How to Preserve and Rejuvenate Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Oregon farmer has the audacity to improve heirloom vegetable seeds.

  • Heirloom Amaranth
    Amaranth is among the many heirlooms with which home gardeners can make improved variety selections.
  • Fresh Winter Squash
    Fresh winter squash await buyers at a farmers' market. Block
  • Frank Morton Harvests Quinoa
    Frank Morton, co-founder and seed production coordinator of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon, harvests quinoa.
    courtesy Karen Morton
  • Sowing Seeds
    Sowing seeds is but one step in the process of growing great vegetables. Price

  • Heirloom Amaranth
  • Fresh Winter Squash
  • Frank Morton Harvests Quinoa
  • Sowing Seeds

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. 

William Owens
7/31/2011 4:32:02 PM

Craig, put your seeds in the freezer!

2/25/2011 12:09:17 PM

I just love how GRIT sucks you in with all their titles in stories and even on their cover pages. Thants ten minutes I will not get back. Under different circumstances this would be called bait-and-switch. This stories has little to nothing to do with the heading. Even assuming I was interested in this mans intentions, his website has the same value as the story. Does not have even the most common of vegetables but, instead has Korean Mint and Indian Mustard. This is why I not longer buy GRIT or any of the other "Mother Earth" mags. Lot of stories with little hands on stories. Thought once I was getting infor on how to build a green house but all were just nice pictures! Oh for days gone by when "Mother Earth" wasinformative instead of a money making ad catalog. I wonder if this will get printed?

Loretta Liefveld
2/25/2011 11:38:12 AM

This is a very interesting article, but has very little to do with the title. Based on the title, I expected an article on HOW to preserve and rejuvenate the SEEDS, not an article about one man's efforts to preserve and rejuvenate various heirloom species.

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