Dear Annie & Doug,
I've been hearing a lot about “heirloom seeds” lately. Should I be using these in my garden? What are they, and how do they differ from store-bought seeds? —Seedless in New England
Farmers and gardeners need not only to grow a wide variety of crops, but also to choose the seeds they use with care. Choosing to use open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that have been passed down through the millennia, instead of the commercially available F1 hybrids, is critical to avoiding conditions that can cause famine, according to Kenny Ausubel, author of Seeds of Change, the Living Treasure. He and other experts around the world contend that far from being a nostalgic movement, choosing a widely biodiverse variety of foods is critical to our future survival.
To understand this crisis, we need to understand
seeds, two kinds, to be specific. One kind is called first generation
(F1) hybrids, which are hand pollinated, patented, often sterile, and
genetically identical within food types and are sold from multinational
seed companies. They have broad commercial appeal because they are
absolutely uniform. The other kind of seeds is called heirloom or
open-pollinated. With heirloom seeds, there are 10,000 varieties of
apples, compared to the very few F1 hybrid apple types. To illustrate
the differences between these seed types, and the consequences of using
each, let's follow two tomatoes – one from an F1 hybrid seed,
and the other from an heirloom, open-pollinated seed – back to their
F1 Hybrid Tomato
When you sit down to eat a salad with a tomato that you bought at a supermarket, chances are that the tomato was grown from an F1 hybrid seed. When you were in the produce section, you probably didn't think about the seed that grew your tomato. You may be very surprised to know that your F1 hybrid tomato came from a seed that is not found in nature.
Breeders make F1 hybrids by causing plants to reproduce using the plant's own pollen. The resulting seeds are genetically identical, a trait desirable for industrial farms, which grow thousands of acres of one kind of food. The seeds are bred for large-scale food production, prizing yield per acre, uniformity of color and consistency, and pest resistance.
There are a number of important problems hidden in the story of F1 hybrids. One is that F1 hybrid seeds have “hybrid vigor” – unusual productivity for the first-generation plant – after which their seeds tend to become sterile, or the plants are weak. Farmers have to buy new seeds every year, posing a serious problem for poor countries.
Second, because the tomato you bought is most likely genetically identical to the tomato you will buy the next day and for the rest of the winter, you will not be getting the variety of nutritional benefits you would if you were eating different tomato types.
Third, if all industrial farms around the country are growing F1 tomato plants, they are forcing out of the market the thousands of diverse tomato varieties that have, over the course of the centuries, adapted to withstand drought, freezing, and blight.
Without preserving diversity, our food supply is vulnerable. The Irish potato famine, which killed thousands of people and caused millions to emigrate in the 1840s, was caused by reliance on one kind of potato that turned out to be vulnerable to a fungus that grew in a damp spell.
According to Seeds of Change, a company that sells heirloom seeds, we now lose three plant species per hour. Today, a blight-resistant alternative food source may no longer exist. In modern times, when difficult blights and fungi attack their F1 hybrid plants, industrial farms use huge amounts of pesticides. Yet pesticide and fungicide-resistant strains of plant diseases are developing all the time.
To find a tomato that is genetically unique, you would most likely have to go to a farmers' market or grow your own. Foods grown from heirloom and open-pollinated seeds have now become that rare.
Open-pollinated seeds are constantly being modified in nature, because the plants cross-pollinate with others in the locale, passing genes back and forth. The genes have been fine-tuned over centuries to a variety of climate and soil conditions, and they have adapted to blight and pests, making the plants uniquely capable of staving off a variety of threats. Seeds survived in this way for millennia before chemical sprays and fertilizers existed. Modern farmers who caretake heirloom seeds almost always grow them organically.
When you add an heirloom tomato to your salad, you will find it more flavorful than the uniform kind available at the supermarket. It may not look perfect, and it may not even look like another tomato plucked from the same plant. Because of this, industrial farmers do not want to grow them, because they don't provide the uniformity or yield of F1 tomatoes. All the more reason to save this esoteric tomato's seeds and pass them on. By doing so, you may save a type of tomato from extinction.
“As we collect seeds, ... we become aware of the part that the ancestors play in getting them to us. Then we have to be aware that we are the ancestors of the next stage,” observes Kathleen Harrison, an associate of Seeds of Change.
To do our part to protect biodiversity, we need to ask local farmers and gardeners who sell at farmers' markets to offer us diverse foods. Or, if you grow your own vegetables, choose open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. If a seed is a patented hybrid, the word “hybrid” is usually included in the name of the seed.
For more information or to order heirloom seeds, contact Seed Savers Exchange, Rte. 3, Box 239, Decorah, IA 52101; 319/382-5990. Or contact Seeds of Change, 1364 Rufina Circle, No. 5, Santa Fe, NM 87501.
MOTH BALL ALTERNATIVES
Dear Annie & Doug,
Help! I discovered moth larvae eating holes in all of my wool clothing. I don't want to use moth balls. Is there anything else I can do to eradicate these creatures naturally? —Liza
You are right to avoid mothballs, which are very toxic. Storing wool when it is clean is the most important prevention for protecting the cloth from moths. (For tips on wet-cleaning wool, see “YES! ... But How?” in the Fall 1998 issue.)
When you discover moths, place dry clothes in a clothes dryer on high heat for about 15 minutes if the fabric can handle the heat, and if not, freeze for two days. Completely seal clean clothes in bags or boxes and store in cedar chests if possible, making sure they are sealed shut.
Good herbs that repel clothing moths include lavender, lemon, cloves, camphor, hyssop, winter savory, rosemary, cassia bark, cedar, sassafras, tansy, thyme, mint, southernwood, or sweet woodruff. Strew herbs in drawers, or place in homemade sachets as described below.
These sachets are lovely to place in drawers and hang in closets.
- 1/8 lb. dried rosemary and mint
- 1/16 lb. dried thyme and ginseng
- 1/2 lb. cloves
- Combine ingredients in a large bowl; blend.
- To make the sachet, choose a natural fiber with a tight weave, such as silk. A good choice for small sachets for drawers and linens is to buy cotton tea bags sold for making your own tea (check health food stores). Another easy option is a cotton bandana, scarf, or handkerchief. Place the plant mixture in the middle, gather the edges together and tie with a ribbon. Sachets of about 4x4 inches are ideal for mothproofing when storing sweaters and other woolens. Sew three sides of the fabric together, fill with the potpourri, and then sew the open side shut.
Dear Annie and Doug,
Can you please tell me about any non-toxic cleaners that I can use in my bathroom on the tile paneling and bathtub? —Eileen
Thanks for asking for my favorite recipe, a homemade soft scrubber:
about 1/2 cup of baking soda in a bowl, and stir in a liquid soap or
detergent until the mixture is the texture of frosting.
- Scoop some of
the mixture onto a sponge, and clean the bathtub and tile walls. Rinse.
Health food stores sell concentrated, all-purpose, liquid detergents and soaps.
Doug Pibel is on vacation; he will return next issue.
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