Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

The Seeds They are a Changing

February 12, 2007
Annie Spiegelman
by Annie Spiegelman
Seeds, glorious seeds! This is the time of year when seed catalogues arrive in the mailbox and propel the hortiholic on a spending spree that is off the HOOK, Baby! A couple of years ago I traded in my black boot obsession for an organic, heirloom seed fixation. However, a Macy’s semi-annual 1/2 price shoe sale can instantly spin me away from the soil and back into chic, au courant shoe mania . . . Oh, Mother Earth, forgive me for being a fashion victim! I’m sure it’s someone else’s fault . . .
There are many outstanding seed companies to choose from. I like to support ones that grow seeds organically and have biological diversity. Diversity is nature's survival method.
Here’s a little factoid for you: In 1900, Americans grew 7,000 named varieties of apples. Only ten percent of those exist today. We now have 1900 total named apples. In the last century 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct. Between 1908 and 1983, 92.8% of lettuce varieties were lost.
I know what you’re thinking.
Who needs all those apples? And, who wants all that lettuce?! Just give us Iceberg, what do we know?
According to the web site www.seedsavers.org, whose mission is to save the world’s diverse but endangered garden heritage for future generations, biological diversity is being lost at an alarming rate.
Here on this amazing planet Earth we require diversity in our rainforests, grasslands, deserts as well as in our ecosystems and creatures. This diversity is also critical in our food crops.
When we plant a wide variety of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit, we not only provide habitat for beneficial insects and important pollinators, but we provide a more varied and nutritious diet for humans.
For example, in 1970, a corn blight devastated more than 15 percent of the North American corn crop. The corn was particularly susceptible to the blight because over 70% of the corn being grown in the U.S. came from the same parent lines. Maintaining heirlooms prevent occurrences like the corn blight.
Let’s take the potato famine in 1840s Ireland. Farmers there subsisted on only one staple crop—a single variety of potato. When disease wiped it out, about a million people died of famine-related causes.
Note to self: A Marin girl cannot survive on potatoes alone . . .
Our saviors are here! Here are two of my favorite seed companies:
Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) is a non-profit organization of gardeners who save and share heirloom seeds. Founded in 1975 by Diane and Kent Whealy, Seed Savers Exchange has a scenic 890-acre headquarters located near Decorah, Iowa. As a member of Seed Savers Exchange, you’ll have access to over 11,000 unique varieties of heirloom vegetables, fruits, grains, flowers and herbs through the Seed Savers annual yearbook. Thousands of heirlooms are grown in certified organic fields.
What I love about this organization is that we can still enjoy the same flowers that our grandparents once grew, such as Alcea rosea or the “Outhouse Hollyhock!” Famous on Iowa farmsteads for over a century, refined ladies searched for the hollyhocks and didn’t have to ask where the bathroom was. Glad we still have these self-seeding 6-9’ tall biennials with us. As for the “refined ladies” . . . we’re so over them.
Seed Savers Exchange has a mission: “Saving the world’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.”
Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) opened its door in 1989 and is located on a 16-acre organic Research Farm in El Guique, New Mexico. Their basic mission: “To help preserve biodiversity and promote sustainable, organic agriculture.” The company offers 600 varieties of organically grown seeds for the home gardener or in bulk for market growers. How can you say no to a “Green Zebra” heirloom tomato or a “Sweet Dumpling” squash or a “Yaya” carrot? You can’t.
These two companies have been leaders in the organic market place for years, way before it was all “green, swanky and trendy” to be “organic.” Many recent studies have confirmed that organic seeds have proven their superiority. They offer better emergence, better, adaptability to slow release organic fertilizer systems through more efficient nutrient uptake, and are more resistant to pests and disease.
A final note:
Although insecticide use in the U.S. increased more than tenfold since 1945 to date, crop losses to insects have nearly doubled during this period.
- David Pimintel, Ph.D., Cornell University
You can find “Seeds of Change” seed packets locally at Suburban Habitat, Smith and Hawken, Harmony Farms, Oliver’s Market and Tiller Dig’s.

Top of page

Webmaster Email: banielsen@ucanr.edu