Want to have a garden, but don’t have the space? Fret not, container gardens are the solution to the woes of urbanites and farmers alike. Aside from having the ability to produce a significant amount of food within a limited space, container gardens allow you to have full control of what going into your soil. This could be an easy solution for folks that may not know their soil quality while also protecting your crops from soil-borne pests. The fact that your garden would be raised also helps with pesky garden critters. It is also a wonderful idea for students and other young people that move often and are hesitant to grow a garden that they will end up leaving the following year, they can simply take their garden with them!
Containers also solve the problem if your garden is lacking sunlight, if your containers are on castors, you can easily wheel them as they follow the sun. This type of gardening also knows no boundaries, literally. I have seen full-grown fig, lemon and an assortment of other fruit trees flourishing in wine barrels! The idea is to do a bit of research and give your plants the room and light they need to grow. Some vegetables may be compromised if their container is too shallow, such as deep setting root vegetables. This method of gardening allows you to grow food anywhere from your porch, to your balcony to the sidewalk and even your rooftop! Take advantage of the vertical space in your container and add trellises, teepees or wire cages.
It is a solution that allows for maximizing productivity and creativity …. containers can be upcycled from old basins, bath tubs, wheelbarrows, wagons, baskets, chairs, cinder blocks, you name it! The sky is the limit with what you can use to make your container garden out of. Best of all, the more unique the vessel, the more outrageous your garden will look! Some things to keep in mind when you are reusing pieces that have old paint on them, it may have lead and you will not want to use it. Also, another thing to keep in mind is to remember is to drill sufficient holes for drainage, if not you will drown your plants. It has been suggested to drill the holes 2″ up on the sides, instead of on the bottom – this allows for a extra moisture retention, just don’t over water your crops! Knowing how your pots hold or release water will also help you gauge the quantity of moisture necessary. There are solutions for self-watering, make sure you do sufficient research before you take off for the weekend! Depending on where you live will determine how moist/dry your vegetables will want to be, consult your local Extension office.
These types of gardens add dimension, texture, color and depth to a garden. You can specialize each container with specific vegetables or herbs. Perhaps using a few for companion planting vegetables and others create a medicinal, culinary and spice garden! Think of all the incredible things you enjoy eating and explore the possibilities of growing them, noting beats fresh food right out of the garden! Consider researching what plants do well together and which ones prefer to be at a distance. Take into account the amount of sunlight you have available and note to have a water source near-by, watering on a daily basis is key to a successful container garden. Our Urban Collection/Small Space Garden is geared for container gardens. These varieties thrive in variable light and space. When purchasing your seeds, always purchase them from a reliable source, check out our post on the Renaissance of Heirlooms to learn about why growing heirlooms and using open pollinated seeds is so important. Now is an ideal time to plant your heat loving crops, from seed, in order to enjoy a late summer and autumn harvesting! Take this opportunity and dig through your garage or attic, thrift-stores of curb side sales and create your container garden today!
Spring is in full bloom and your excited to get back into your garden or start your first one. You know you want to start your plants from seed, but not quite sure where to start. Commencing this venture with the finest seed is an essential part to the success of your garden and the quality of your fruit. Not all seed is the same, even if it is the same variety – not all seed houses preserve the genetics in the same manner. A lot of the organic seed sold at local nurseries is actually from China, so always call and ask your seed company where their seeds are grown. Also, if you plan on saving seed, which we highly recommend, then you want to make sure that you are not buying hybrid seeds. Take a look at our article on Heirlooms vs. Hybrids, it’s an excellent guide that will help you understand what the difference between an heirloom and a hybrid is. Always buy open-pollinated seeds.
For those of you that ordered our Living Seed Collections, you have already received them already and you are thrilled, but perhaps not quite sure where to start? Fret not, follow this simple step-by-step model and your seedlings will be growing in no time.
Choose what you want to grow your seedlings in, are they going into temporary pots where the seedling will be transferred to the ground later or will they be placed in containers where they will stay. If you are transplanting, consider some of the great biodegradable pots that are available. We have seen some made from coir, coconut husks, DIY newspaper, toilet paper rolls and even eggshells! Using a biodegradable medium will make the transplanting less traumatic for your seedling, if this isn’t an option, transplanting the seedling, will be discussed later.
Soil is the next key ingredient in the success of your garden. Remember this is the foundation of where your seeds are going to start. Don’t know why soil is so important? Check out my blog post on the importance of soil. Initially though, you will want to use a seed-starting mix and not potting soil. A mixture that has vermiculite, perlite and peat moss are all an excellent combination. This mix will facilitate with drainage and proper water retention. Fill pots 3/4 full of the seed starting mix.
Next is the most beautiful part, when you interact with the very seeds that are going to grow an abundance of food to sustain you and your loved ones. Read the growing instructions on the seed packet as some seeds have very specific needs and should be planted only during certain times of the year. Ideally you will not be starting your roots or deep-rooted vegetables in small containers with the intention of transplanting, as they do not like to be transplanted. If you follow the Moon cycles, ideally you will want to wait until the New Moon to plant your seeds. Know what the desired depth for planting is – air on less depth and do not compact the soil, this is a very common mistake. Lightly cover your seed with additional starting mix and give gratitude to the miracle that is about to happen.
Once you have set up your flats, generously water them and place them in a warm location (minimum of 50 degrees) the warmer it is the better their germination will be. While they are germinating, they do not need light, but they need to stay moist and warm. Remember the seed is a living an embryo that needs air to breath and water to awaken its state of slumber. Once they start to sprout, they will need a source of light, either natural light (south-facing) or a grow light, placed just above them. In either case, protect your vulnerable seedlings from drafts, pets and any other disturbances. Lack of light will cause your seedlings to become leggy, a phenomena by which the seedling is trying the reach the light and becomes tall and lanky causing them to become susceptible to the elements once transplanted.
Keeping the soil with a similar moisture level to that of a wrung out sponge is the ideal. Too much water will drown the seed or cause dampening off, which means there was a high level of moisture and heat which created fungal activity, both situations result in killing the seed or seedling. A watering-can usually offers an optimal spray with enough control. Should you forget to keep the soil moist, you may jeopardize your seedlings and their growth may be stunted or they may die. There is a sweet balance of presence that is required of your seedlings as they emerge from the soil and begin to grow their roots. Sometimes adding a plastic dome or even DIY yogurt cups for individual seeds can help keep moisture and heat in.
Once your seedlings have reached a recommended height, you will want to transplant them as soon as possible. A big mistake of young gardeners is leaving their starts too long in their transplant pots. Generally you will want to wait until your seedlings have 3 – 4 true leaves – refer to image below for a reference. Make sure your garden is ready to receive your seedlings and holes have been made and are ready to be occupied. If you have your seedlings in plastic 6-packs or non-biodegradable pots, you will want to disturb the roots as little as possible. Turn it on its side and gently tap. Always hold the seedling by its true leave and never from the stem or roots.
Make sure you acclimate your seedlings to the elements, a term known as hardening off. This can either be done by leaving them in a sheltered place for a few hours during the day, over several days. If you have a cold frame, you can use that as an ideal way to transition your starts from the comfort of your home to the garden. Once they have fully hardened off they will be strong and ready to be planted in your garden. Take a look at the diagram, to the left, for an ideal way to plant your seedlings. Best to transplant towards the end of the day or on a cloudy day, this gives your plants enough energy to recuperate from the shock without having to be in the mid-day sun.
Continue to nurture your garden with water, regular compost and amendments. Observation is a meditative part of being in the garden that also informs you if your plants need certain attention. Read local gardening blogs and how-to books to guide you on this beautiful journey. Prepare for the abundance and enjoy the harvest!
Brigid Gaffikin as written for The San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
Matthew Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of the Living Seed Co., grow several varieties of produce and plants in their garden in Nicasio.
The couple have embraced the educational potential in the Internet, too. They have a lively Twitter feed, a blog and a Facebook page as well as a YouTube channel with instructional videos on seed-saving techniques.
Eating is one the many fundamental actions, for life, that everyone shares. What people eat is what drastically differentiates us from other cultures and the very thing that brings us together with like-minded foodies. We are living in a time where a lot of attention is being focused on food, whether it is the amount we are eating, the quality, how miles it has traveled and of course whether it has been genetically altered. Whatever your interest in food may be, we are living in an exhilarating time in the history of food.
Despite that 1 in 3 Americans is obese and most food found in our supermarkets, if it is not organic, is genetically modified, there is a food revolution happening in the midst of all of this.
As we know, we began as hunters and gatherers. Eating and cooking solely what we could hunt and harvest. Through time, technology and the advancements of the industrial revolution things changed dramatically. We began canning, preserving and freezing.
Today, most Americans take very little regard in what they eat, how it is processed, what is in it and most of all, how much of it they eat. The irony is how much of our eating habits have changed drastically in a mere 100 years. From our food supply, quantity and nutritional content, to the amount of imported goods we consume. Perhaps a simple way of addressing this is we went from viewing food as a sacred commodity to a simplified convenience.
While most of America has accepted that we moved from an agricultural society to industrialized agriculture and embracing that fact that most of our food travels 1500 miles – there is a huge subculture that has sprouted up globally. This movement touts local, seasonal and organic – backyards are being converted into food forests and front lawns are being torn up to make way for urban gardens!
The movement has taken root in all of America’s largest cities, while infiltrating small towns and growing communities. It is taking shape in the form of expanding farmers markets, community gardens, edible school yards and even homesteading. There are several large installations of some of these applications found in places like NY MOMA’s infamous indie art museum known as PS1. Annually there is a competition of young architects at the opportunity to build an oasis during their summer installation. Winners, several years ago, built an urban farm, producing food and raising chickens, right in the middle of Queens!
In the San Francisco Civic Center – the entire front lawn has been replaced with a garden, in time for the Slow Food festival – and the harvest will coincide with festivities all through Labor Day in 2009.
In downtown Los Angeles, there is an annual Public Fruit Jam in Echo Park – where an art gallery was opened to the public to bring local fruit to make jars of fresh jam. I attended a few years ago and I brought in green sour apples from my backyard, coupled with figs, lemons and mint to create this outrageous homemade jam!
So what are the advantages to eating local and seasonal?
With local food there are much lower energy costs and the nutritional value of your food is much higher, since the crop was not harvested early. Most of all, you are supporting your local farmers, your community and a really incredible movement that is taking shape and coming soon to your community!
Swapping recipes, seeds and gardening tips are no longer a thing of the past, but rather a really hip and obvious thing to be doing, now!
Don’t have a yard? Fret not … food in pots grows incredible varieties! Don’t have time or the patience to grow your own? There are Community Supported Agriculture known as CSA’s – where you can have a box of beautiful organic fruits and veggies grown in a local farm delivered to your door weekly! Check out Local Harvest to see where your local CSA is.
There is that classic adage that you are what you eat. The reality is that our habits around food have lost their value – and now more than ever, is a critical time to begin asking the right questions and being aware of what you are consuming and most of all, knowing where your food comes from.
We are finding ourselves relying on our community as well as our neighbors. In essence we are adopting the ways of our ancestors. The need to continue to push the envelope all while looking back and taking in the strides taken by our predecessors!
So you got your seeds in the mail, you’re so excited … but not quite sure where to start? Still pondering what seeds to buy?Wondering what the difference between hybrid and heirlooms?Well first think of the space you are working with and plan accordingly. Since you are ready to plant, hopefully your soil has been amended properly with organic matter or you are starting your garden with an organic soil mix (we would recommend anything that is OMRI certified). Remember, healthy soil = healthy plants, everything begins in the soil. If you have not had your soil tested and are not sure what may be in your soil, we recommend raised beds and/or containers. More info on container gardens coming soon, so stay tuned to my next post Following the Sun – Container Gardening 101.
Some of your varieties will grow horizontally, think squash, while others grow vertically, think peas. Taking this into consideration is key to a successful garden. I would recommend finding an unused journal or notebook that you can designate as your garden journal. This is key to help you remember where you planted things in past seasons. To keep your soil healthy it is important to rotate your crops, if you are planting heavy feeders. Rotating can also prevent diseases from being transferred from one plant to another. Our seed packets are a wealth of information and will inform you if varieties are heavy feeders or not.
Now its time to plant! If you are direct seeding, planting in the soil, you will want to make sure there is ample space between everything (each variety needs an allotted amount of space). Don’t be too paranoid and use a ruler in the garden; gardening is more organic than that, no pun intended. If you over-seed, you can eat your mistakes, but crowding your vegetables can also compromise their nutrient intake and can ultimately stunt your crops. There is a fine balance so just have fun! There are some seeds that can be broadcasted, instead of being planted individually. As those seedlings start coming up and growing their first “seed leaves,” start to rogue (pluck out) the weaker ones. As the leaves of the seedlings begin to start touching, rogue those out as well, over-crowding is a disadvantage when the roots and the growth of the plant become compromised.
Make sure that you have followed the directions on each seed packet, about how deep each variety should be planted. Each seed packet is choke-full of great info that will help guide you to yielding a great harvest!
After all your seeds are tucked away in the earth, remember to sprinkle them generously with water. This is what will awaken your seeds, this is where magic happens! The soil must continue to stay moist for germination to occur, this means watering every day. Should the soil dry up, you may risk having lost those seeds. Remember you are nurturing this tiny seedling to emerge into the world, it needs your love and care … and even your song, so don’t be shy! If you are starting some of your seeds indoors, don’t forget to harden-off your seeds before planting them in the soil or moving them outside, that means exposing your seedlings to colder air little by little. Some folks use a cold frame, which is also great solution.
Continue to nurture your plants until the completion of your harvest. Plan accordingly if you plan on saving your seeds. You may want to grow extra plants, so you can enjoy some of the harvest and save the seeds. Use your Basic Seed Saving book that we provided for you for the best information on how to properly save your seeds.
Storing your Seeds
Remember seeds, are living embryos, they should not be left in a hot place, ie: your car or a hot garage. As long as the seeds are being stored in a cool and dry place, they will be fine. We recommend keeping them stored in the Mylar envelop the come in.
Try to keep them out of direct sun and moisture when you are in the garden planting. If you choose to store them in the refrigerator, they can last from 4 – 10 years (depending on each seed’s viability).
If you do choose to use the fridge as your seed storage facility, make sure that the zip lock part of the envelope is sealed. When you do use the seeds, just let the Mylar bag sit out at room temperature until for a couple of hours, to let the seeds get to room temperature, to avoid moisture condensation forming in the seeds inside.
Organic, Rare and Heirloom Seed Collections
The Living Seed Company is an heirloom seed company dedicated to supporting families, friends and communities growing healthy food and saving their seeds.
To take some of the guess-work out of gardening we have developed collections of organic heirloom vegetable and herb seeds, suited to your region and growing needs.
All of our seeds are open pollinated, non-GMO, untreated, organic or grown on small natural farms and were selected for their versatility in the culinary arts.
The Founders Collection Our original widely adapted collection suited for most climates
Northern Collection Our long season collection, suited for shorter climates
Southern Collection Our short season collection is suited for longer climates
Urban /Small Space Collection This mini collection is perfectly suited for Urban settings or small gardens and even container gardens
Salsa Collection Our salsa collection is suited for all the fresh salsa lovers out there!
Seed saving and seed knowledge became an integral and sacred part of ancient and modern civilizations. A ritual that was naturally passed on from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor. Seeds became such an innate and valued part of civilization that they were used as a form of currency throughout the world. Seeds were considered a fundamental part of every day life.
For 12,000 thousands years, our ancestors labored over cultivating wild varieties, to arrive at varieties with the perfect texture, taste, vigor and resistance, all while adapting them to their location and climate. This genetic diversity was characterized by countries, regions and towns – which with its own characteristic and flavor. There was a time when we marveled at the rich distinction between communities and cultures for their seed stock & food varieties.
Many culinary distinctions are still seen throughout our country and throughout the world. It is these flavors and these foods that give a place its heritage, its culture and a palpable expression of a place. It is the biodiversity of a region reflected in form that we can savor.
Up until very recent history, we had approximately 7, 000 different species of plants, raised as food crops. Even in North America alone, Native Americans used an astounding 3,000 – 5,000 food plants. Since 1903, we have lost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties, a loss that is being experienced throughout the world at every dinner table. This change in recent history has brought about a homogenization of our global diet, creating a one size fits all model that is suppressing cultures throughout the globe. Today 15 plant and 8 animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food.
Disease or climate change can decimate one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.
Seeds are the storehouse for the history and evolution of man-kind. Seeds are the first and last link to the food chain. It is in the seed that life resides. Seeds are a miracle that can self-replicate hundred of times, each time becoming stronger, more resilient and adapted to a local region. Seeds are the natural expression of life – abundant and free and they are the ultimate expression of the development of humanity and civilization. Seeds were carried over borders, on horses and boats, sown in seams or stashed in pockets. Plants and seeds have used animals and humans for the advancement of their own specie and the dissemination of its own genes.
Throughout history, humans have been selecting the strongest, diverse, best tasting and most desirable plants and saving their seeds for propagation for future generations. The genetic pool evolved with the careful selecting and saving of seeds, thus began the relationship between farmers and the magic of the seed. Farmers realized, that by saving seeds from the most vigorous plants, they would be conserving and selecting the genetic diversity of the strongest plants, naturally passing that DNA to their offspring, resulting in stronger yields and tastier crops.
Over time, farmers began to breed and propagate varieties that were specific to their heritage and region, writing their history through food and sharing it with their seeds. These seeds began to adapt to their particular regions, soils, weather and even to the farmers themselves. The brilliance of the seed is demonstrated in the act of precise adaptability to its environs while building a genetic bank that is unique and site specific. Year after year, the vigor of these plants continues to strengthen, creating prized seeds that begin to tell a story of themselves.
Each seed variety carries a story, a story of dedication, love and care. These stories are usually associated with the seeds and passed on, for generations where they begin to be referred to as heirloom seeds – seeds with a lineage, seeds with a story.
Saved seeds were traded among neighbors and communities, thus preserving genetic and biodiversity of a region. But as elders passed away, these heirloom varieties were being lost or forgotten. There has been an erosion in the diversity of the foods we eat and in the tradition of specialty varieties has been declining while heirloom crops are getting lost in a mire of corporate hybrids. Thousands of native and heirloom varieties have disappeared and continue to do so. We must celebrate the cultural significance of endangered plant species and preserve them.
We have seen Indigenous displacement and the need to retain seeds as the cultural value and as the mandala of a culture. Honoring a time-old tradition that involves self sustenance and food and seed sovereignty. It is said that the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.
|By Robin Carpenter
Originally in print for Edible Marin and Wine Country Magazine
These are the original monies of the earth, In which invested as spark in fire, They will produce a green wealth toppling tall…
—Opening lines from the poem “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” by Howard Nemerov
“Our seed supply is of much greater importance than Wall Street or the irresponsible behavior of those running the banking industry and this country. Forget money. We must save our seed supply!”
—Eric Herm, Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth (Dreamriver Press, 2010)
Harsh realities face us regarding our food sources and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as I’ve covered in Parts I and II of this series. One of these is that 10 companies control over two-thirds of global seed sales. Just three—Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta—own a combined total of close to 50% and they’re continuing to buy up smaller seed companies at a rapid pace. Additionally, not only are companies like these patenting the genes they discover and the organisms they create, they’re also seeking ownership over indigenous and heritage seeds. This creates a corporate and governmental elite that could result in genetic and food supply control over our entire planet.
In the face of grim predictions and seemingly irreversible mistakes on the part of science, government and corporate interests, a tiny talisman uplifts me. A repurposed pimento jar with a spoonful of mustard seeds from my grandmother. Mammaw’s handwriting is slowly fading from the taped piece of paper on the jar stating, “Mustard seeds/Robin.” Handed to me as I was leaving the Gulf Coast for my new home in California I asked, “For faith?” Mammaw smiled and said, “For remembering.”
Those miniscule round seeds are a reminder of her stories and lessons shared as we gardened side by side. Living in a deeply Christian area that often confused me, my religious questions to Mammaw were invariably answered with, “God is in the plants, the soil, the seed, the water and in the air we breathe…” followed by a story. I preferred climbing trees and fishing to gardening, but Mammaw’s stories kept me wrist-deep in soil enough to understand that, if God had a covenant with us, it was through seeds.
My favorite story was of how okra came to America. A young West African boy was the apprentice to the village shaman. Sleeping in the shaman’s hut, he was awakened on a moonless night by the sound of slave traders raiding his village.
Knowing they would soon seize him, he grabbed fresh pods of okra, split them open and rubbed the slime and seeds deep into his scalp. He knew the cherished plant’s seeds would be safely hidden in his hair and if he survived he would have saved a treasure for his people.
For at least 10,000 years, humans have practiced saving and passing seeds from generation to generation. Seeds and the knowledge of seeds were crucial to the survival of ancient cultures and they remain so today. Seeds were once widely used as a form of currency throughout the world. In our time, this gift to humanity is being claimed as corporate property. And yet, there are many passionate activists, farmers, plant breeders and citizen gardeners working to preserve and reclaim our heritage. There are also scientists and plant breeders working to find ways to protect many of our crops from GMO contamination. We must have faith, perhaps only the size of a mustard seed, and remember that nature will be on the side of those who honor her power and our sacred covenants.
Locally, two people keeping the faith and spreading the good word are Matt Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of The Living Seed Company. Their combined story began when Matt Hoffman, former co-creator with Dr. Jane Goodall of the Giant Peace Dove puppet movement, stepped outside of his Minnesota bakery one winter morning. He saw a woman emerge from a dense snow flurry and realized it was environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. Hill was speaking in town that evening and in their brief conversation she suggested that Matt come to California to visit some fellow giant puppeteers living at Solstice Grove in Nicasio. Not long after Matt’s arrival at Solstice Grove, Astrid, a certified Green Building designer from Southern California, also arrived to study and deepen her connection to nature. Love blossomed and marriage plans quickly followed.
Discussing their future, they agreed to start a seed company that would promote the power of people growing food together and learning to save and share their own seeds. As a first step, Matt attended “seed school” in Arizona with Bill McDorman, author of Basic Seed Saving (Higher Ground, 1994). Bill graciously helped Matt and Astrid start The Living Seed Company. The company provides seed collections that are non-GMO, heirloom, highly productive and intended to create a diversified garden to meet the food needs of a family. Their services include instructions on saving your seeds after your first growing season.
Matt and Astrid are frequently asked to define the designations of “heirloom” and “hybrid.” “Heirloom” traditionally means the seed variety was bred using a single type of plant chosen for its desirable traits and the seeds were then passed down from generation to generation. A “hybrid” is created when compatible, but different, types of plants are crossbred to create progeny with the desirable characteristics of both of the “parents.” If you save the seeds of the “offspring” of a hybrid, the plant those seeds produce might be one with only the characteristics of one of the “grandparent” plants and not necessarily the hybrid “parent.” Some heirloom plants may have begun as hybrids, but over many generations they were repeatedly selected and grown and their seeds have eventually been stabilized.
Astrid Lindo and Matt Hoffman
Photo: Sarabek Images
Another local keeper of the faith, Margie McDonald of Wild Blue Farms in Tomales, produces some of the most stunning and delicious heirloom winter squash in our area. They make love to your eyes with unique textures, colors, curves and endearing warts. The Galeux d’Eysines squash is an elegant French heirloom with beautiful salmon-colored skin “blemished” with sugary warts vaguely resembling peanuts. The orange flesh is velvety smooth and beautiful in pies, soups or baked and drizzled with olive oil. Margie’s Marina di Chioggia is blue-green and bumpy with a very enticing turban bottom. The sweet dry flesh is magical for using to make gnocchi instead of potatoes. All squash originated in South America, but this beauty was perfected in a small seaside village on Italy’s Adriatic coast close to Venice and is also known as the “sea pumpkin.”
Photo: Robin Carpenter
As her plants begin to bloom, Margie rises with the sun and ventures into the cool coastal mornings near Tomales Bay to gently hand-pollinate the blossoms from boy flower to girl flower. She then tapes them shut to avoid her Marina and her Galeux engaging in an illicit pollination. She said that she feels connected to the generations of women who have passed down the seeds of these squash and knows that she is now saving the past for the future.
On a larger scale, an inspirational gathering of seedsmen and women happened this fall at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds when over 10,000 people attended the first National Heirloom Exposition. Organized by Baker Creek Seed and the Petaluma Seed Bank, the Exposition was a “World’s Fair” of heirloom foods and speakers included heroes of the organic and non-GMO food movements including Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. Home gardeners and farmers alike displayed over 3,000 varieties of heirlooms from all over the country. At the close of the gathering, these faithful returned to their communities with new seeds, stories and inspiration, further spreading the good word.
Can heirlooms and seed saving be the salvation of promiscuous pollinators like corn and stop their contamination by GMOs? Well, maybe… I recently discovered work being done on an “organic ready” corn (mocking the Roundup Ready corn produced by Monsanto) by Frank Kutka, a plant breeder and coordinator of the Sustainable Ag Research and Education program at North Dakota State University. Using his own backyard as a test lab, Frank is doing research on a naturally occurring trait in corn—gametophytic incompatibility (GA1S)—that causes the corn to reject and block incoming foreign pollen and can, thus, prevent it from being contaminated by the pollen from GMO corn (which is freely airborne in fields). His work is not funded through the university and was on his own dime until he recently received an $11,500 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation. GA1S is not a new discovery. According to Kutka, “The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in corn bred to produce kernels good for popcorn in the 1950s to prevent cross-pollination.” There are currently three known pollen-blocking traits—GA1S, GA2S and Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB).
But, are these the natural solution we have been searching for? Well, not so fast—there are patents issued on both the GA1S and TCB traits. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns a patent on TCB and Tom Hogemeyer, a corn breeder at Hogemeyer Hybrids, patented the GA1S trait in 2005. Kutka along with other “open source” corn breeders such as Margaret Smith at Cornell University are opposed to the patenting of these traits. They argue these traits have been used openly for decades. Others in the non-GMO hybrid business told me they feel Hogemeyer patented the GA1S trait to prevent Monsanto from doing so. They report that he’s “flexible” and willing to work with non-GMO breeders. A breeder called Blue River Hybrids has already licensed PuraMaize/GA1S from Hogemeyer Hybrids and is releasing three corn hybrids for the 2012 growing season. SK Food International also licensed the GA1S trait from Hogemeyer and is releasing an organic Red Crimson Corn variety for 2012 and claims their test fields experienced no crosspollination. Whether publicly available for seed saving or patented for hybrids, having organic corn that is resistant to cross-pollination from GMO corn is a huge step.
Seed Saving isn’t just a mitigation against the onslaught of GMOs. It’s also key to surviving climate change. In a secluded spot off Horseshoe Hill Road in Bolinas, Peter Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm produces collards, kale, arugula, squash and other crops that are stronger, healthier and smarter than your average vegetable. Seed saving from year to year creates plants uniquely suited to his farm’s locale. With respect to arming himself and his farm against climate change, he already takes note of which seeds worked best during certain types of growing seasons, recording comments such as “great arugula during a cool, wet spring” or “the arugula that came well during the hot spell in August.” This enables farmers or gardeners to save the seeds that will work best with changes that are occurring their area. As Peter explains it, “It’s a different approach; instead of warfare against nature, we’re in partnership.”
Can biotechnology be used in a way that respects nature, empowers farmers and creates healthy partnerships from seed to farmer to food producer to consumer? Dr. John Schillinger and his company, eMerge Genetics, is making that happen. Schillinger is a 73-year-old research scientist who worked for Asgrow Seeds, which was bought by Monsanta in 1996. His team worked on the first Roundup Ready soy. He retired in 1998 and struck out on his own to start eMerge Genetics. There, he utilizes biotechnology to do research and test samples, but works with traditional breeding methods to create quality non-GMO seeds (specializing in non-GMO soy).
His company also matches farmers with end producers who want to use non-GMO soy, like specialty tofu makers. This gives the farmers an option to grow non-GMO plants and get out of the commodities pricing trap. Schillinger points out that there’s a worldwide demand for non-GMO soy. The majority of European countries don’t want GMO soy for food or feed. Regulations in Japan’s and Korea are very strict on keeping GMO soy out of their food supply. In the fall of 2010, Brazil launched a program to move away from growing GMO soy, based on the increased demand for non-GMO soy from Europe and Asia. Schillinger also sees the demand in America increasing as the public becomes aware of the existence of GMOs and demands labeling.
“Remember, the seeds are the story carriers. They are the messengers from the past and our hope for the future. They preceded us and assisted us when Homo sapiens evolved as part of this planet.” Words of wisdom from another hero in this story, Claire Hope Cummings. An environmental lawyer, journalist and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press, 2008), Claire has a deep wisdom about the sacred nature of the relationship between humans and seeds. We’re neighbors and comrades and both feel despair at times. We speak of recent activist gatherings in our area—Bioneers, Justice Begins With Seeds, the Marin GMO Symposium—but primarily we revel in her lettuce seed endeavor. She’s enamored with allowing her lettuce to get “ugly” and go to seed. The tiny flowers, full of thousands of seeds, seem like bursting stars to her. In life and decay and “going to seed,” nature is generous. Nature invites us to be a part of her rather than apart from her. We laugh together as “seed sisters,” knowing our ages bring us closer to the time that we, ourselves, will “go to seed,” as we willingly plant our stories of hope for new generations.
Robin Carpenter is a freelance writer who grew up in Ragg Swamp on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with rituals, myths and well-marbled alligators. She now lives in West Marin and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lettuce gone to seed.
Photo: Claire Cummings
Over the recent months, we are often been asked what the difference between heirlooms and hybrids. The answer is quite simple and straight forward. Heirloom traditionally means that the seed variety has been bred for its desirable traits, superior taste and vigor, having been passed down from generation to generation. The common timeframe for a seed to be considered heirloom is usually 50 years and represents that it is an open pollinated cultivar, not hybrid or genetically modified. Heirlooms are, in essence, a treasure, as they are packed with genetic information. The ritualistic tradition of seed saving, that has been occurring in our civilization for millennia, was developed using heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Many folks are familiar with the term open pollinated, but are not sure what it represents. In short, open pollinated varieties are non-hybrids and are originated from two open pollinated parents that will create an offspring similar to the parent plant with desired characteristics. Open pollinated seeds produce offspring that are true-to-type and are pollinated by the wind, insects, birds or other natural ways, they naturally adapt to your local micro climate, your soil and to you, hybrid seeds do not, as they are static. Open pollinated seeds are not hybrids or are genetically modified.
Heirloom vegetables have been relatively new to the average consumer as of the past 10 – 20 years, but have been an integral in creating the global food heritage we know of today. Heirlooms are generally characteristic of their unique appearance, outstanding flavor and texture and of course a compelling history. Many people are surprised to learn that there are thousands of heirloom varieties unknown to the public and many of them disappearing.
So why are treasured heirloom varieties disappearing? Currently, 75% of the global seed market is governed by 10 companies, uniformity, mass production, perishability and transportation are essential in their business model. These represent some of the many characteristics of heirlooms, from their quirky appearance, to their delicate nature and of course their inability to be mass-produced. The reality is that it took our ancestors 10,000 years to establish the array of foods that are available to us, a mere 100 years we had 96% more varieties to choose from. So why are heirlooms so much better? They conserve the genetic diversity of crops, preserve history and culture, promote bio-diversity and strengthen our eco-system through building soil and creating disease/pest resistant and drought tolerant seeds.
The graph to the left gives an amazingly stark contrast to what has happened in our food system over such a short period of time and the sparse variety that we are left to choose from. The empowering part about this is that we are at the neck of the hourglass, that point in history, where we can make the right choices that are going to allow our future generations to continue to enjoy rare and delicious vegetable and fruit varieties.
Farmers markets are a wonderful place to begin to acquaint yourself with what varieties are being grown, but if you truly want to see what is available, seek out heirloom seed catalogs. If you are gardener, consider only growing heirlooms and begin to explore some varieties that you may not have ever heard of or even considered, but you can be assisting in the reclamation of many of these treasured seeds. Most of all, save your seeds and share the with others. This knowledge is integral in the art of gardening and needs to be reclaimed. Keep in mind that many of these heirloom vegetables are not organic, do not let that hinder you from purchasing them. All you need to do is grow them our for one season organically, save the seed and you technically have an organic seed! Another wonderful way to support the genetic diversity in our food system is by supporting your local farmers market and/or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), both support small-scale farms and your local economy. Not sure where to find those near you? Check out Local Harvest.
There has been much talk about hybrids lately, both good and bad and ultimately it is a decision that should be made, understanding what that means. Hybrid seeds originate from two different parent plants of the same specie, that were genetically crossed to create the hybrid offspring. Seeds of hybrid varieties can be sterile or commonly fail to breed true to type, usually resulting in plant varieties that you do not know what you are going to get. Hybrids are generally referred to the acronym F1 (means first generation or filial offspring). Either F1 or the word hybrid has to be on the packet or plant to prove that it truly is a hybrid.
Hybrids can be stabilized, which means that the variety can begin to cultivate offspring that are more true to type. Stabilizing or de-hybridization can take about 8 generations of growing it out, until it gets to a point where the offspring are clearly stabilized. A common example is the famous Early Girl hybrid tomato, a now stabilized hybrid that became popular among home gardeners for its characteristics in early fruit ripening. Although it is considered stable, it is still marketed as a hybrid. It would not be conducive for seed companies to change the classification because then gardeners would begin saving their own seeds and opt out from buying that variety year after year.
These modern hybrids have been developed by large corporations to suit their needs and demands, as they have been bred to yield high while compromising hardiness, pest resistance, flavor and quality.
Generally the hybrid market sets a barrier to the re-integration of seed saving for the simple fact that companies make it very difficult to save hybrid seeds and you generally would not want to. It is a market that is also dominated in Asia, making the seeds you purchase, adapted to a very different climate and soil. Keep in mind that Organic seeds can be hybrids, know who you are sourcing your seeds and your starts from.
There is a lot of information available to us and learning about it, makes us better consumers. Here at The Living Seed Company, we believe every gardener should have the right to save their own seeds. Check out our newly created FAQ sheet or frequently asked questions, where we have compiled some of our commonly asked questions on the basis of seed differentiation – enjoy and pass it on!
The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. – Thomas Jefferson