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With our understanding of genetics we can breed plants that thrive in difficult climates, create grains that resist disease and produce huge yields, and grow identical, tough-skinned fruits and vegetables that withstand mechanical processing, international travel and last a long time on grocer’s shelves. But is that what you really want?
There’s a price to eating tomatoes in January and Brussels sprouts in June. The down side to our “improvements” is a bland, mechanical sameness to the look and taste of those fruits and vegetables; questionable contents and nutrition in those modified grains. And don’t get me started on all those food miles. Of even great concern with these genetically modified organisms are the potential health risks that we’re just now learning more about. Sadly, it seems to be the way of the future as we develop an even greater and disturbing dependence on the agribusinesses that produce them.
For growers, the seeds can’t be saved from current crops. These hybridized wonders must be purchased over and over again every year; they don’t reproduce naturally. Heirloom plants, on the other hand, have unique flavors and appearance that you just don’t get in hybridized products. Just ask anyone who’s tasted an Anna Russian or Cherokee Purple tomato to compare it to typical store-bought hothouse variety!
More importantly, heirloom plants help preserve the earth’s biodiversity; Mother Nature’s way of not putting all her eggs in one basket. Growing and saving heirloom seeds helps insure the world’s wonderful variations of plants will continue for future generations along with sustaining the diverse network of wildlife that depends on these species; many of which are rapidly vanishing forever. Habitat destruction, climate change and our own failure to recognize and act on the importance of perpetuating these dying varieties are some of the greatest culprits to their demise.
Saving the seeds of heirloom plants is not complicated, but you may need to do a little extra planning to these seeds varieties are protected and not cross-pollinated during the growing season. Unlike hybrids, heirloom plants are open-pollinated. They will “breed true” from seed and be exactly like their parents. However, birds, insects and the wind carry pollen from blossom to blossom indiscriminately, so genes from one variety can cross with another. You can lose the traits you originally wanted. Unless you’re growing species that don’t cross-pollinate, like tomatoes or beans, you must isolate different varieties of the same plant to keep the seeds pure. There are several ways to isolate plants.
Plant cross-pollinating varieties of peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and melons at least 10 feet apart, or in different areas of your yard. Odds are the same insect won’t visit the same area of the garden on the same day. Or make an insect barrier from sheer, tightly spun fabric like floating row cover. Cut a piece large enough to cover the flowers before they open. Protect the stem with a strip of cotton, then wrap the edges of the fabric around the stem and secure with a twist tie. Finally, grow a wide variety of plants like sunflowers, corn and lettuce that mature at different times.
To collect heirloom seeds, leave fruit or flowers on the plant so the seeds mature. Some seedpods, like peas or beans, dry on the vine and feel papery and stiff when they’re ready. Gather on a dry, sunny day; rain or dew could promote mold in storage later.
To clean the seeds, remove them from the pods and pour between large mouth jars in the gentle breeze of a small fan. The heavier seeds fall while the lighter chaff is blown away. Spread the seeds on newspaper and let them dry for one or two weeks.
Seeds from fleshy fruits like tomatoes need to be separated from the pulp. First, scoop the seeds, pulp and juice into a jar or plastic container with a tight fitting lid. Shake the mix daily over four days. Then carefully add a generous amount of water to flush the pulp and juice out of the container while being careful to allow the healthy seeds to sink to the bottom of the container. Once the residue has been flushed, dump the remaining seeds into a strainer for a final rinse and place them on a coffee filter where they will dry out of the next few days. Store seeds in small envelope. Label with the plant name and harvest date. Place envelopes in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and store in a cool, dark place. Your refrigerator is an ideal location for this.
Finally, always hold some seed back when you sow next year’s garden. You never know about the weather. And if you suffer a drought, floods or other disaster, you won’t lose your heirloom collection. If you’d like to buy heirloom seeds to grow and save for future generations, Seed Savers Exchange is a great resource. Learn more at www.seedsavers.org.