What’s On Board?

Heirloom seeds! But a good question to start mining down with is – what is an heirloom?

Seem like a strange question?  It’s one worth asking because there is no official consensus on what the word really means.  To me, an heirloom is a type of plant which fits 2 criteria:  

1.  It will produce seed that can be collected and grown the following year, and will produce plants just like the originals.   Basically, open-pollinated.

2.  It’s worthy.   An heirloom is often a variety that has been around for a long time because of its wonderful qualities and has been preserved, sometimes, by generations of people.  I also believe that some of the newer varieties from more recent years deserve the ‘heirloom’ designation because while they may not have been preserved for 50 or more years, they are so good they’re worth being preserved so that they too will form their own histories.

What is your selection criteria for seeds that you’re working to preserve?

I consider many different things when looking for varieties to add to the ark, as well as whether to continue with others I’ve previously grown. 

 1.  I tend to look for varieties with histories – usually, if people have put such effort into preserving them for a long period of time, they are worth keeping, and have quality attributes.  

2.  I like heirlooms with superior performance – high yields are very important to me in any vegetable I grow.  I still have a few lower yielding varieties in my collection, but I keep those around because they taste absolutely terrific and that makes up for it.  

3.  I also like to collect varieties that have exceptionally high or unique nutritional qualities, like high anthocyanin (blueberry coloured) tomatoes.  

4.  I do prefer varieties that do not need to be coddled in any way, I value ruggedness & resilience in plant genetics.  If a variety is particularly susceptible to bad weather, like fall rains, I will abandon it.  There is only so much room and I want to focus on what is most likely to survive. Not everything can be preserved, so I have give preference to what I’m most likely to succeed with.  

5.  Huge taste & beauty.  Of course taste really matters, as does beauty, but I do not preserve anything that doesn’t taste good no matter it’s beauty, history or story.  I’ve let go of several tomatoes over the years for this reason.  

6.  Crops that would be well suited to a self sufficiency situation are also very high on my priority list.

Why do you have so many tomatoes and beans?

Lots of reasons!  Tomatoes are incredibly hardy plants – I’d call them the most reliable vegetable I grow, nothing preys on them in my garden and they never seem to have problems.  They can be counted on to produce buckets of fruit, never get pests, and grow well both in pots and in- ground.  They also can ripen perfectly fine off the vine.   The volume they can produce per plant is impressive.  So, it’s a desirable crop in my books. They also preserve very easily – whole and unpeeled in the freezer in a ziploc.  Just so many perks to this vegetable – plus, they’re generally delicious.  

As for beans, I love a tender green bean.  I steam them for breakfast.  But, they are also one of the few vegetables (along with peas) where you can actually eat the seeds.  There is something to be said for a vegetable whose seeds can be eaten if need be – you can’t do that with lettuce or cabbage.  Most garden vegetable seeds are not edible.  Pole beans can also produce a tremendous amount of food per plant, both fresh and dried.  Bush beans generally are not as fantastic production wise, but they’re simpler to grow because they don’t need a pole set up.  I am slowly moving away from bush beans as time goes on, given the differential in production between poles and bushes.  Dried beans also can be stored safely as food for long periods of time without needing refrigeration.  There is so much to love about beans as a staple crop.  In a subsistence situation, the high fibre (which helps suppress hunger) in beans is very ideal.  As an added bonus, many are simply gorgeous!  Like Robert Lobitz once said, beans are a poor man’s jewels!

Not everything is described evenly; why do you seem to favour some varieties and not others?

Because I do favour some more than others.  I am honest about my experience of different varieties; you will not find in my listings any suggestion that ‘everything is equally wonderful’ because they aren’t.  Some tomatoes taste better than others, some beans are more tender than others.  I want to bring an honest dialogue to the table in regards to my seeds, I’m a preservationist not a salesman.  Nothing annoys me more than this basic lack of honesty in the seed world.  It’s like going to a car lot and the salesperson telling you every car is equally valuable.

But different traits serve different purposes.  Where one may have superior flavour, another may have superior pest or drought resistance.  An outstandingly delicious variety is a liability if the bugs always get to it first.  All these different traits make up the biodiversity so necessary to life and survival.  If one is living in a subsistence situation, having delicate, gourmet fillet beans may not have the same value as having a more substantial volume of a coarser variety,  the desirability is contextual.  My earliest tomato is not the tastiest, but the most delicious ones are virtually never early – and if you get a shorter than average summer you’ve got some bad luck for tomatoes that year.  Then there is all the middle ground.  Add to all this the fact that how something is grown will often be reflected in how that something tastes.   Where it’s grown will also affect how it tastes, as will the weather both seasonally and geographically.  There are lots of variables in how a variety will both taste and perform; I may grow a tomato that I think is wonderful or even terrible, but someone else in thier different growing conditions may think the opposite.   I just call it as I see it.

Rarity plays a large role…

And of course, what is on board is likely there because it’s rare or even endangered. The ark is a preservationist effort, so that these historical seeds are not lost. Like all things in life there are cycles, and my hope is that while families growing their own food has fallen away and with it the seeds that were planted in those gardens, this will someday change. And when it does change the seeds will be there, preserved, and ready to be planted again in people’s gardens.

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