AS gardeners stock up on heirloom seeds for spring, Rob Johnston, the chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Me., would like to suggest an accessory. Why not buckle up in a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe?
O.K., so it doesn’t have seat belts. But the swoop of the fenders resembles Joan Crawford’s eyebrows. Better yet, the rest of the Oldsmobile’s curves are all Lana Turner.
And the technology! Where else can today’s driver find such innovations as knee-action wheels and a solid steel “turret top”?
But even with all that a ’36 Olds has going for it, Mr. Johnston, 60, said, “I’m not sure how big of a market there would be” for 75-year-old cars. “It would just be a sentimental business.”
So to return to Mr. Johnston’s own business, vegetable seeds, why is the backyard gardener buying so many 1936-era heirlooms?
Mr. Johnston, it should be noted, is a fan of heirlooms, which, in the broadest sense, are old varieties of “open pollinated” seeds that will grow the same plant again.
But he argues that his typical customers — small market farmers and avid home gardeners — have better choices. Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” he said.
And here’s the heirloom heresy: they often taste better, too.
Heritage seed buyers could rebut some or all of those claims — and they do. But agronomy, in a sense, is the least of it. Seventeen years ago, in The New York Times, the writer Michael Pollan spelled out the economic and environmental hazards of hybrid seeds in an article that came with a fright-movie title, “The Seed Conspiracy.”
In the years since, the superiority of certain types of seed has grown into a kind of orthodoxy among right-thinking gardeners. The philosophy could be called heirloomism. And according to some plant breeders and seed sellers, it propagated a reactionary, and sometimes confused, argument about food, farming and science.
The debate may seem abstract. But one question it raises for the gardener is plain as dirt: what kind of seeds will succeed in the yard?
One thing nobody would dispute is that business is booming in heirloom seeds. Seed Savers Exchange, in Decorah, Iowa, a leading source of heirlooms, has seen sales “increasing dramatically,” said the executive director, John Torgrimson. (Mr. Johnston serves on the board.)
Sales shot up 100 percent in 2008 at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a Missouri-based garden company that stocks 1,200 vegetable varieties, and the last two years have brought 20 percent annual growth, said the company’s owner, Jere Gettle.
According to a survey by the National Gardening Association, one in five American households with a yard or garden reports an interest in heirloom fruits, berries and vegetables. But Mr. Gettle, 30, contends that his generation cares even more about heirlooms.
“New gardeners, younger gardeners — 90 percent are interested in heirlooms and traditional varieties,” Mr. Gettle said.
The appeal is plain to see, not just to taste. The Baker Creek catalog can deliver as much wonderment as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. How can common vegetables come in so many comical shapes and unlikely colors?
Beyond the aesthetics, Mr. Gettle said his customers espouse “almost a total rejection of G.M.O.s,” or genetically modified organisms. Further, they don’t want “hybridization in their seed supply. They want to be independent and be able to save their seeds. They don’t like the big boys.”
One of the undeniable big boys in garden seeds is W. Atlee Burpee & Company. This Doylestown, Pa., company is the country’s largest purveyor of open-pollinated seeds, said its chief executive officer, George Ball. As heritage seed sales have outpaced the rest of Burpee’s seed line, Mr. Ball, 59, has added more varieties to his catalog and Web site.
But this “third-generation seed man” also seems to relish acting as a heckler of the heirloom movement. In an op-ed piece published in The Des Moines Register last summer, Mr. Ball wrote: “Today, greener-than-thou gardeners crusade for heirloom seeds while unjustly condemning hybrids. Increasingly, their anti-science credo has hardened into a Luddite fundamentalism.”
Mr. Ball laughs a bit about the bombast of phrases like “greener than thou.” But he sticks by his main claim. “Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn’t be sold today,” he said. “Every product declines until it’s replaced by new heirlooms.”
That term, “new heirlooms,” may seem like an oxymoron. Yet while heirloom seeds stay stubbornly the same, the heirloom brand continues to evolve.
One of the first print references to heirlooms appeared in a 1949 article in The Times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That dictionary’s definition of “heirloom” matches the one used by Seed Savers Exchange: open-pollinated varieties that are more than 50 years old and have been handed down through generations.
But that classification describes only a portion of the 13,500 varieties in the group’s annual yearbook. And so Mr. Torgrimson, 60, embraces a wider and more useful classification that includes four categories.
First, there are the family legacies, like Bakery’s squash. Emma Adkins, of Van Lear, Ky., took this striped acorn cultivar from her mother’s garden and donated it to Seed Savers in 1994.
Perhaps the greatest number of heirlooms comes from the second group: old market varieties. A classic example is the Danvers carrot. The Fedco Seeds catalog traces this vegetable back to Massachusetts farmers in 1871.
Third is a “modern heirloom” like the sugar snap pea. The vegetable breeder Calvin Lamborn developed this open-pollinated favorite for the Gallatin Valley Seed Company in the 1970s.
The origins of the sugar snap, a rogue, thick-walled pea, lie in Mr. Torgrimson’s fourth category, “mystery heirlooms.” These are serendipitous discoveries and field crosses that farmers and gardeners decide to preserve and plant again.
In the plainest sense, heirlooms are just old seeds. What has changed is the way we venerate them, said Bill Tracy, 56, a sweet-corn breeder and professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Tracy knows the old sweet corns well. He estimates that, over the decades, he has grown 75 to 80 percent of these varieties.
Marketing them as heirlooms, however, is “a new concept, a concept of the early 21st century,” Dr. Tracy said. Plants are sexually active, mutable things, he explained. And they can be adapted to different climates, soil types and planting and harvest dates.
“The farmer or the gardener has the opportunity to select the type that is best for their farm,” he said. And “previous generations of farmers, our parents or grandparents” did just that.
An open-pollinated seed wasn’t an item to be named, fixed and monastically cloistered. For their part, the seed companies and catalogs, which were then small and regional, collected local seeds from the plants that performed best from year to year.
John Navazio, 56, a Washington State University seed specialist and senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance, suggests that the growers who developed heirloom seeds wouldn’t be content with them today.
“A 1902 cabbage by Burpee was a perfectly good cabbage by 1902 standards,” Dr. Navazio said. “But the truth of the matter is, none of our ancestors ever viewed these things as done. You never stopped breeding your livestock. You never stopped selecting your cabbage.”
FOR the discriminating food shopper, the word “heirloom” has another meaning. Heirloom vegetables are the delicious ones. These are the turnips dolled up in magazine photo spreads and honored by name on the menus of the better restaurants. (And even some of the worst ones.)
Mr. Torgrimson admits that he has dallied with a few hybrids in the past. But “you can’t beat the taste” of heirlooms, he said. He recalled what a visitor to Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm asked last summer after biting into a gusher of a tomato. “Why does the tomato in the store taste like a red rubber ball?”
Bob Heisey, a 62-year-old tomato-and-pepper breeder for the United Genetics Seeds Company, has heard that question before. “A lot of the complaints,” he said, “are about supermarket tomatoes that are picked when they’re green, and gassed with ethylene to develop the red color and then refrigerated to keep them fresh so that they look marketable when they get to the store.”
The American consumer, Dr. Heisey said, wants to buy produce out of season. And the customer is always right — even when the customer is wrong.
Pitting August heirlooms against March shelf-fillers is not an apples-to-apples comparison, so to speak. As Mr. Johnston puts it, “In general, fresh local produce can be better eating than not-so-fresh, long-distance-shipped produce.”
Heirlooms are not intrinsically more appetizing than modern hybrids. Heirlooms began as hybrids, after all — a fortuitous cross of two parents. Modern hybrids, or so-called “F-1s,” are usually proprietary to a seed company. But this is still the 19th-century genetics of Gregor Mendel, not genetic engineering.
There are plenty of horticultural reasons heirlooms can grow glorious fruit. One is size. An heirloom tomato is often a big, robust plant. The central stalk is usually indeterminate: it keeps shooting up after setting fruit. Mr. Ball, of Burpee, recalls a customer telling him about a Brandywine plant that crept into the house through a second-floor window.
An heirloom tomato will also have a lot of leaves, in groups of three, Dr. Heisey said. All that green surface area translates into a lot of photosynthesis. And that means higher sugar levels, one of many factors that make for a mythic tomato.
A modern, hybrid tomato, by comparison, is typically determinate in the way it grows: the stem will stop growing. And the leaves come in pairs. Farmers prefer compact plants with earlier and higher fruit yields. So that’s what breeders give them.
But that’s not the end of the story. If it were, Dr. Heisey wouldn’t be able to argue that a well-bred hybrid, properly ripened, “will taste as good or better than heirloom tomatoes.”
As any impatient gardener will testify, many of those old tomato plants don’t like to be hurried to make fruit. And while they’re hanging around the yard, the foliage can pick up a legion of common diseases, including the blights (early and late) and the wilts (fusarium and verticillium).
As the stricken plant sheds leaves like a sheepdog, it has less sugar to channel into the fruit. This is one reason an October tomato may be no great treat.
By comparison, some blight resistance has been bred into the hybrid for decades, Dr. Heisey said. Most commercial types now have resistance, as do many backyard varieties.
Still, the farmers who first created the heirlooms did not garden in Eden. They had their own nuisances to overcome. Mr. Gettle, the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, suggests that a well-chosen seed can prove to be a survivor.
For example, he said, growers might find that Southeast Asian cultivars feel at home in the miserable damp of Florida. Alternately, plant enough heirlooms from enough places, and a few are bound to endure.
Besides, Mr. Gettle added, “the same blights hit the hybrids out here in Missouri as hit the heirlooms.”
A few universities continue to develop plants that can withstand both disease and pests. North Carolina State University is working on something that could stand up to the late blight that decimated the Northeast’s tomato crop in 2009.
But the “universities have basically shut down all their programs for home gardeners,” Mr. Gettle said. “Most plant breeders are owned by a few large seed companies. I wish they would develop more things for the home garden.”
The kitchen gardener already has enough watermelon cultivars to last until the end times, he said. But the world could use a worthy colored carrot.
IN his career as a plant breeder, Dr. Navazio, of the Organic Seed Alliance, has actually created a new colored carrot. It’s open-pollinated (or O.P.) and goes by the name Purple Dragon, “which unfortunately sounds like a ‘Flintstones’ vitamin,” he said. (For more seed ideas, see the accompanying article.)
The great bank of heirloom seeds is ripe for fresh creations and practical improvements, Dr. Navazio said. “When people say that hybrids are better than the O.P.s, well, duh! You’ve been throwing all of your brainpower at developing hybrids for more than 30 years. And the nonhybrids, the O.P.s, have sat and languished with almost no one doing any good selection and genetic maintenance on them. At that point, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
His organization’s cause is not to romanticize old seeds, he said. Instead, this Washington-state nonprofit hopes to rebuild the regional farming culture that invented those cultivars. The place for such a movement to start, Dr. Navazio argues, is the small farm. And the people to do it are the farmers themselves.
Dr. Navazio points to Theresa, David and Dan Podoll, organic seed growers in Fullerton, N.D. Over the years, their family farm has gradually bred a Septoria leaf spot resistance into its Crimson Sprinter tomatoes. The immunity isn’t total, as it might be in a hybrid. But by selecting the hardiest survivors each season, the tomato plant evolves along with the blight.
Intrigued? The Podolls’s tomato seeds can now be bought at High Mowing Organic Seeds, in northern Vermont. (But beware of late blight, said Jodi Lew-Smith, the company’s director of research and production.)
High Mowing typifies a crop of small companies selling well-adapted seeds to the local market, Dr. Navazio said. Similarly, Johnny’s and Fedco have become popular seed sellers in New England and the Northeast. Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest can buy from Uprising Seeds and Siskiyou Seeds.
As Siskiyou announces on the front page of its Web site, “Our vision is to connect seed growers, gardeners and farmers in a mutually beneficial relationship to support small-scale agriculture with superior genetics selected for the Pacific Northwest.”
Put another way, Siskiyou isn’t dealing in nostalgia. What it pledges to sell is a better seed.
Flipping Through the Catalog
A seed catalog is like a library. A lot of people don’t go there and never will, and even the regulars seldom make use of the whole thing. It’s easy enough to get stuck on grape tomatoes — or the wit and wisdom of Tucker Max — year after year.
Another type of reader can be found stalking the new-releases shelf. This may be the novelty-loving gardener who craves new-seed suggestions. Here to play the part of the helpful librarian are a handful of vegetable breeders and seeds men.
John Torgrimson, the executive director of Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org; 563-382-5990), will be trying the Champion of England pea this spring. It may be new to the catalog, but this pea is “an 1840s heirloom, passed down within a family.” Though the plant may reach 10 feet tall, it doesn’t claim a lot of real estate on the ground.
The answer to the wilted Eastern tomato crop of 2009 might be Defiant PhR, said Rob Johnston, a vegetable breeder and the chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com; 877-564-6697). This lipstick-red, midsize hybrid carries a resistance to Phytophthora, or late blight.
After years of disappointment with commercial zucchini seeds, Bill Reynolds resolved to find an open-pollinated variety for his Northern California farm. The solution was the Dark Star zucchini, created with John Navazio, senior scientist at the Organic Seed Alliance. The drought-hardy, deep-green zuke now appears in catalogs like Siskiyou Seeds (siskiyouseeds.com; 541-846-9233) and Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com; 888-762-7333).
Farmers rely on uniformity in a crop. But the backyard gardener can afford to be indulgent with an heirloom striped tomato like Violet Jasper. The fruit can be as small as a cherry or as large as a golf ball. Even the moniker vacillates. The tomato went by its Chinese name, Tzi Bi U, before a Bulgarian seeds man mailed a packet to Jere Gettle and his catalog, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com; 417-924-8917).
The sweet pepper Sublime makes its own smooth transition from green to red. George Ball, the chief executive of Burpee (burpee.com; 800-888-1447), swears by the cultivar’s “spirited flavor” when it’s picked green. But even after the pepper reddens and sweetens, the Burpee-bred fruit still carries a rare “slight tang.”
The pepper is a hybrid; you can’t save the seed. But then Burpee has been around for 135 years and Sublime is the boss’s favorite. You can bet he’ll sell it next year.