the more primitive lycopersicon species. However, I do not care to have Monsanto deciding for me what constitutes a better tomato, and I certainly don’t want to have to buy seed from them every season in order to grow tomatoes. We grow all the tomatoes we eat all year, and have very specific needs and preferences that may not be relevant to anyone else. Our varieties are adapted to us and our garden in our little corner of the planet.

The Seminis/Monsanto toadies may, with their manipulations, increase genetic diversity within some tomato plants. What scares me is the lack of diversity of people doing plant breeding. That this activity is becoming increasingly centralized should set off alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about the future of food and who will control access to it.

Seed companies Seed saving organizations Variety portrait

Overwintering cabbage

I worry about brassicas and onions. They are such important plants, and very few seed savers are working with them. The rate that the commercially available open pollinated varieties are disappearing is really scary. Brassicas and onions can be pretty fussy to grow seed and maintain purity, so it’s not hard to figure out why seed savers grow lots of tomato and bean varieties, but very few cabbages for seed.

I have a couple of good strains of kale I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and have had some success growing broccoli seed, though not consistently. I haven’t had any success with growing seed from heading cabbage – I can’t seem to maintain the plants in a root cellar over winter in good enough condition to get healthy seed the next year. So, I have had a strong interest in finding a hardy enough heading cabbage to overwinter here in the garden. The bummer is, I’ve finally found one, and now I can’t find a source for the seed in the US or Canada. The most recent edition of The Garden Seed Inventory has it on the no longer commercially available list. Yet, there seem to be plenty of commercial offerings for this variety in the UK.

cabbage July 2007

Cabbage Offenham July 2007. It was the only seedling that survived the first winter from an in situ sowing August 2006. The plant yielded one nice, sweet, medium sized conical head in October 2007. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of it.) The heads have a strong resemblance to Early Jersey Wakefield, though Offenham plants are larger framed.

cabbage July 2008

July 2008, the plant had survived a second Vermont winter with no protection. I was impressed. I then expected it to bolt in 2008, but low and behold, it made 5 or 6 lovely little pointed heads this September and October, and it is continuing to throw shoots up from the roots and stalks.

cabbage Sept 2008cabbage multi head detail

Over wintering cabbages are also called spring cabbages. In warmer climates than ours, they are sown in August for heads in the late spring, and the smaller heads cut again in the fall. So, I’m wondering if I hadn’t cut the first head (in Sept. 2007) if it might have sent up a seed stalk last spring. It’s kind of a moot point because there’s only the one plant. (I like to have at least 6 plants for brassica olearica seed production). One way or another, I’ll have to find some more Offenham seed to plant next August…

Seed companies Variety portrait

Tomatoes for winter storage

It’s the second week of April. Mud season. I just dug through 2 feet of snow to dig up the last 15# of carrots in the garden – and we still have 3 fresh tomatoes left from last September’s harvest!

This variety is Golden Treasure, bred by Peters Seed and Research, a small seed company in Oregon that has doing some excellent breeding of open pollinated garden and farm plants, including perennial grain and some really nice kale varieties.

Tomato Golden Treasure, photo taken April 10

OK, OK, so these tomatoes are not in the same culinary league as those fragrant, tender skinned Marmandes sun ripened in early September; and they don’t burst sugar in your mouth like the thumb sized Red Currant tomatoes. None the less, to have fresh tomatoes from your garden in April is pretty cool, I think; and in storage they develop a nice acidic tomato flavor. They’re a bit on the tough side (that’s why they keep so well), so we usually slice them thin.

We’ve been growing Golden Treasure for more than 10 years now. One year we were still eating them in June.

A box of Golden Treasure on January 6

They get picked green or slightly yellow in September, before frost. It’s that simple. We handle them carefully, pick them into shallow boxes, and stack them in our “back room” which stays around 40 degrees F all winter. After a couple of months they start to ripen. We start eating them around the end of November, when all the other fresh tomatoes have either been eaten or sent to the compost pit. It is necessary to cull them regularly, but when they rot it usually begins as a small blemish on the surface and does not spread very fast, and is easily cut away.

Seed companies Seed saving organizations

Most valuable gardening tool

No, it’s not my hand forged digging fork or my flame weeder, much as they are practically extensions of my body when the snow’s off the ground. I have to give #1 status to The Garden Seed Inventory, compiled and published by the Seed Saver’s Exchange. The reason is this – in my opinion, if you don’t have plant varieties that are suited to you and your garden, nothing you do with any other gardening tools is going to matter anyway.

We save as much of our own seed as much as possible, and have a quite a few on-going long-term relationships with particular vegetables… This may sound very frugal, which it is in a sense, but I’ve been known to spend as much on seed and plants in a year as I do on clothing. Frugality isn’t the point, for me. By saving your own seed, you can have plants that get better year after year, but you’ve got to find those plants somewhere to get started… and for me it’s an ongoing quest. Every year we try out new varieties along with our tried and true.

So, how do you find the vegetables of your dreams? Here’s a clue: getting your plants from the seed rack at Walmart is like looking for a potential spouse in the local bar. Sure, you can do it and it might just work; however, to put the odds of future happiness more in your favor, I would suggest some other sources:

1. Other gardeners in your area can tell you what varieties have worked well for them, and if you’re lucky you’ll find that some of them are seed savers who may even swap or give you seed or plants. Get yee to your local farmers market or gardening club and ask around…

2. If you’re really serious about becoming a steward for endangered garden plants, join the Seed Savers Exchange, or Seeds of Diversity (Canadian) and consider adopting some varieties offered by members who garden in a climate similar to yours. Heck, even if you don’t want to commit to actually growing and maintaining rare and endangered plants yourself, become an unlisted member, just to support the very important work being done by these non-profit organizations.

3. Buy plants and seed from specialised seed companies. The good news is, there are a lot of fine seedhouses out there, and a lot of different varieties to choose from. The bad news is, getting hard copies of all the relevant seed catalogues, or perusing them online, and going through all their listings would be very very time consuming.

This is where the Garden Seed Inventory comes in. The Inventory lists only non-hybrid seed, which is what you should start with. Each variety listing includes all the catalog description info available for that variety.

For instance, I’m looking for a new-to-me sweet bell pepper to trial in the 2009 growing season. First and foremost it must be early because of our short growing season and cool climate (USDA zone 4a). So, I skim the pepper/sweet/bell listings (about 5 pages) for the earliest maturity dates, less than 60 days. I find 7 listings of interest. Then, I assess the varieties individually.

Bull Nose, for instance, is listed as 55-80 days maturity. The high end on this range, 80 days, raises a bit of a red flag. I check out the seed companies listed as sources, and the 5 seed houses are all based in mid Atlantic states and Indiana. This does not necessarily mean that’s where the seeds were grown or bred, but it ‘s another red flag for me. 55 days in the growing season of Virginia or Pennsylvania are a lot different than 55 days in my garden in northeastern Vermont. I choose to pass on Bull Nose – it could be worth a trial, but there are other candidates that are more promising.

Earliest Red Sweet comes up next – but we ‘re already growing it, having found it through this same process in the 80s. It’s one we grow nearly every year, and it’s a good performer, though the flesh is on the thin side.

Now, King of the North has a very promising name and description: “type for short season area” and “prolific, cold tolerant.” It’s listed as being carried by 18 seedhouses, including Fedco, High Mowing, and Rex’s in Minnesota, so I would say it has some cold climate cred as cold climate is the specialty for these three companies.

Frank’s and Montana Wonder look interesting – each is unique to the Sand Hill Preservation Center, a company specialising in heirlooms, and which grows its own seed in Iowa. The climate’s close, but still on the warm side compared to us. However, I check their website and see that this is the project of Glenn and Linda Drown. Glenn has been a hugely active member of Seed Saver’s Exchange since its beginning, and I have to say the Drowns are among my heroes of breeding and genetic diversity. They also list King of the North, so I will order all three varieties from them next year.

Granny Smith is a unique offering from Totally Tomatoes in Wisconsin, however, when I go to their website, it is no longer listed. (This latest edition of the Garden Seed Inventory was published in 2004) . So, you can no longer buy this one. Perhaps it will be re-offered… or not.
Finally, Morgold. The only seed company listed for it is Garden Medicinals located in Virgina, however the description says it was bred by the Morden Experimental Station in Manitoba CA in 1952. This tells me that it would be well worth trying here, as the Morden breeding program was for seriously cold climates.

I know this may all seem a bit time consuming, but I’ve found the quest for excellent varieties to be well worth the effort. Using the Inventory I’ve discovered some fabulous plants and seed houses that I never would have otherwise found. Besides, supporting small regional seed companies and heirloom projects is really good karma – it’s a direct way for anybody to promote genetic diversity in the plant material available to gardeners and farmers.