February 1, 2011

The Safe Seed Dance

Yep, winter in Chicago is when we fantasize about warm weather and sunny skies.  And when we gardeners fantasize about our gardens, plan for them, fantasize about them some more, then order seeds.  Then fantasize again, and then order more seeds.  This post is about edible plants and safe seeds.

Most of us are aware of the presence of genetically modified organisms (e.g., GMOs) in our food. You may or may not be aware that this means many seeds for sale are also genetically modified, and it is not always obvious who is who in the seed biz.

Monsanto is the big player in the modified crop game, producing not only future Frankenfoods but Round-Up Ready crops.  These are resistant to the popular chemical weed killer so spraying can be done for other weeds without harming the desirable plants.  In other words, altered DNA is in the food supply and in the soil.

This has lead to more people growing their own food to be sure it is GMO and chemical free, hence the "safe seed" moniker.  There are other reasons to grow your own food.  It is cheaper, it is environmentally beneficial, and it is fun. 

Heirloom plants have become quite popular along with the edible gardening boom over the last few years.  These are old-timey plants that often produce unusual and colorful fruits and veggies, and are known for their great flavor.  Much of the produce in grocery stores is grown to travel well.  So you may have a pretty little cherry tomato, but when you take a bite, it's like trying to bite in to a rubber ball.  Probably bounces pretty well, too.

Heirloom plants are open-pollinated, which means nature does it's thing.  It also means they will grow true to seed unlike hybrid plants.  So you will get a plant that looks and acts like the one you grew.  Hybrids, be they ornamental or edible, are hand-pollinated or produced by tissue culture.  So far I have not heard that any bees are capable of doing that.  Then again, why should they.  So if you save the seeds of heirloom plants you will be able to reproduce what you grew.  This is a plus for keeping your favorites, and for keeping diversity in our food supply. 

One more point.  Besides checking on the parent of a seed company, you need to check on their seed sources.  The folks on the catalog cover may look all homey or hippie, but there could be a Monsanto connection or another corporate parent.  Seminis is wholly owned by Monsanto and is the largest grower and marketer of vegetable seeds in the world.  Seeds of Change is owned by Mars, Inc. and in 2010 they let staff go and moved from Santa Fe to LA.  It is up to you if you are OK with any of that or not, but I think everyone should know who they are ordering from.  So do your research.  It may change with the seasons.

With that background, let's get to my recommended safe seed companies for 2011:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Botanical Interests, Inc.
Husdon Valley Seed Library
John Scheeper's Kitchen Garden Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Renee's Garden
Terroir Seeds (Underwood Gardens)

I'm sure there are more.  Please share your favorites here.

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