Gardening season has arrived, and nurseries and seed companies report a financial bumper crop this year as more people than usual put in yard gardens. In the e-mail newsletter Johnny’s Selected Seeds sent out at the beginning of the May, Joann Matuzas accounts for this seed-change saying, €œThe uncertainty of the economy definitely has prompted more people to put in vegetable gardens this year. €
The Pinetree Garden Seeds website, on the other hand, acknowledges that the reasons people have for sweating up their brows a bit more than they have been are more complex. Any financial downturn, personal, nationwide, or worldwide, might well prompt such a change. But quavering in the safety and quality control of produce sold in U.S. markets has also likely provided impetus for the rise in self-reliance. This year’s jag upward in garden seed and plant sales reflects increased desire to control the quality of food flowing in to the household as well as a greater need to more carefully direct the stream of financial resources flowing out.
Some of us have been gardening for years for both reasons. When I was a starving student, I tried to supplement my diet with fresh produce grown on ground surrounding apartments where I lived whenever possible. In better times, cultivating a garden provided a way to supplement the family dinner table through comparatively frugal means.
In many ways, the quality side of the question interests me more. On that side of the gardening equation, tomato enthusiasts like me gave up on grocery store tomatoes long ago as the market switched from selling flavorful, locally produced tomatoes to mass-production-hardy hybrid varieties that taste more like the boxes they’re shipped in than like the complex mixture of the earth, air, fire, and water tomatoes ought—indeed, want—to be.
Also a question of quality: A rising desire not to have my gardening choices controlled by mega-corporations. This has prompted my interest in open-pollinating and heirloom flower and vegetable varieties, from which one might maintain or increase biological diversity in one’s garden, widen the flavor palette, select and save true-to-type seeds, and cultivate traditional flower and vegetable strains that might intertwine with one’s family tree, two genetic stories growing together in a biological plot.
I hold as another aspect of quality the aesthetics of growing open-pollinating varieties. Open-pollinating plants’ diversity of appearance and depths of flavor inspire me above and beyond the conformity factor at work in many hybrids. Hybrid fruit and vegetable strains have their charms. When eaten fresh from the garden, they surpass in quality the usual grocery store offerings (though since the contaminated food scare peaked some grocery stores have returned to the “buy local” practice—we’ll see if that lasts). But many hybrids lack the intriguing color and flavor spectra open-pollination produces with wild enthusiasm. Furthermore, the end-stopped nature of many hybrids does not recommend them. The fact that €œseeds € from many F-1 type hybrids of flowers and vegetables won’t sprout—or, if they do, they might produce plants from which the qualities of the parent plant split out or otherwise destabilize—provides a clear advantage to marketers of such strains. If one finds a hybrid variety that appeals, then one must buy either seeds or seedlings of that variety year after year. Once a fetching heirloom strain grabs your attention, you can propagate it yourself from seed garnered from successful plants.
Of course, if not carefully husbanded, many open-pollinating plants will engage in unabashed genetic experiments, which means that if saving seeds is a goal, you need to consider carefully how you arrange the vegetable neighborhoods in your garden. I won’t be planting my open-pollinating strain of yellow crookneck squash in vicinity with my heirloom golden zucchini. While my heirloom tomato varieties probably won’t mess overmuch with each other’s genetics, I’m separating them anyway, especially the Brandywines, the Cherokee Purples, and the Striped Germans, the three main strains from which I hope to gather seed. I’m trying an heirloom bush bean variety from the Seed Savers Exchange called Empress. To prevent the Empresses from crossing with my tried and true but commoner Bush Blue Lakes, I’ll plant the Empress variety not only in a different section of the garden but also at a different time from when I plant the BBLs. Bush Blue Lakes, I’ve read, are open-pollinating. I’ve never tried saving seed from BBLs before, but I’ll try this year and see what we get.
In this season’s store seed kiosks and catalogues, I’ve noticed some contraction in the variety of open-pollinating squash offered for sale. Much to my surprise, I was unable to find any variety of open-pollinating crookneck seed sold in the local stores, only a hybrid straight-necked yellow squash, probably the same kind as or something similar to what has started showing up in grocery stores. This year, Pinetree Gardens offered open-pollinating crookneck seed only in its €œLast Chance € section, a list of vegetable and flower seeds the nursery’s discontinuing. All of their current yellow squash offerings are F1 hybrids. On the other hand, most of the seed catalogues I receive continue to lay out a grand spread of open-pollinating tomatoes, presumably because their popularity remains high, and hence the profitability of selling them.
The risk that seems to have become part of buying produce from outside sources gives good cause for concern. In my opinion, however, changing your behavior on the basis of anxiety alone not only sets you up for greater uncertainty but also reduces your depth of enjoyment in whatever it is you’re trying to do differently or better.
I’m still learning how to make things grow, or rather, how to sort through the fruits of persuasion that plants offer up, since many have adapted fruiting strategies to attract our (and other creatures’) best interest. I’m certain that I’ve heard my Brandywine tomato plants whisper, “My fruit is to be desired above all others.” I have always seen my yard gardens as ways to improve the household’s well being. Only lately have I come to consider that the garden might provide an edible inheritance for my children and for their children, in the form of seed from strains of plants my family has lived with, each side growing down the line together. Also, giving seeds to friends symbolizes nicely the organic and intimate nature by which lives intertwine. How my selections today will affect the garden, both the one in my back yard and the ones that grow beyond my sight, I can’t say, but whatever happens ought to prove interesting.