By Patrick Sewell
Ithaca is Gardens, or so it could be argued. A low-impact, inexpensive, hands-in-the-dirt activity, many Ithacans have used gardening to reconnect with the earth and discover the miracle of food. Gardens have even become political symbols, demonstrating resistance to an agricultural system heavily reliant on oil, pesticides and food monopolization. Of course, home gardens were even more prevalent before the arrival of industrial farming and the readily available, inexpensive calorie. At that time, growing crops was a necessity that supplemented people’s nutritional and medicinal needs. So important was the garden in fact, that seeds were often saved from generation to generation and handed down along with other prized familial goods. These seeds, formally known as heirlooms, are stores of information, carrying with them the genetic heritage of the environment in which they were formed and the stories of an earlier time and place.
Today, many of those who garden feel a certain draw to replant these heirloom varieties in their own yards. For one thing, heirloom plants often have a story associated with them, usually related to their origin. The Trail of Tears Bean, for example, is a pole bean that was carried by the Cherokees on their forced march westward, when displaced by white settlers in the 1800s. The Cherokee Purple tomato, presented to the gardening world by a Mr. Green from Tennessee, is one of the very first known black tomato cultivars, which was said to be given by the Cherokee Indians to his neighbor “100 years ago.”
Another reason heirloom varieties have become popular in backyard gardens is because of their role in preserving genetic diversity. For hundreds of years, farmer’s crops were pollinated by environmental mechanisms (wind, water, insects, etc.). Known as open-pollination, this method of breeding changed in the late 19th century when seed growers began to cross-pollinate their crops by hand in order to better predict the traits of the offspring. “Hybridization,” a special process of inbreeding and selective hand-pollination, was highly successful at developing specific traits in offspring and soon hybridization became a staple part of farming.
Hybrid farming was so successful, in fact, that it heavily affected the diversity of plant crops available to consumers. Industrial farmers, who began to grow more and more of the country’s food, chose one or two reliable hybrid varieties to plant from year to year and shunned the less-reliable, less-uniform non-hybrids. The result of this was palpable; according to Seed Savers Exchange, a not-for-profit seed saving organization, from 1980 to 1994, 84 percent of all non-hybrid vegetable varieties were lost.
This scarcity of genetic diversity in food crops is as much a matter of food security as it is of conservation. It was the lack of genetic diversity that led to the Irish potato famine in the mid 19th century, when all the varieties of potato growing in Europe were derived from just two parent varieties. A single fungal disease wiped out entire harvests of the staple food because they all had the same genetic vulnerability to the disease. On a much smaller scale, a similar scenario occurred in 1970-71 when an outbreak of Southern leaf blight ruined 15 percent of the US corn crop. The strength and speed of the blight was the result of the genetic uniformity of the American corn, most of which had been derived from a single line.
Still other gardeners choose heirloom varieties simply because they can offer a superior backyard crop. Unlike many hybrids, which were bred for uniform size and shape and to withstand many miles of travel, heirloom varieties were selected on the basis of flavor and overall quality. This makes for a much tastier food, although, admittedly, it may not last as long on the shelf. Another benefit of heirloom crops is they may be better suited to local conditions. Having spent generations adapting to specific soil and climatic types, heirloom varieties may respond better to local conditions than hybrids, which are bred to be adaptable to a range of conditions. Additionally, heirlooms tend not to mature at the same time, a plus for anyone who plans to eat their crops fresh. Finally, the proficient gardener can save the seed of an heirloom variety to plant the next year. This is not possible with hybrids, whose seeds are usually infertile.
Anyone interested in trying heirloom vegetables or flowers this year need look no further than GreenStar, which is currently carrying a selection of seedlings from Lodi’s Blue Heron Farm, including many heirlooms. There are a number of heirloom tomatoes, including the Cherokee Purple (mentioned above) and the Brandywine, a well-known heirloom variety preserved by the Amish. As for heirloom flowers, Blue Heron boasts varieties of Tiger Eyes Marigolds, Grandpa Ot Morning Glory, Black Prince Snapdragon as well as some Nicotiana and Portulaca mixes.
Is there a noticeable difference between the heirloom flower varieties and commercial ones? As Robin Ostfeld of Blue Heron Farm puts it, “The old-fashioned charm has been bred out a lot of the commercial varieties.”
While many gardeners may find the reliability of hybrid varieties the best fit for their garden needs, there is a certain nostalgia surrounding heirloom cultivars that is hard to resist. They are the antithesis of the industrial model of farming — bucking uniformity, they are intimately tied to the land and people that surround them. They make the garden not only a place for relaxation and respite, but a living story, holding on to the experiences of the past.
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The cold season is here! Fight back with local comfort food — root veggies, Brussels sprouts, greens, squash, parsnips...
Here we go! The cold season! Historically, Dec. 2 to March 11 represents the time when we have to prove our grit and determination while we squirm under the cruel frozen grip of winter's punishingly unforgiving hand. But let's stay warm! Fire up your oven and roast some local produce — Stick and Stone's vaunted root vegetable medley is here! This mix includes beets, carrots, "rutababies," turnips, radishes, and kohlrabi. We've got their Brussels sprouts, too! And The Good Life Farm's Winter Greens Mix and spinach! Blue Heron Farm's winter squash and parsnips (try them mashed with butter!). We have your holiday decorating needs covered with local, organically grown Christmas trees and handmade wreaths from Cope's Christmas Tree Farm in nearby Caroline. Wonderful scents, hearty food, interior warmth provided by piping-hot Littletree Orchards cider — welcome to winter people! It's sledding time.