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Dirty Minded Gardener Promotes Safe Seeds

Posted By Athena Dietrich On May 2, 2009 @ 1:00 am In Gardening Organically | 1 Comment

We’re just into mid-February and I can almost start to sense the days getting longer again. And while a die-hard gardener in a southern climate could probably keep some amount of food growing throughout the year, I, for one, seem to be getting more particular about the kind of weather I subject myself to.

And then there’s the issue of day length — day length fluctuation becomes more negligible the closer we get to the equator. Even in sub-tropical Maui, where the difference between summer and winter solstice is less than 2 hours, you can’t fool the plants. It’s the daily increase or decrease that affects them, not the length of the day. Whether or not the weather is cooperative, vegetative growth will slow nearly to a standstill around the winter solstice, regardless of where you’re growing.

That said, it’s not the short days, but the endless rain here that’s kept me out of the garden I began forming last fall. I find myself more and more gazing passively out the window, facing my mucky little plot and contemplating raising fish instead of veggies. (Not to eat, of course, just for a little splash of color in a sea of muddiness.)

When the weather’s nasty it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge in virtual garden preparation. My favorite landscape architect Julie Messervy says there are two kinds of gardeners: dirt gardeners and mind gardeners. I’m what she calls a “dirty minded gardener”. Mapping out a garden in your mind can save a lot of time and energy come spring when it’s time to get dirty again. After so many years of gardening, I still find my inspiration renewed by cuddling up with a tall stack of seed catalogs and a cup of tea on a soggy day. It is with some reluctance that in the last few years I’ve switched from the eye candy of color glossy catalogs to the laptop, where I can easily peer at the pictures of would-be garden specimens.

It seems to me if only in the realms of seed farming, commitment to organics and technological savvy are still inversely proportionate, so when shopping online, I urge you not to purchase from the company with the highest quality photo resolution or the fastest web page. Some of the better, healthier seed companies are still using vintage style hand-drawn vegetable portraits to market their wares. I love that!

In the years when I had farms and acres of gardens to plant out, I managed to compile a short list of favorite seed companies, each for their own reason or special variety. Here are a few:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds is perhaps my favorite one-stop shop. They’ve maintained an excellent balance of good business and attention to quality in farming in the dozen years I’ve been a patron. Johnny’s has a nice wide selection of organic seeds, which are marked OG, as is uniform in all catalogs. Their safe seed pledge is a beautifully put testimonial on behalf of the future of agriculture. Stating that genetic engineering must undergo more testing before it is determined safe, they’ve made a commitment to “not knowingly buy or sell GE seeds or plants”. (Since our government has yet to put any regulations on labeling GE products.) Every seed packet not marked as a hybrid with an F followed by a number, usually a 1, is open pollinated. Their OG “provider” green beans are the best I’ve found for super abundant long harvest green beans on a bush. Also in stock this year: “jericho” romaine lettuce. Huge, juicy, and sweet! Yum!

Nichols Garden Nursery is a very reliable second generation family-owned and operated nursery and garden/farm. Generously proportioned and reasonably priced seed packets are just the right size for the backyard gardener. Their varieties are marked either open pollinated or hybrid. Some are both open pollinated and heirloom.

Open pollinated (OP in the catalogs) describes how the plant reproduces, i.e., without human interference or meddling. OP plants breed and produce by a natural process, guided but not manipulated by the farmer. Heirloom refers to a variety of a species that has been cultivated for a fairly long time and is therefore inherently open pollinated.

Hybrids used to seem sinister to me, as they don’t always produce a plant similar to its parent. They are the offspring off two varieties of the same species crossed by botanists over several plant generations to bring out desired qualities, such as slow to bolt, redder leaves, sweeter roots, etc. The problem with these varieties is that they’re not stabilized and you may have less than satisfactory results. You might get mom, you might get dad, or worse, you might end up with a sort of strange uncle (likely, one that is smaller, less sweet/colorful and more susceptible to disease).

Genetically Engineered fruits and vegetables are the Frankensteins of the produce department — DNA-manipulated to meet some money-making improvement over nature’s ways. I have heard of tomatoes crossed with deep sea fish to insure a longer shelf life, corn bred to be birth control for drug companies and round-up ready soy beans that will withstand direct spray of the chemical while weeds fall dead around them. The biggest threat in genetically modified food plants is that they’re sometimes bred to not produce viable seed at all. (Now, that’s dirty!)

In that light, while a simple pollination cross may provide inconsistent progeny, it also has redeeming qualities. Hybrids are often more vigorous, bred for resistance to certain diseases, may have brighter, larger fruits or flowers, etc. However, many people feel very strongly about at least maintaining the possibility of growing out their own seeds. Reasonably so — they do not want to be dependent on seed companies, especially given that more and more small organic seed farms have been insidiously bought out by the larger corporate farms without our knowledge.

I strongly believe that the ability to produce our own food should stay within our reach. This is the reason for insisting upon OP varieties. When we buy them, we let the seed companies know that time tested and true to seed varieties are still in demand and therefore profitable.

Nichols is the only place I’ve been able to find “lutz winter keeper” beet. A tried and true variety of beet, it is the only one worth growing, as far as I’m concerned. So huge, I once grew one that wouldn’t fit in a 5 gallon bucket. “Lutz” also has the best greens for eating — two crops in one! Check out their selection of kale, clearly the best. (Boy, do I feel really nerdy right now.)

Another outstanding company is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. Not only do they have a very large selection of all organic seed companies to choose from, they’re also a great place to buy affordable bulk seed. Like salad mix. You may sow several times in a season and don’t want a lot of separate tiny packages. Peaceful Valley has a complete selection of reasonably priced garden tools and does a great job of providing information about their products with a pretty thorough background check on fertilizers and the natural insecticides and herbicides they offer. Because of a lack of stringent standardized regulation for organics as defined by the Federal government, most are certified through various regulatory institutes and organizations.

Smaller groups have formed to promote consumer awareness and provide some amount of optional labeling. OMRI, Organic Material Review Institute, is one I am most familiar with. Strongly encouraged by Demeter, the bio-dynamic certification organization, they have high standards in the products they endorse. You can also get greenhouse parts, irrigation supplies and nifty things like mushroom kits.

With a growing interest in healthier and more earth-friendly products, it’s easy to see how a lack of uniform regulation can create chaos and confusion around words like “organic” and “genetic engineering”. As much as a simplified process and requirement of accurate labeling would make it easier to educate the consumer, there’s still a wide grey area when it comes to setting these standards (not to mention enforcing them). In the meantime, we’re left with the option of doing the research ourselves. It’s perfect entertainment for inclement weather.

In a world where knowing your farmer seems too idealistic to be realistic, thank goodness for Google.

For more on the Safe Seed Pledge, click here.


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