Monday, July 14, 2008

Garden Journal: Heirloom Seeds Vs. Hybrid Seeds

After sprouting about 40 seedlings, I ended up with just four plants that lived long enough to transplant: two Japanese cantaloupe and two Moon and Stars watermelon. I’m not sure they’ll survive. For one thing, the weather has been in the 90s all summer and, for another thing, the stems of the plants are spindly, I guess because I didn’t grow them under a fluorescent light when they were starting out. They were searching madly for sunshine, so the stems are skinny and pinched in spots, like a kinked hose. I don’t have high hopes for them.

I planted four types of tomatoes in the spring. The Roma tomatoes are ripening and they are horrible. They taste like lousy grocery store tomatoes — mealy, spongy, thick skinned, void of flavor. I picked one last night and bit off a big chunk, but it was so gross I threw it onto my compost pile. I’m not sure what the story is but I’m guessing I bought a crappy type of hybrid seedling from Home Depot. Leave it to that place to sell a bad tomato.

I never gave that much thought to seeds but, since I’ve started taking gardening seriously, I realize how important seeds are. The seeds’ DNA plays a big role in the taste, hardiness, and appearance of the plants. I’ve promised myself to never knowingly buy hybrid seeds again. Hybrid seeds, which come from artificially cross pollinated plants, are much more common than heirloom seeds. Hybrid vegetables have been bred for high yields, disease resistance, long shelf life, and other factors, but the seeds produced by hybrid vegetables aren’t identical to the seeds they grew from, so you have to buy new hybrid seeds every year. On the other hand, heirloom seeds (the term was popularized in 1981 by Kent Whealy of the Seed Savers Exchange) produce fruit with seeds that are just like the seeds that grew them. Heirloom seeds have been passed from generation to generation, farmer to farmer, and gardener to gardener because they are tasty or have other traits desirable enough that people want to save them. It makes much more sense to me to grow heirloom seeds.

The Seed Savers Exchange sells seeds for vegetables I’ve never seen in a grocery store. If a grocery store is a suburban mall pet shop, the Seed Savers Exchange is Noah’s ark. The photos of the melons on their website ( look like alien food props from an episode of Star Trek classic. I ordered a packet of Banana Melon seeds (25 for $2.75) based on the fruit’s unusual shape and color. From the catalog description:

According to the Cucurbits of New York, this variety has been listed as a novelty for as long as American seed catalogs have been in print. Long banana-shaped melon tapered at both ends, 16-24" by 4" diameter. Smooth yellow skin, salmon-pink flesh. Good sweet spicy flavor. 80-100 days.

In addition to the banana melon seeds, I also bought seeds for Cream Sausage tomato, Bloody Butcher tomato, Hillbilly Potato Leaf tomato, Cherokee Purple tomato, Crnkovic Yugoslavian tomato, Miniature Chocolate bell pepper, Sunberry, Aunt Molly's ground cherry, Summer crookneck squash, A & C pickling cucumber, Chioggia beet, Dragon carrot, Empress bean, and a mixture of lettuces: Amish Deer Tongue, Australian Yellowleaf, Bronze Arrowhead, Forellenschuss, Lollo Rossa, Pablo, Red Velvet and Reine des Glaces. If all goes well, I’ll never have to buy these seeds again.