Gardening for Life

natural gardenHave you ever noticed how happy and centered gardeners tend to be? Could it be from communing with nature, sharing nutrient-rich harvests with others, or knowing that every increased amount of greenery helps battle the environmental problems our world faces? For me, playing in the dirt – as I often refer to gardening – is just that. Play time, time for meditation and to listen to the birds. Yet, gardening can mean so much more.

For many years, my family has been dedicated to preserving rare and endangered garden seeds. We tried the hybrids, but after a while we realized they were just not performing like the old varieties. Whether it was small yields or poor tolerance to heat waves there always seemed to be something wrong with them. About 22 years ago we became members of Canada’s Heritage Seed Program – now known as Seeds of Diversity Canada – and have never looked back.

Thousands of Seeds of Diversity members play a critical and rewarding role in saving plant genetic diversity. The program works with many other groups and governments around the world to preserve a vast seed bank. Canadian members, usually backyard gardeners, agree to choose a few varieties from a vast array of crops, grow them out for seed and re-offer some to members the following year.
Terms like ‘Heritage’, ‘Heirloom’, ‘Open-pollinated’, ‘Hybrid’ and ‘Genetically Modified’ used to describe seeds are confusing enough all by themselves, but are made even more so by people using the terms interchangeably.

What is Heritage, Heirloom and Open-pollinated?

Heritage varieties, (known for at least 300 years) and Heirloom varieties (known for at least 50 years), are both open-pollinated crops. Open-pollinated means the pollination duties are left to insects and wind, so seeds and crop variants are produced naturally – providing a large gene pool of disease resistant and environmentally compatible traits. To be environmentally compatible the plant must have the ability to thrive in each area’s unique growing situations (microclimate), such as varied climates and soil conditions, pollution and wind exposure.

Because seed savers pick from the best of the crop, the plant is continually improved and its compatibility with the microclimate increases. Certain aspects – like hardiness, early ripening, larger or sweeter fruits – can be encouraged by saving seeds from those with the desirable attributes. When food crops are not weakened or stressed, the plants are not compromised resulting in a nutrient rich food.

Only a few generations ago every little valley, every little hillside had its own plant varieties. When people migrated they often took their family’s seeds with them. Today, when our elders move into retirement homes or discontinue gardening due to physical restraints, much of their plantings are allowed to die out. Without realizing it we are losing varieties on a regular basis.

These unique breeds are becoming rare and will eventually face extinction if we fail to keep them alive and growing. For instance, two surveys between 1900 and 1981 revealed that 7,000 fewer apple varieties were grown within that time period in North America. Yet even now, after losing so much diversity there is estimated to be around 2,000 varieties of beans and 6,000 kinds of tomatoes. Every single one has a particular history, a particular DNA sequence, and a particular set of nutrients. There are more distinctive color, size and shape variants available in heritage seeds. For example, some tomatoes are red, pink, yellow, orange, black, green, white or purple. However, only a few types are grown commercially, while the others are slowly being forgotten and lost over time.

And the great danger here is when the few varieties that are grown become prone to diseases. Remember the Irish potato famine of 1845 that caused the death of a million people and forced another million to emigrate? There was a similar occurrence in 1970 where corn blight infected some American states by as much as 50%. By growing only a few related varieties, these epidemics can, and will, occur again. By the time we realize that our crops are failing and the only way to save them is to find an old variety; it may be too late. That is the fear.

About Genetically Modified and Hybrid seeds:

Hybrid seeds are created when two unique parents are mechanically cross-pollinated resulting in greater uniformity. But because the process must be repeated each year to produce desirable seed, hybridizing is an effective way for companies to control the seed trade.
Introducing foreign genetic material on a molecular scale produces genetically modified (GM) crops. Big agribusiness sectors are excited about GM crops that either reduce crop-spraying costs or increase marketability. GM foods, they tell us, are essential in order to more safely use pesticides and continue to grow in an unnatural manner. Yet, the use of monoculture (fields of one crop) increases susceptibility to pests, droughts, diseases and soil deficiencies. Organic, biodynamic growers know there are other ways to handle these problems. Growing the appropriate variety for the microclimate, incorporating mulch, attracting beneficial insects and inter-planting to improve soil fertility are some of the methods we employ.

In some cases, it can actually be illegal to save GM seeds. A registered trademark indicates genetic manipulation and that is the legal property of the labs that designed it. Biopiracy, or bioprospecting, occurs when companies purchase patent rights over the development of certain gene combinations. In some cases, they have incorporated terminator genes (a.k.a. suicide seeds), which will not germinate.

Usually, gardeners can legally save hybrid seeds, but when these seeds are grown, they are shocked to find the seeds did not produce true to form. Instead, it will begin to revert to one or another of its parents and its seeds will be different every year thereafter. But heritage seed will always produce true to form as long as proper seed-saving procedures are followed.

Biotechnology promises to feed more people with foods “enriched” with vaccines, antibiotics, nutrients, flavors and chemicals. These altered fruits and vegetables are bred for tougher skins that prevent damage during shipping and reduce moisture loss, resulting in a prolonged shelf life. Here lies the very real possibility of altered nutritional values and flavors. These foods give the illusion that they are fresher than they are, but because foods lose their nutrients as they age, the consumer could be fooled into buying a nutritionally compromised product.

Unfortunately, GM crops can also contain foreign genes from animals, like fish and pigs, (bad news for the vegetarian), or from substances used to control pests, such as Bt and ‘Round-up’. These crops are developed to support commercial growers that desire the convenience of being able to spray, killing the weeds or pests without harming the crop. Yet, pests and weeds build up a tolerance over time and these altered crops have proven to kill indiscriminately. In Thailand, 30% of their bee population died in areas where Bt cotton was being tested and in North America Bt corn proved toxic to monarch butterflies. Sadly, because many plants are pollinated by the wind, an organic grower can be contaminated by these kinds of crops and lose his certification as well as his crop sales for the year.

There is also the issue of genetic engineering resulting in new recombinant compounds. Consider the now infamous case of the GM Brazil nuts that were modified with soybeans and resulted in numerous and severe allergic reactions in human consumers.

No matter how you weigh in on this issue, genetically altered crops are a part of our future. To blindly reject, or accept, a new technology is not wise. Already successes have been attained in places like Eastern Kenya where disease-free GM bananas saved people from starvation. Yet in order for any hope to be had, a huge genetic bank is necessary.

It is vital to understand that we are being robbed of bionutrients every time we lose a species. We have no idea what kind of benefits, medically speaking, these endangered plants may have. How do we know if a particular variety may hold our only hope of dealing with acid rain or global warming? We could already have lost the cure for cancer without even knowing it.

What can you do?

“The thing is, to start where you are”, says Joanne, my wise and aging mother. “You can pass on the information. Make a difference by way of example. Choosing open-pollinated varieties is a way you can support biodiversity. Choosing to grow them using organic methods is a way you can preserve the environment from contaminated ground water and poisoned plants.”

Growing crops that your grandparents, or great-grandparents, can remember from their youth can be quite an experience for the whole family. Seeing the exotic array of colors, shapes and flavors on your kitchen table that can not be found in grocery stores, is a thrill on its own. These are the benefits of growing non-hybrid crops. Going one step farther by saving the seeds and sharing with others is a way you can help preserve genetic diversity.


  • Seeds of Diversity Canada’s periodical magazine & their book ‘How to Save Your Own Vegetable Seeds’
  • Canadian Gardening Magazine Vol. 5 No.6 ‘The Seed Savers’ By Ann Rhodes
  • Gardens West Magazine Vol.6 No.4 ‘The Importance of Heritage Seeds’ by Dan Jason
  • ‘Live Lightly on the Land’ by Dan Jason Avail. Through Salt Spring Seeds
  • Special thanks to Jim Ternier, of ‘Prairie Garden Seeds’ for his invaluable comments on this article.
  • Ann Safford

    Ann is a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three children and a multitude of pets including her dog, two cats, a horse and six chickens.She enjoys writing about natural living, simple lifestyles and frugal living.Her hobbies include spending time with her family, horseback riding and gardening.

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