Sunday, 7 April 2013

A good seed makes a happy seedling

Heirloom tomato seedling, 1 week old!
Last summer, I ordered a produce basket (CSA-style) from a local farm. Every other week, I'd be blessed with more vegetables than I could reasonably eat on my own, and I'd be happier than a pig in mud. About halfway through the summer, it occurred to me that I could save the seeds from these gorgeous tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, considering they were all heirlooms.

And this is the ultimate battle: heirlooms versus commercial organic seeds!

If you aren't a big gardener (or environmentalist, I suppose), you probably aren't quite sure what an heirloom is, at least in this context. Never fear; I'll give you a brief run-down (for a really thorough one, check out Jere and Emilee's book).

Heirlooms are sort of like the ancestors of modern seeds, in that they're old species of plants. They're things like orange beets and red carrots. They're seeds that have developed in nature, not in a lab, and they will have small alterations over time that help them to adapt to their environment and grow better. And there's a reason that the produce in the grocery is all predictably similar (you expect to enter and find red beets and orange carrots, period). That reason is that at some point, somebody realized that they had some preference for one variety over the other, and that if people knew what to expect, they could sell those things consistently to the market. In the case of orange carrots, it was actually the Dutch royal family being patriotic and deciding to use carrots as a marketing campaign, in a nut shell. So from then on, orange carrots became the most famous and popular ones, and the others fell to the wayside.

The thing is, nature is designed to adapt and overcome, so that means that if you take an heirloom pepper seed and grow a pepper plant in your garden, the seeds that come out of the biggest pepper have all the qualities that made that pepper big and strong. If you keep the seeds from that pepper, you have essentially just bred a seed that is perfectly designed to grow in your garden plot (based on the amount of sun it gets, the soil, etc.). Pretty cool, eh?

It doesn't mean you're going to start growing orange tomatoes the second year if you plant a yellow one next to a red one. That kind of change would take place over a way longer period of time. But nature is resilient, and so output will be a little different, based on the seed you choose to save. And that's exactly why seeds are modified nowadays. They want to know that every tomato grown will be similar enough that consumers will recognize it as a good tomato and buy it.

Commercial organic tomato seeds.
A few years back, there was a huge scandal when terminator seeds were exposed. They pretty much served as a way for huge, multi-national corporations to control the food supply by making sure that any second-generation seeds are sterile and farmers have to come back to buy seeds from them every year. It means that if a farmer grows tomatoes from the first-generation seeds, he can't then split open a tomato and keep some seeds for next season, because those seeds are designed not to grow fruit. This has been one of the serious abuses of the genetic modification of seeds (and certainly the highest-profile use), and so heirloom and organic gardening is becoming more and more popular. It's good news for mother nature, because it helps preserve biodiversity.

So all other things created equal, I lean towards heirloom seeds. But I wanted to do a little experiment to see how well the seeds themselves actually performed. About a week ago, I planted a dozen tomato seeds that were commercial organic seeds, and I also planted a dozen seeds that I'd saved from my own produce basket of heirloom tomatoes last summer.

Here are the results!

Exhibit A: Check out the heirloom tomato seedlings!
Exhibit B: Check out the commercial, organic tomato seedlings.
So as you can see, the heirlooms are kicking some serious butt while the commercial seeds...not so much. I kind of gauge a seedling's potential by looking at how "excited" it looks. So if you take a gander at the heirloom seedlings, they look so excited and curious that you almost wonder if they don't want to jump out of their cranny and check out the next guy's turf. Whereas the commercial seeds are kind of like, "What? You told me to grow, and I'm growing. What more do you want from me?"

The winner: the heirloom. (Which doesn't surprise me at all.)

Now, these seedlings look like they've got a bit of life to them! Check out how nosey they are! I wager there's going to be an affair starting up soon.
And now that I've extolled the virtues of heirloom seeds and personified tiny plants, I feel like my work here is done. Check back for more updates on my little seedlings!


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