Jan 13

Heirloom Seeds

New Catalogs, Part 2: In January, the crop harvested is gardening catalogs. The agriculture industry, like so many other industries, has experienced its share of mergers and acquisitions. I am aware of three companies that each acquired a half dozen or more operations and still produce catalogs under their original names. So, ordering from one catalog guarantees me receipt of at least five more in the mail.

For these larger companies the catalogs are all about “Branding,” the traditional high end catalogs printed on high gloss paper charge higher prices for the same variety and quantity of seed than their sister catalogs printed in black and white on recycled paper, and a little more for shipping and handling. They do not care about which catalog you order from, as long as it is one of theirs.

I am not suggesting that you steer clear of these or any catalogs; I continue to be a loyal customer to many of them. My problem is trying to decide what to order every year because they make it so difficult to decipher the text.

One catalog offers a tomato that has “Heirloom Flavor with Hybrid Productivity” and another that “Looks Like an Heirloom and Grows Like a Hybrid.” Normally somewhere in the text the plant is identified as an open pollinated or hybrid but here is one description, “a hybrid heirloom.” So, can I save the seeds next fall and get the same tomatoes the following year? I don’t know, because I don’t know.

Another catalog is offering an organic insecticide that is derived from a “naturally occurring soil bacteria discovered on aCaribbeanIsland.” Really, so this bacterium isn’t found anywhere else on the planet? But wait, what if it is unique to just that one small island, a place where it is in balance with the local eco-system. Shouldn’t I be afraid to use it in a different eco-system, a place that I call my yard?

Then there is the organic combination insecticide fungicide that is “effective against a wide variety of bugs, insects and scales.” The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) has verified that another product sold to “fight the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases on plants” is organic. CIDE means DEAD, should I feel better that I am organically killing the good bugs and fungi along with the bad?

What about the hot pepper spray animal repellent containing cayenne pepper? “One bite and the animals will feed somewhere else.” Except for my chipmunks who this past summer clearly demonstrated to me that they prefer their food spicy. Just saying.

 Finally, the images, the children photographed holding really large flowers and vegetables? They are in pre-school. Many of the images of single blooms are not the actual size; they are either blown up or reduced to fit the page and make you want to buy.

The take away here is to be like me; spend, spend, spend. But before you do; make a list, have a ruler handy, and read the fine print.

New Catalogs: I might not be the brightest bulb on the tree, I might like gardening more than most, and I might be found doing things in the yard even though it is December. Yet even I know it is time to call it a season when the seed catalogs start arriving in the mail, but before you open those catalogs here are a few suggestions.

Check out the clearance isle at the box retailers. Containers and fertilizer are at the top of the list, as is vermiculite and pearlite. Fertilizer does not go bad and the water soluble fertilizer will be needed for the flower and vegetable seedlings started indoors next February. The pearlite and vermiculite will go into your potting mix, and you can never have enough containers.

If you brought in coleus, geranium, herbs and other plants to grow indoors for propagation next season; then it is a good idea to bring in the empty flats and pots now. In eight weeks, when you will need them, the ground will be covered with a blanket of snow and you will have forgotten where under that blanket they are. Sure, I know you are smarter than that; the pots are in the shed. Right, so then you will only have to dig a path to the shed and a hole big enough to get the door open. That is, after you bundle up. You want to enjoy the activity, bring the pots in now.

Do you use the same hand tools indoors and out? You might want to consider cleaning them before you use them indoors. No, don’t consider it, do it. Diseases and pests that are in the soil have hitched a ride into the house; give them the heave ho. While you are at it, wash the pots and flats.

It is the holiday season and amaryllis, paper whites and Christmas cactus are already on the store shelves. Yet right next to them are spring flowering bulbs at ridiculous mark down prices. It isn’t too late to plant these bulbs. There is still plenty of time to put them in the ground or in pots to be brought in the house in February. Bulbs only need 13 to 15 weeks of hibernation. For the same money, you can enjoy a single amaryllis in bloom or dozens of tulips or hyacinths.

By now the all of the plants brought indoors have acclimated to the change of environment. That is great, but you need to keep them healthy and happy. There are many indoor pests that have already set up housekeeping. Spray the plants at least once a week with insecticidal soap or every other day with a home brew (1/4 cup dish detergent to one-quart of water).

Take one last walk around the yard looking for those, “I’ll get it later” items. Somewhere there is a tool, gnome or landscape ornament that you forgot to bring in. It is now “later,” bring them in.

Once you are convinced that you are truly finished with the gardening season; then, and only then, should you open the new catalogs.  

Seed Saving – Free is a word that is tossed around pretty ah…..freely, and there is usually a dollar sign attached to it; but there are still some things that truly are free and they are right in your backyard, flower and vegetable seeds. When I first started gardening I would read the seed catalogs cover to cover, reminisce about plants I grew in the past, select new varieties to try, and re-order some favorites.

Over time I noticed that I was re-ordering more and more favorites and I was okay with that. I knew I wanted to grow what I liked and since I didn’t know hybrid from open pollinated or F1 from 4F, the best way to ensure that was to purchase the seeds. But when I realized that re-ordering the same seed every year was getting more expensive; I decided to start saving seeds.

Since the turn of the last century, the home gardener has been rewarded for producing the earliest, largest, prettiest, most disease resistant plant. We wanted our name associated with the plant that everyone across North America would grow. The nurseries however made their money selling seed to production farmers. They were really interested in plants that ripened and could be harvested at the same time and could ship cross country with minimum damage.

At the time, flowers were naturally pollinated by the wind, birds and bees. This open pollination sometimes produced a new variety plant; a yellow or bi-color blossom in a field of white. The seeds were harvested and the plant was grown the following year to see if it produced the same color flower and had other desirable traits. If so, it was continually grown in larger quantities until there were enough seed available to offer for sale.

Then someone cracked the hybridizing code. They figured out how to cross two plants with dissimilar, and often undesirable, traits to grow and harvest seeds that when grown the following year produced beautiful large flowers or vegetables. This first generation, Filial 1, F1 seed won over the production farmers they were developed for and the home gardener who abandoned the seed brought from the Old Country for these better seeds.

Why the tutorial on propagation? Well, if you grew something this year and want to save the seed so you can grow it again next year; then you need to know if the plant was an open pollinated or hybrid variety. Hybrids revert back to one of the un-desirable parents; the big yellow marigold will become the pungent orange French variety, the huge red bell pepper will become a puny jalapeño. This information by the way is from personal experience.

Seed grown from open pollinated plants will reproduce flowers or vegetables that to all of our senses have the characteristics of the parent. For generations, families have grown favorite plants and passed the seed on to the next generation. Over time they became known as heirlooms with names like Radiator Charlie, Lillian’s Yellow, or my favorite, Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper.

If you grew something this year that you want to grow again next year, then save the seed. If next year one of the plants is slightly different than the others then save those seeds. You never know, there is a reason we have over 1,000 varieties of peppers; maybe you will come up with number 1,001. 

What is an heirloom This is a common question this time of the year when people are reading the seed catalogs. What is an heirloom seed? 

In the wild, plants reproduce through open pollination. That is, the birds, bees and wind take the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers for germination. Over time individual plants developed growth habits, and insect and disease resistance specific to their environment. So a bean plant growing in northern Europe may be a small bush that completes it’s growth cycle in a couple of months, while the genetically same bean growing in the Mediterranean region might grow into a long vine and have a life cycle that extends over many months.

As humans changed from hunter gatherers to farmers, they began to save the seeds of their favorite plants to grow every year. The seeds were past down from generation to generation, moving to new countries and regions where they continued to evolve into new sizes and shapes.

Eventually, common names became associated with individuals and regions; Hungarian peppers, French marigolds, Aunt Ruby’s green tomato. These are the seeds that we call heirloom. The accepted definition is, any open pollinated seed that can be traced back at least 50 years.

Hybrid seeds require human intervention to cross two different plant varieties that would not normally open pollinate, to produce unique desirable characteristics. It might be bloom size, disease resistance or produce yield. The seeds are typically identified on the package as F1 (first generation) Hybrids virtually guarantying the plant you grow will look like the picture on the package

The down side of hybrids is that the second generation seeds are either sterile, or display the characteristics of the dominant parent. You will not get the same flower or vegetable. So, a hybrid will never become an heirloom.

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