How to Preserve and Rejuvenate Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

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Amaranth is among the many heirlooms with which home gardeners can make improved variety selections.
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Fresh winter squash await buyers at a farmers' market.
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Frank Morton, co-founder and seed production coordinator of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon, harvests quinoa.
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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.

As he began to experiment with increasing the yield and vitality of heirlooms, he began to talk to other heirloom enthusiasts about his work. Sometimes, he encountered resistance. Some heirloom gardeners thought he was violating the principle of heirloom preservation.

“An heirloom was a gift from the past, and you shouldn’t mess with it,” Morton says, summing up the argument. Something about the arguments made him want to explore heirloom seed breeding more.

Rainbow of lettuce

It is the love of the pursuit of good seed that drives Morton’s work. One day while tending a crop of a green heirloom Salad Bowl lettuce, he noticed a red lettuce plant in the row. Morton realized that somewhere along the way, the heirloom was crossed. He liked the color, so he saved the seed of the red lettuce and planted it the next year.

“I had sort of naively expected that I would get a lot of red Salad Bowls, but what I got was a rainbow,” he says. He knew about genetics and the breeding experiments of Austrian priest Gregor Mendel, but he says, “There’s nothing like having it apply to you. … It was sort of my Mendelian experience.”

Then in 2001, Morton was approached by seed researcher John Navazio, a plant geneticist with the Organic Seed Alliance, Port Townsend, Washington. Strengthening disease resistance in lettuce is a preoccupation for Morton in the moist atmosphere of Oregon. Northwestern lettuce farmers routinely lose some 50 percent to 60 percent of their crops to mildew and mold.

Navazio encouraged Morton to apply for a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to breed disease-resistant heirloom lettuce from 40 varieties on a half-acre of land. Morton won the grant, and he and Navazio created the optimum conditions for disease by densely planting lettuce, inoculating it with disease and watering it at the wrong time. The results were not pretty.

“Man, you talk about an ugly half-acre of lettuce,” Morton says. “It was incredible. We called it Hell’s Half Acre.”

The two found six varieties that clearly fared better in the trials and began to breed them.

“Now I’m growing the offspring of those lettuces, and they are beautiful,” Morton says.

At the end of their rope

Morton’s work often involves rehabilitating an heirloom variety reaching the end of its genetic rope. While efforts have been made to preserve heirlooms in recent years, sometimes not enough seed is collected to keep the variety healthy, Morton says. That can result in genetic “bottlenecking.”

Such was the case with a beet variety called McGregor’s Beet, which Morton was asked to rehabilitate. When Morton grew the beet, it had low vigor and often wouldn’t overwinter to produce seed. By looking at the plant’s traits, Morton realized McGregor’s had been crossed with another variety at some point.

Morton began to grow the beet out, culling any plant that wasn’t strong and didn’t have the McGregor characteristics. He succeeded in keeping the variety from disappearing, but he admits the victory may be somewhat hollow for heirloom purists.

“It’s probably not going to be a McGregor’s Beet, and it probably never will be,” he says.

But renaming a plant is often a pointless headache, says Morton. He could put his name on it, such as calling it a Morton McGregor’s Beet, but the name probably would be eventually dropped by many seed companies. Most growers would not know if they were growing a Morton McGregor or a regular McGregor. His rule of thumb is that if the new plant keeps the same appearance and taste as the original, it keeps the old name. If he has to rename a variety, he usually provides a clue to the variety it came from in the new name.

Morton also does preventative maintenance on heirloom varieties to keep them healthy. His job, he says, is to cull any plant that isn’t strong or doesn’t fit the characteristics of the variety. It’s a form of brutal housekeeping to prevent future genetic problems.

Managing seeds

Seed management is an important part of organic agriculture that frequently is neglected, Morton says. The organic farming movement often focuses on changing farming practices instead of using chemicals to prevent crop loss. Tomato growers in the Northwest graft their heirlooms onto hybrid tomato plants to prevent soil disease. The practice is effective, but costly.

Working on seed health before the seeds go into the ground can prevent problems before they occur, he says. He would rather work on the seed stock of those heirlooms until the tomatoes are more disease resistant.

“In organics, we have really undersold the potential of plant breeding,” he says.

While a coordinated national organic seed-
breeding effort hasn’t occurred, Morton is heartened by the influx of young professional seed growers entering the field. When he began seed breeding, Morton felt like a loner in the organic farming community. At a 2000 meeting of organic seed producers, 40 seed farmers attended. If that meeting were held now, he says, there would be at least 400 seed farmers, and many of them would have advanced degrees.

“The interest in seeds in organic agriculture is growing exponentially,” he says. “I get résumés every week now from people who want to work for me.”

Ultimately, Morton views his work as completing the equation for maintaining heirlooms for future generations.

“Preservation is absolutely essential, but you can’t live on preserves,” Morton says. “You’ve got to keep up the evolutionary dance.”

Craig Idlebrook is a freelance editor and reporter in New England who fails to save seeds from the mice in his house.