How to Preserve and Rejuvenate Heirloom Vegetable Seeds
Oregon farmer has the audacity to improve heirloom vegetable seeds.
Sowing seeds is but one step in the process of growing great vegetables.
Some believe heirloom vegetables and fruits are plants with traits frozen in time, so that what’s grown from seed is the same as what was grown in your grandmother’s garden.
Impossible, says Frank Morton, co-founder of Wild Garden Seed at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon.
Morton works to maintain and strengthen the genetic stock of heirloom varieties. To him, the idea of the frozen-in-time heirloom is a myth, unless you’ve been storing lettuce seeds from your great-
grandmother in the basement. Even then, once the seeds have germinated, the plant population will adapt to its current situation.
Insects, plants and pathogens are locked in an endless struggle of adaptation, Morton says. Plants create defenses to ward off threats from pathogens and insects, and insects and pathogens develop ways to get around those defenses. Plants also evolve to cope with soil and weather conditions, so carrot seed harvested from a dry year will often show different (sometimes very subtle) characteristics than carrot seed from a wet year.
For the last two decades, Morton has been on a quest to strengthen seed stock of organic vegetables, including many heirloom varieties. He breeds heirlooms and other organic vegetables to harvest the seeds of the strongest and most desirable plants. Sometimes he makes new varieties, other times he rehabilitates heirloom varieties for future gardeners. Wild Garden sells seeds online and directly to farmers as well as providing seeds to virtually all the seed companies that sell to organic farmers.
As a farmer in the 1990s, Morton sold heirloom produce as part of salad mixes to restaurants. Chefs always wanted variety in produce, and Morton grew heirlooms to accommodate. However, heirloom vegetables often were smaller and less vigorous than their hybrid counterparts. Morton knew if he could find a way to make heirloom plants easier to grow while still retaining their uniqueness, he’d have an edge.
“I instantly saw that as a demand in the marketplace,” Morton says.
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