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The Seedy Truth

by Mary Jasch

The catalogs are out and everyone’s excited! Terms abound: Open-pollinated! Hybrid! Heirloom! F1! Variety! Organic! Treated! (not to mention cultivar) And lately… GMO!

But what, exactly, does it all mean?

Two champions of the home garden catalog world sort it out here: Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds and founder/former owner of Shepherd’s Seeds, and George Ball Jr., chairman, owner, CEO of Burpee Co.

California-based Renee’s Garden sells via its online catalog. Shepherd personally selects, grows, cooks and sells seeds of what she loves, whether open-pollinated (OP) or hybrid, organic or not, heirloom or not.

Burpee, founded by 18-year old W. Atlee Burpee in 1876 on Fordhook Farm in Pennsylvania, selects, grows, breeds (including the first yellow corn in the U.S.) and sells seeds that perform, whether OP, hybrid, organic or not and heirloom or not.

Open-pollinated means pollinated in the open, by wind, pollinator or self. Self usually involves wind.

“It’s a population of plants that is usually homozygous and therefore reproduces true to type. Plants have both male and female parts,” says Ball. “Open-pollinated is an imprecise term in the industry. In industry practice, open-pollinated is used to describe things that are, in some cases, actually hybrids because of mass population. An OP crop is not some wild crop.”

An OP crop can be a selection that is reproduced in isolation to prevent cross-pollination. For instance, white bachelor buttons are grown in a different field location than blue ones in order to maintain color variation. Some OP selections might be isolated in greenhouses. Hybrids can also be produced in isolation, except they have two distinct parents instead of one. (We humans are fortunate we are hybrid instead of OP. And aren’t canine mutts generally considered to be healthier and sturdier than their blue-ribbon parents?)

“In all cases we’re talking about domesticated plants, so right off the bat they’re all artificial. There’s not a one of them that hasn’t been created by humans and as such they require, just like pets and livestock, constant care,” Ball says.

Take corn. Its wild parents grow along roadsides in Mexico and look like most other toughing-it-out straggly grasses. It is unrecognizable as sweet or field corn. Like Elsie the Cow, domesticated corn is an artifice.

Though some corn varieties are touted as OP, they are still varieties, or hybrids.

“Corn is entirely man-made. So when people talk about OP corn versus hybrid corn, it’s sort of like a lie,” Ball says.

F1 Hybrid
F1 and hybrid mean the same thing in all commercial seed catalogs.

“Everybody knows that when everybody in the industry says ‘hybrid’, everybody in the industry means, and has always meant, F1 hybrid,” says Ball, “because that’s what Gregor Mendel was talking about. Technically, one can have a hybrid produced in an OP way, because it is open-pollinated production.”
Corn is one example of a mass-produced hybrid cross. It requires isolation, a practice always done by breeders.

Will two corn varieties in a backyard garden cross? It depends on timing. If airborne pollen pollinates a “ready” stigma, the deed may be done, though most home garden corn has been bred to self-pollinate. Advice: grow corn in patches and practice simple isolations.

It comes from two words: cultivated variety, with variety being the important part.

“Variety means variation that has been fixed either asexually or sexually. Variation has a tendency to vary and varying is what nature does,” says Ball. “So when you fix something you freeze it for a moment in time. It can last 100 years or 1,000.

“One of the first things mankind did was select plants that would nourish him and her that didn’t kill them. They wanted to fix that so that trial and error would be in their favor.”

Varieties have distinct differences: physiological, morphological and metabolic. “Plant breeding is a fancy way of plant selecting. You’re looking for the things you don’t want more than the things that you want because you don’t know as well what is going to happen in the want category, but you sure as heck know what you don’t want.”

Definitions vary depending on who makes them up. There’s no law. Shepherd’s definition: an open-pollinated seed that’s been around for a while, generally 40 to 60 years.

“Old varieties are not better by being old,” Shepherd says. “A lot of the old varieties are interesting for their color and flavor and, maybe as important, their cultural traditions. They are not morally more superior. The important thing is to grow a diversity in your garden, garden organically, and grow what’s best for you. I grow open-pollinated, open-pollinated heirlooms, and hybrids when they’re appropriate. There’s nothing botanic about an heirloom except its age. They’re not better, more moral, more American or politically correct. That’s the part that’s nonsense.”

So, is there danger of losing our food source if we grow hybrids and should we grow open-pollinated seed and save them year-to-year? What would happen then? Do the proponents of heirloom and OP seed really want this? Wouldn’t these companies go out of business if this happened?

Shepherd doesn’t think open-pollinated seeds will disappear as long as people buy them. “If everyone stopped buying seeds from seed packet companies, then those varieties would probably not be preserved because there wouldn’t be anybody growing them out in large quantities under carefully controlled, disease-free conditions.

Says Shepherd: “The main reason I get hot under the collar is I feel that some of this is being used as marketing for some seed companies that try to imply that heirlooms are somehow better than, or morally superior to, or you’re not doing your part if you’re growing, hybrids.

“Hybrids have qualities that they’re selected for. For example, Early Girl and Better Boy tomatoes, very old hybrids. They’re not the result of recent, high-tech genetics. They have real virtues for home gardeners. Another one is broccoli. I think hybrid broccoli is superior for home gardeners than open-pollinated broccoli because it is more productive and more disease resistant. Another one is Chinese cabbage. And there are lots of new lettuces that are very highly bred and selected but they’re not hybrids. So, there are a lot of newer varieties that are still open-pollinated and deserve gardeners’ attention.

“I don’t think it makes much sense to restrict yourself to varieties that are over 50 years old because there’s a lot of good new ones and they don’t have any politics to them. They’re just seeds! That’s where I get on my high horse.”

Says Ball: “An heirloom is an absolutely, stunningly, misused word. I call it the step-child of the fashion world of gardening, the gardening fashion world’s orphan child.”

The heirloom movement began with Gary Paul Nabahn, ethno-botanist and professor, Northern Arizona University, who studied ancient American Indian tribes and their “community seeds.” As an economic strategy, tribes saved seeds every year for the following year’s crops. When tribes moved or were relocated, they had to reselect varieties that were compatible and productive in their new location.

Much later, 18-year-old W. Atlee Burpee would also recognize the need for varieties that would grow disease-free and produce well for North American climates. Seeds brought with farmers from northern Europe’s latitudes and temperatures did not acclimate well to our climates. Most crops either died from disease or were unproductive. At his home, Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA, Burpee created American varieties for U.S. ecological environments.

“That work is plant breeding,” says Ball. “and that work is not what heirloom people do. Heirloom people do no plant breeding. Heirloom people do the opposite. They save old varieties.”

So what is an heirloom, asks Ball? “Whatever anybody wants to tell you and get away with.” Surprisingly, like the Rutgers tomato created for Campbell’s Soup, many, if not most, heirlooms are old foreign and domestic industrial varieties.

Says Ball: “Heirlooms are notorious on several issues: they’re very weak, they’re very late and low-yielding. A lot of times they attract vectors for bacteria and disease that can get into the soil. I do extol the virtues. Some heirlooms are worthy, not a lot, but a few. There are some heirlooms I love. Like Black Krim – there is no flavor duplicated – just an old OP from the Krimea.”

This one’s easy. It is defined by law. Farmers and catalog companies follow strict standards and soil practices and sign an affidavit saying so, make a farm plan, survive rigorous inspection, pay fees and get certified. (At an all-organic farmer’s market, not every variety will have been grown from organic seed. A farmer is supposed to try and look for organic seed for the variety he wants to grow, but if he can’t find it, he’s allowed to use conventional seed.)

“I am an organic gardener for 25 years,” says Shepherd. “My home garden is not according to strict organic standards. If you want to be an organic gardener that’s what’s important; you do not need to have organic seeds to be an organic gardener.

“Many of the gardeners I serve are organic gardeners and what’s important for them is they grow their garden without using toxic substances or chemicals and encouraging wildlife and building their soil.”

Renee’s Garden sells seeds that are not all certified organic because the kinds she wants to sell are not all available certified organic. For instance the little container lettuces, baby romaine and baby butterhead seed sought by fancy market growers are not certified organic because the U.S. market for them is too small for producers to go through the trouble of getting them. Other growers don’t want the added expense of being certified.

Next year Renee will have a range of all organic seeds but it’s taken her a long time to find varieties that meet her standards of quality and appeal. “A lot of organic seed is sold by two or three large producers and there’s nothing wrong with it. I just don’t want to have the same old thing. If I have a choice of buying seed either organically produced or conventionally produced, and it’s from a reputable grower – there’s the key: reputable – then I know it’s being cleaned correctly, getting good germ, it does not have soil-borne disease, they know what they’re doing, then I’ll buy organic seed. I sell organic seed that I don’t necessarily label organic because to me the issue is: be an organic gardener yourself!”

GM or GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)
Forget about it. GM seed is only available to farmers at this time – not to home gardeners.

“If you can find me a home garden seed company that knowingly carries GM seed then I will pay you $1,000. You can’t buy them. You have to go to a farmer and get them from him,” says Shepherd.

GM corn is grown for commercial purposes such as feed corn, corn syrup, corn chips and ethanol. Gardeners whose property abuts a field of GM corn may have cause for concern that their corn may become tainted by wind-borne GM pollen. The only way to know is to ask the farmer. Readiness compatibility and isolation distances also matter. Any farmer that grows GM by law must grow a 20% refuge patch of non-GM corn. Find out why here.

Renee’s Garden seed packets say GMO non-treated “because they are. And so is every other home garden seed company’s.” A few still sell fungicide-treated corn for people who live in colder climates with shorter growing seasons, but that’s the extent of treated seed.

With a view to a sunny seed horizon, “many organic gardeners use hybrid seed, even organic hybrid seeds. Good ones. At Cornell they are breeding hybrid, certified organic varieties. Where I get upset is there seems to be this line drawn that anything that’s a hybrid is less organic. It’s just not the case.”

Some of Cornell’s new certified organic hybrids will be in the marketplace this year and some next. Most are being bred for farm markets and small farmers and will end up being sold by home garden seed companies.

Renee’s Garden: www.reneesgarden.com
Burpee: www.burpee.com
** Listen to a live interview with George Ball here on topics from the heirloom movement to Gregor Mendel and hybrids.

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