Friday, January 17, 2014

Heirloom Seeds

Well it is that time of year again. Our mailbox is full of seed catalogs from more than a dozen different seed companies. If you go to any seed company and click on catalog, they will gladly take your address and send you their seed catalog every year. Here are some of my favorites:

Seed Savers Exchange

High Mowing Organics Seeds

Botanical Interests

D. Landreth Seed Company 

Seeds Of Change (Best packaging of any seed company. Sealable seed packs.)

Territorial Seed Company 

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds


Peaceful Valley

Kitazawa Seed Company

Jung Seed

Burgess Seed & Plant Company

Victory Seeds (They charge $2 for their catalog. Electronic version free.)

Terrior Seeds (They charge $5 for their catalog. Electronic version free.)

Some of these catalogs are amazing publications with beautiful pictures. I try to order seeds from as many companies as I can each year. With big Ag companies buying up all the little seed companies, I feel it is very important to support small businesses that are protecting the biodiversity of heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Please consider supporting one of these companies when you buy seed this year.

It's funny, I only plan on buying maybe 3-5 new varieties of seed this year. The reason is this picture. We have over 100 different heirloom seed varieties in our collection. I keep adding to the collection when I should be finding the best, most productive plants for our area. This year I am focusing on what works the best in our climate and what we like to eat. When it comes down to it, don't grow three varieties of okra when you don't like it as a food. Grow what you like to eat first.

Saving seed will be a different blog post in the future. I do save seed, but only from a few varieties I really like. Looking at this picture, do you really think you could save seed from everything you plant and still work a job to support your family? If all I did was take care of the house and garden then yeah I think I could save seed from everything I plant. But what happens when a specific seed variety starts to genetically drift? You get rid of that seed stock and buy more from one of the companies I mentioned above. Here is a great podcast on the subject with the owner of Terrior seeds, Stephen Scott. He and Jack Spirko discuss this topic better than I could ever hope to.

I think this is a good opportunity to talk about the difference between heirloom , open pollinated (OP), hybrid and genetically modified (GMO) seeds. To understand the differences we will need some definitions.

Open pollinated simply means that the plant can be pollinated by wind, insect, bird or hand and produce seeds. Open pollination does not ensure that you will get a seed that is true to type. If you want to save seeds from many of your heirloom plants, you will need to separate them from other varieties of the same plant type by distance, time, or physical barrier. If you use a physical barrier you will need to hand pollinate the segregated varieties. You will see some seed packets with "OP" on it. All that means is the plant can be pollinated and produce seed. All heirloom plants are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

An heirloom plant is typically an OP plant that has been selectively bred by a gardener over years to create a plant that is noticeably different from what you started with. It will also breed true and produce seed if crossed with the same variety. Depending on who's definition you use "heirloom plant" can mean a plant that has been bred and handed down for at least 100 years. Other definitions say 50 years. I am defining it as an OP plant that has been selectively bred to create a distinct new variety. It must also be handed down from one person to another and breed true to type. You can create an heirloom plant in your garden if you are diligent and patient. They are not seeds that have existed forever in the state you find them in now. Some people have it in their minds that heirloom seeds are ancient plants our ancestors saved seed from and handed down unchanged over the centuries.

So with that myth dispelled, I want to focus a little on how awesome and interesting the history of seed saving is.

Lets look at an example. What do cabbage, brussel sprouts and kale all have in common? Well a common ancestor of course. I am not talking in the geologically distant past like we are related to fruit flies, but a much closer divergence. All the plants I just mentioned plus cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, and every color of cabbage you have ever seen, were all bred by humans from one common ancestor, the wild cabbage (brassica oleracea) over thousands of years. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Celts and many more cultures cultivated cabbage over the course of many centuries. All of these cultures planted, harvested and saved seed from these ancient strains of cabbage and created all the variations of brassica plants we know today. By selective breeding, and passing down seed, humans have shaped pretty much everything you see in the supermarket produce section.

Some things just look evil, but when you get to know them they turn out to be okay. So what about hybrids? Some people think hybrids are evil and are on par with, or are GMO's. I am here to tell you that hybrid plants are a natural occurrence and are a driving force of speciation. Over the course of millions of years, hybrid speciation; meaning two different species breeding to create a new distinct species, has been the main vehicle of evolution.

When we talk about modern hybrids, in relation to buying seeds, we are talking about two plants crossed together to create a new plant with positive traits. The seeds of this new plant will not produce true to type and some are sterile. The reason most people plant hybrids is because the crossing of the two parent plants can create what is called hybrid vigor in their offspring. Hybrid vigor or heterosis, is achieved by crossing two parent plants of different heterotic groups to produce offspring that exhibit positive traits like uniformity, increased yields and vigor. These plants are referred to as F1 hybrids. If you see F1 on a seed pack, all that means is you will have a plant that, given the same environment, will typically outperform a non-hybrid variety. The down side is, you can't save seed from them.


So that leaves us with GMO's. What are they? Are they bad for us? Should you care?

Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have had their genes manipulated by humans with modern techniques, in some way other than traditional selection practices. These manipulations happen in a lab using one of these techniques.

  • Agrobacterium
    • This process uses horizontal gene transfer to transfer genes from bacteria to plant cells. Basically, scientist put cut plant material in a solution containing agrobacterium. The bacteria can then insert genes into some of the cells along the cut edge of the plant material. This is a very cheap way of genetically modifying plants. It only works in a small amount of plants though.
  •  Electroporation
    • Bacteria is used in the same way as mentioned above, but the plant cells are electrified to increase the permeability of the cell plasma membrane. This allows the bacteria to cross the cell membrane and insert genes into the cell nucleus. 
  •  Viral Transformation
    • This method, which scares me the most, employs viruses filled with whatever genetic material you want, to infect a plant. The virus sets up shop in the cytoplasm of the cell and replicates the genetic material. 
  • Gene Gun
    • Okay, this is admittedly the coolest of the processes. Gold or tungsten particles are coated with the desired DNA and literally shot into a petri dish full of plant cells. Some of the genetic material on the golden bullets gets incorporated into the plant cells. Scientist then grow out the plant material and see if any of the new plants show the desired trait they shot into the plant cells. 

So should you eat GMO plants? Well unless you go out of your way you probably do every single day. Unless the products you buy specifically say GMO free or you buy Organic foods, you are most likely eating genetically modified food. If you eat fast food or processed foods you are eating GMO's. Here is a short list of genetically modified foods you will find throughout the food chain.

Now on the surface that doesn't sound like a big deal, until you realize that the average grocery store product is more likely to have one or more of these plant products than not. Go to any box of food in the grocery store and read the ingredients. You will most likely find one of these GMO products in it. They are made into a ton of different additives and products. Here is a website with all the derivatives of corn. There is no way I could list them all in this post, I think I would go over the bullet point allotment of blogger. Here is a list for Soybeans. Wheat is poison without it being genetically modified, it is in so many things. That said, GMO wheat is only in the testing stage. There is no GMO wheat currently in the food supply. Sugar beets are made into molasses. Canola oil is in so many products.

 Luckily many of the crops we plant as home gardeners are not GMO. Some have been altered and are in use in other parts of the world. There are GMO zucchini's in the US now, buy organic. Be aware of this list.

  • Golden Rice (Scheduled to be on the market by 2015)
  • Sweet Peppers (Grown in China)
  • Tomatoes (Grown in China)
  • Potato (Removed from market in 2001)
  • Papaya (80% modified in the US)
  • Cotton seed oil (93% modified in the US)
 So in conclusion, yes you should care. Analysis of research done by one of the leading GMO producers in the world has found that rats and mice fed Bt toxin producing corn exhibited liver and kidney damage. Here is another paper supporting organ damage in lab animals fed GM corn.

Please think about what you are putting into your body the next time you are at the grocery store. One way to make a difference is hit them in the bottom line. Vote with your wallet. Buy organic and non-GMO foods when and where you can.


  1. Funny how I used to get giddy about Motorcycle Magazine Day. Now it pales in comparison to a new seed catalog. Amazing how much I learn reading through the good ones.

  2. Yeah do you get Baker Creek? I love reading through that one.

    1. Honestly I'd need to look. I get 6 or 7 now and other than a few of the bigger names, I'm not even sure anymore. Sometimes I feel selfish because I don't always buy from every company, but they sure are great to read. Eventually I'll spread my money around.

  3. Thank you for this post I got a bunch of catalogs.
    I want to say that your blog is amazing and packed with info.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I always do a bunch of research from all over the web when I need to learn something or buy something. I decided to put whatever I found out about a topic in one place so other people can use it as a resource. Glad you like the blog. Happy seed hunting!

  4. Lovely garden produce! I like to use heirloom seeds too, so yummy! Thank you for linking up at Green Thumb Thursday! Do not forget to come and link up again.