Rediscovering our heritage
You may recall that last year I wrote about the joys and tribulations of allotment gardening, attempting both to inspire you and give you an idea of the commitment required.
One of the further pleasures of GYO (grow your own) is that in these dark and grey days, the gardeners’ thoughts can - indeed must - turn already to spring, planning what crops to sow and seeds to order. The next stage is naturally preparing the beds, but that does not begin until March when the days are longer and the earth more pliable.
This month therefore I would like to briefly consider some of the factors which you might like to think about when ordering seeds.
Seeds are usually defined as organic, non-organic, hybrid (F1) or heritage (heirloom). I am going to write today about the difference between heritage and hybrids, both of which can be obtained in organic or non-organic form.
Hybrids are developed by crossing two different plants of the same family but with different qualities, from colour, size, and flavour, to pest resistance, yield and weather tolerances. This can happen naturally, and includes hybrids between two different species; for example, peppermint is a natural but sterile F1 “cultivar” or hybrid of watermint and spearmint. In some sense then, hybrids are simply a more systematic form of what nature does already – wild wheat and barley tend to shatter as soon as they are ripe, making harvesting impossible, so centuries of selective breeding were necessary to enable their cultivation – itself a keystone to human agriculture and social development. However, as with many of human interventions, the speed and extent of its use leads to reductionism, with both short term and long term negative consequences.
The advantages of using hybrid seeds are immediately obvious – reliability, predictability and often better yields. The disadvantages are perhaps less tangible, but heritage crops often offer a wider range of taste and texture for the individual, and in global terms, they ensure that the gene pool does not shrink excessively. The gradual move to monogamous varieties of fruit and vegetables not also implies lack of personal choice but long term, paradoxically, could lead to greater susceptibility to disease.
Usually GYOers are advised against using seeds taken from hybrid F1s, as the crop may return to type, thus invalidating the purpose of the hybrid, but there is no real argument against doing this. The main problem is that some varieties are sterile; if not however, you may even discover the reverted type suits your particular site and needs very well.
The main reason for taking the heirloom route is probably, at a personal level, the wish to experiment, to discover little known varieties; and at a higher level, to preserve the gene pool and prevent monoculturism.
How do we then define a heritage or heirloom plant?
One method is to set an age or date on the original plant. Some suggest it must be over 100 years old, others 50 years, and others prefer the date of 1945 which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies or industrial agriculture.
Another way of defining heirloom plants is to use the definition of the word "heirloom" in its original sense of something handed down privately over generations and in fact, many old commercial releases have actually been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.
It is widely agreed heirlooms must be open-pollinated. This is pollination by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms, as opposed to closed or self-pollination or controlled pollination, which is controlled to favour certain selected traits.
In open pollination, the pollen (male parent) source is unknown, so may result in plants that vary widely, Open pollination may increase biodiversity.
Some plants (such as many crops) are primarily self-pollenizing but do not cross pollinate with other plants, even if closely related. These include french beans, tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.
Typically, heirlooms have adapted over time to whatever climate and soil they have grown in. and they are often resistant to very specific local pests, diseases, and extremes of weather.
It is therefore very possible to carefully select a heritage plant which flourishes in your specific conditions – whether allotment site and soil, or windowsill pot (see last year’s article). Or you may wish to discover an old variety which attracts you either because of its flavour or its appearance – the variety of heritage lettuces for example is astounding and can transform your summer salad table.
Once you have found some crops which you like and wish to continue growing, it is perfectly possible to save seeds and sow your own the following year. You need to know whether the crop is self-pollinating, in which case maintenance is relatively easy, or cross pollinating, which means taking sometimes precautions – bagging open flowers for example, and you might decide that in fact the pollination type is one of the factors you take into account in selection, or that you will simply purchase new seeds each year of the crops you like most.
Some recommendations for heritage crops tried and tested by my partner are;
Tomatoes; Brandywine, Ivory Egg
French Beans: Cosse Violette
Lettuce; Marvel of 4 Seasons, Black Seeded Simpson
To sum up – hybrids are widely available and tend to assure reasonably certain results, predictable crops and familiar flavours, whereas heritage can give less uniform results, but offer unusual flavours, colours and variety. By checking the preferred conditions of heritage you can nonetheless optimise yield by selecting those best suited to your soil and weather. Do be prepared for mixed results – some successes and some “not such successes”. That is both the joy and the frustration of moving beyond the staple hybrid seeds available everywhere, and the delight in discovering a new lettuce, an unfamiliar tomato or beetroot easily outweighs the frustration of a seed batch which does not flourish as you hoped.
Give it a try!
www.gardenorganic.org.uk, with Heritage Seed Library
www.realseeds.co.uk, lots of tips on saving seeds
In the next article, I would like to consider the differences and environmental implications in the widely accepted definitions of organic, pesticide free, and ecological crops.