An important part of any productive garden should be flowers. Flowers attract beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators, and also feed birds (many birds feed on nectar from flowers – these birds are also pollinators). I grow perennial ornamental flowering plants like salvias and lavender in my front yard, interspersed with fruit trees, herbs (which also flower annually), and flowering bulbs. I also grow annual ornamental flowers in window boxes and tubs on my balcony and front stoop. And I have planted what I like to call a ‘mini meadow’ in front of my backyard veggie patch.
What the heck is a mini meadow?
It’s a bit of a laugh really, calling it a mini meadow. It’s far too small to be a meadow. It’s really a rambling flower patch. But it kind of functions like a meadow. A meadow is an open field, planted by grasses and non-woody plants. Meadows play an important role in ecosystems, acting as carbon sinks, and as homes for animals, birds and food sources for pollinators.
My mini meadow doesn’t have grasses, because I weed them out. But it does have a range of flowers, about half of which are self-seeded, and that are non-woody. It attracts pollinators and birds. It lies in front of our retaining wall, and it is planted with the following herbs and flowers:
You don’t have to be precious with a meadow. I stomp all over it on my way to the veggie patch, and it bounces back with no worries. It’s not made to be protected and cossetted. It’s not organised, and it will not win any awards for garden design. Many people would find it too messy to have in their backyard, but it suits my purposes. It is low maintenance, drought tolerant, tough, cheap as chips (as it’s mostly self-seeded), and it does its job of attracting beneficial insects to the veggie patch.
Building a backyard meadow
Growing a mini meadow obviously requires some space. If you want to try it, you will need a bit of spare earth in your garden. You could try creating on on your front verge (I’ve been thinking of doing this on our verge).
I first started building the meadow after my husband finished the retaining wall. He took an extended break before paving in the front. No shade to my husband, who was busy doing other things (i.e. building the trellises I requested) but there was a patch of dirt left for several months. You can’t just leave a patch of dirt hanging about and not expect a gardener to fill it with something. I figured better a couple of flowers than letting weeds set in. So I threw in a couple of nasturtium seeds, just for some easy colour. Then my mum gave me some lovely orange poppies. Then…well, you get the picture.
The soil in that spot had not been improved with anything – it had been compacted because it had previously been paved over. My husband had removed the old paving to install the retaining wall. I loosened up the soil with a fork, and then started planting, but I did not improve it with compost or fertiliser before I began to add plants.
I still have never fed it with anything, not even my homemade compost (I save that for the veggie beds and the fruit trees), and I don’t water it. The rule for my meadow is that aside from some basic weeding to stay tidy, it has to sustain itself. So the meadow has been built on some dodgy, compacted, weedy soil and left to its own devices. Something useful and pretty has developed, at almost no cost.
The only maintenance it gets is some weeding and every now and then, some new plants. Every time I am out in the garden I pull a few weeds from the meadow, or deadhead a flower or two. This weekend I saw it needed a bit more work than that, so I got out the trusty ho-mi, and weeded the whole bed. But that is really a once-a-year task. Because the meadow is planted so closely, weeds rarely get a look in.
Over time, it has developed a lovely rambling vibe that has led me to give it the ‘mini meadow’ epithet. Occasionally, I sprinkle in a few more seeds, or crush a seed pod from a nearby flower head. This keeps it going along its rambling way. The idea is for it to be planted closely and for something to always be flowering to attract bees, lacewings, and hoverflies to my veggie patch. At this time of year, I have daffodils, alyssum, calendula, nasturtiums, and violets flowering. In a few weeks, I’ll have my favourite, sweet peas, and freesias. In Summer dahlias, poppies, nigella, and cosmos are in flower.
When my husband does get to re-paving the backyard, he can dig parts of the meadow up and it will not damage the rest of it – although I will admit that I’ll be sad if it all goes.
Tips for building a mini-meadow
If you have the space for your own little meadow, it’s easy to create one. Fill it with plants that are low maintenance, require little water and attention, and can easily self-seed. Plants that self-seed readily include calendula, alyssum, cosmos, poppies, and nigella. These are also very attractive to bees. As seed heads form and dry, let the seeds fall and re-seed among the bed. You can include annual bulbs like daffodils as well, for a bit of height and interest, although they will only flower once a year. Remember to plant closely so that weeds cannot grow easily between your meadow plants.
Perennials that are worth planting for longer-term colour are dianthus and violets. They will have the added benefit of a beautiful perfume.
Take care that your meadow is relatively self-contained though, as some plants like violets can become weedy if they have room to spread.
April in Southern Australia is spectacular. As we walked by the reservoir this morning, the water rippled in a light breeze, and kangaroos bounded past. We sure are lucky to live in this beautiful part of the world.
After a walk and a quick breakfast, it was out to the garden to soak up some sun. It was just a perfect day to be out in the garden. Even clearing out old pumpkin vines was fun.
I went for a little wander and picked the last of the pumpkins (some Butternuts and a Queensland Blue), a bowl of eggplants, a bunch of carrots, a couple of final tomatoes, and a speckled cos lettuce (so pretty!).
Then I could finish clearing out the last of the Summer plants (except the eggplants, which are still going gangbusters) and clean up the whole garden ready for Autumn. So long, pumpkin vines (always a happy/sad feeling – happy because they are just all over the place, but sad because no more pumpkins). Farewell, tomato plants. I dug over the beds, spread organic fertiliser (pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone), and raked it all to a fine tilth. It’s amazing what a bit of tidying up can do – after a long growing season, when the garden is full of growing apparatus and rambling vines, it looks so neat and tidy when everything is cleared out. In a few months it will be full of plants again, but for now, it looks like the garden of one of those very organised gardeners I see on the internet.
I am organised, but not generally in the long tidy rows kind of way. I wish I was, but space is such a valuable resource in my garden, that I tend to fill in the gaps wherever I can, ruining the tidy line aesthetic so that after a month or so the veggie patch ends up with the same rambling quality as the front yard. I usually don’t mind it, but I did enjoy seeing it so neat today, if only for a moment.
The empty space was empty only briefly, after which I planted:
Garlic Mammoth – I planted out one full bulb, and I have another to plant out next weekend
Golden Acre Cabbage – half a dozen seedlings, grown from seed I saved last year
Red Spring Onions – two full punnets of onion sets, grown from seed
Green VikingSpinach – four seedlings, grown from seed. So far I have yet to grow a full Spinach plant from multiple seeds planted. If these babies fail too, I will go back to the more reliable Chard and Kale
Coriander- two seedlings grown from seed I saved last year
So far I have succeeded in only planting from seed. I planted up new seeds: Purple Sicily cauliflower, Curly Kale, Romanesco broccoli, and more Green VikingSpinach (c’mon little Spinach, you can do it!!).
Every season I become obsessed with growing something just because. You wouldn’t think plain old ordinary Spinach would be one of those things, and yet, here we are. That, and those crazy orange cauliflowers. I sent away for seeds and they sent me back exactly seven (7) seeds! They have all come up, but it’s a long way from seedling to plant, as I have been discovering over the past few weeks. I have a new found respect for plant wholesalers and retailers.
Pumpkin Season Outcomes
This year I grew four varieties of pumpkins: the classic Butternut, Queensland Blue, Australian Butter, and Buttercup. Of these, the Butternut was the most prolific (in fact, I still have a single vine in the corner of the yard that still has five pumpkins growing). Queensland Blue was the next best, and I only got one each of the gorgeous orange Australian Butter and Buttercup. However, I already know I will grow Buttercup again – I’ve already saved the seeds ready for next year. That was the most delicious pumpkin I have ever eaten. I hope next year it will grow more productively than this year.
In previous years, I have had excellent success with Kent pumpkins (also known as Jap in other parts of Australia). I will grow these again next year, as I can’t beat them for their output, although they are not as tasty as either Butternut or Buttercup.
Mostly I grow them because it’s fun, and they are so pretty. I am just happy to have ten organic pumpkins in my pantry, ready for soup and curries. They keep so well, I expect to have pumpkins for at least the next six months (if I can hold off eating them that long).
It’s the October long weekend here, which is one of my favourite mini-breaks. I love it because it’s Springtime in Southern Australia, a few months before Christmas, and we have a bit of time to get some things done around the garden.
It’s always great being in the garden at this time of year, because there are flowers everywhere. All the spring flowering bulbs are out, as well as my favourites, the sweet peas. This year I have three varieties in flower. They always make me feel happy.
This time I am not spending the whole weekend in the garden as I have a deadline, but I decided to take two full days off for the first time in…bloody ages actually.
I booked a big skip bin and my husband and I made plans to clear out our sheds of extraneous junk. A lot of the junk was left over from the guy that lived here before us (yes, still!), and from building our retaining wall and renovating our bathroom. Some of it is just from the accumulation of life.
We filled up a 4m cube bin really quickly. I would not say we are collectors, but it was kind of depressing how quickly we filled a pretty large bin.
The other job left over from building the retaining wall was moving the clean fill back to the garden. This has taken me many months, partly because it is a boring job, partly because there is a lot to move, and partly because it’s really hard. There’s only so much shovelling dirt into buckets and moving it around the garden I can do in one hit before this old lady collapses in a corner. However, this weekend I managed to clear a whole section. I am really happy about that. You can actually see the pathway next to the shed now. Only one section to go (the biggest, of course), then all I have to do is power wash the whole thing and it will look great. Or at least, not filthy.
Some of the buckets of dirt went to build pumpkin mounds. Curcubits (pumpkins, zucchini, squash etc) are prone to powdery mildew, which is exacerbated by getting their leaves wet. A way to help prevent this is by planting them on little hills or mounds, then watering the base of the plant. I used the spare buckets of dirt (which was originally from my garden), to build hills. Then I mixed in a bit of compost, and planted pumpkin seeds in the top. I planted four types of pumpkins: AustralianButter, QueenslandBlue, ye olde Butternut, and Buttercup. Hoping for a great pumpkin crop this year after last year’s sad effort.
I cleaned out the chicken coop, and let the chooks go for a wander while I did that. After I replaced their straw I went looking for them, calling out their “chookchookchook!” call that lets them know it’s time to come inside. One of them trundled along, but the others just called back and didn’t come back to the yard. After a bit of searching I found all three tucked up under a rhubarb bush, having a dust bath together. I decided to let them be. Twenty minutes later I caught them trying to dismantle a new pumpkin mound, and unceremoniously tossed them back in their pen. Naughty!
It was raining on and off, so when it was raining I slipped undercover and planted up some seed trays for Summer veggies. This year I am not giving quite so much space to tomatoes, because I need the soil to recover from all the tomatoes I grew last season. It’s not good to grow tomatoes in the same spot, year-on-year. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a massive space, that reduces your tomato-growing opportunities. I will grow a few, but I just can’t grow as many. This year the plan is go hard on squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, corn and beans, as well as the necessary chillies and eggplant. Hopefully I can swap some of these with my brother, who always grows great tomatoes. So far I have planted:
Chilli Devil’s Tongue;
Tomato Sweet 100;
Tomato Jaune Flamme;
Onion Long Red Florence;
Cucumber Crystal Apple;
Melon Pocket; and
Watermelon Golden Midget.
The Devil’s Tongue are from seed I saved a couple of years ago, and that I am hoping are still viable. These were seriously great chillies. Lovely and hot, but still flavourful, and the most prolific plants I have ever grown. Fingers crossed at least some of the seeds grow.
I do not have the greatest of luck with cucumbers and melons, yet paradoxically have generally good fortune with pumpkins (last year notwithstanding). What works for one should technically work with the other, as they are related, however it doesn’t seem to be the case for me. Therefore I intend to give them yet another crack and try something different. Not entirely sure what that will be yet. If anyone has any suggestions to grow cracking cues and melons, I’m all ears.
These were planted up in trays with seed-raising mix. It’s a smidge cold still but I decided to give it a shot anyway – it’s the start of October after all, and if I wait too much longer it will be late November before I have plants large enough to plant out.
The rest of my garden space will be set aside for climbing beans and a little bit of space for some eggplant. I will wait until the end of October/early November to plant them. Once my major deadline is done in late October, I plan to have a week off and then it’s planting time. Can’t wait!
Spring in Southern Australia is definitely the perfect season and the perfect place to be in the world. We are fortunate to be out of lockdown, with easing restrictions and minimal COVID-19 cases in our State. The weather is perfect. I want to be outside all day, everyday.
I do have to work, but as I am a freelancer, I have the gift of mostly setting my own hours. This means I can try to spend at least some time outside each day. Right now I am sitting under the pergola, eating a curry and feeling the warm air. I did try to concentrate on work this morning, but I kept looking outside, feet jiggling under my desk, and finally I gave up. The work will still be there tomorrow!!
This weekend I cleaned up the blind spot in the garden that annoys my neighbour more than it does me, because I can’t see it, and he can. He doesn’t complain about it, but he has mildly mentioned once that he would like the weeds to be removed before they flower so the seeds don’t blow into his yard.
I have struggled to deal with this spot. It gets mostly shade, and it is right by our large covered pergola. I don’t want to grow a lot here, but I will have to grow something to out-compete the annoying thistles and other weeds that have taken up residence. The last owners of the house also planted some bloody annoying bamboo, that continually re-seeds, and the back neighbours have ivy that climbs from their place over the fence. And finally, because our house is 2.5 storeys, the fence line is sunk about two metres from ground level and slopes down to the front yard, meaning that if I want to remove other weeds near the fence line, I have to climb down into what could be a haven for snakes. It’s not a fun time. This is why I leave the whole stinkin’ lot until I know John is cursing the sight of it.
Cleaning up thistles, ivy, and bamboo is a boring and hard job. However, I have a plan in place to minimise this task in the future. Some would say to spray the whole lot with glyphosate and be done with it, but I don’t use any poisons in my garden, so I need to be more creative than that. Part the first of my plan is chooks. They are allowed to free-range back there. I figure that once the giant weeds are gone, they will be able to quickly manage any newbies that pop up their heads. Part the second is to plant ground covers, such as violets, calendula, nasturtiums and others that will quickly take over and prevent such rampant weed growth. I have done this in other parts of the garden and it is successful. And part the third, as mentioned last week, is to plant shallow-rooted fruiting vines such as berries, to take over from the ivy. While also potentially annoying, at least it will fruit and be useful for both us and the chickens.
I am also planting climbers against the chicken coop to provide shade in Summer. After some thought, I chose a climbing jasmine for one side. If that does well in that spot, I will plant another. I originally planned a passionfruit vine, but I think it will not receive enough sun there.
After the boring work, I got to have some fun. The garden is producing a lot of late Winter/early Spring veggies, including this stunning Romanesco broccoli. It weighed in at 760 grams, which is not too shabby. I roasted half of it in a baked chicken and sweet potato dish with smoked paprika and oregano that all declared delicious. Roasted broccoli is yummo. Romanesco in particular lends itself well to roasting, as it has nice strong florets that roast nicely.
I also picked the remaining kale, and made kale and parsley pesto. As we cannot eat nuts in our house, I use pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as the ‘nutty’ element. Basil pesto is nicer, but the kale pesto is still good. And that is the last of the kale for the year: it was a pretty nice crop this time around.
The dud for the Winter season was the purple kohlrabi, which has not put on any nice bulbs, and the regular broccoli, which bolted straight to seed the first sunny day.
On the plus side, the tomato and chilli seeds I planted two weeks ago are popping up their heads in this warm weather. I planted:
Tomato Moneymaker, which the Heirloom Tomato book tells me is one of the most prolific tomatoes you can grow, but not the tastiest 🙁
Tomato Sweet 100;
Chilli Anaheim – second time around for this one, hopefully it grows;
Watermelon Golden Midget – every year I say ‘this is the last time I try growing watermelons’ – and every year I give them another crack. Gardening is the triumph of optimism over experience.
This afternoon I am going digging through my saved seeds to pull out the best chillies I have ever grown (Devil’s Tongue – both spicy hot and prolific) and the best tomato (Jaune Flamme – bright orange and delicious). Hopefully the seed is still viable. I am going to plant them out in seed trays and see what happens. Fingers crossed!
After a week of record heatwave conditions in our region, this weekend was about repair work, mostly. About half the tomato bushes were pretty much dead, so we picked off the tomatoes that were left on them, and pulled the bushes up. I pruned the dead leaves off the other bushes, and we watered them well.
Half my potted plants died, including all of our window boxes on the balcony. We watered the poor darlings twice a day, but the hottest day in half a century did them in. We also lost some of the plants under the fully shaded patio; this gives you an idea of the intensity of the heat.
My baby avocado tree may still die. It’s previously chirpy new leaves now resemble pot pourri, making for one very sad gardener and an even sadder tree. I am hoping that ongoing watering will bring it back. It is shaded, but alas – see above re hottest day in half a century.
Our two mornings in the garden weren’t all doom and gloom. We had a gorgeous garden helper on one day, my three year old niece, who helped me pick corn and started digging out our potato crop. She informed me that she “doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes, but I do like gardening ‘tatoes.” We spend an enjoyable half an hour digging spuds until she announced that it was very hard work and she had had enough. We went inside and ate freshly picked sweet corn for lunch, followed by cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles as a reward for all our hard work.
The following day, my husband and I continued our spud harvesting. We planted RedOtway potatoes in October 2018. We do the traditional trench planting method, hilling up the plants with soil and sugar cane mulch as they grow. We stop hilling up once we have run out of soil and have calculated the cost of the mulch is not worth the amount of spuds we can possibly get.
Digging up spuds is a dicey affair. You have to be careful not to cut them with your spade. Our method is to dig around the base of the plant carefully (see above), exposing the tuberous treasure below. My niece was quite delighted to find tiny potatoes still clinging to the roots of the plants after I dug up the large potatoes, and made me pull off and keep every tiny spud.
This was our second year growing potatoes. In 2017 we harvested the week before Christmas, and our potato crop was prolific, but small in size. This year we waited another five weeks and were rewarded with much larger potatoes (similar weight crop). We planted only one variety this year, choosing the RedOtway variety because it had performed the best for us in 2017. From 1 kilogram of certified seed potatoes, we harvested 10 kilograms of potatoes.
A former colleague informed me that growing potatoes is a waste of time and money, given they are so cheap to buy. I probably can’t argue with his overall economic assessment, as he is much smarter and definitely richer than me. Potatoes certainly could not be described are as a cheap crop for the home gardener. They require an investment in certified seed potatoes, mulch, fertiliser, a lot of space in your garden, and water during warmer months. But I still enjoy growing them. It is almost impossible to buy really fresh potatoes in the shops, and new potatoes taste wonderful. Growing your own also enables you to grow varieties you might not be able to find in the shops. RedOtway is a lovely potato, that is not commonly found. Lastly, it’s fun. Sitting outside in the sunshine with a three year old as she sits in a big pile of dirt searching for hidden treasures is just a great time, even if she doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes (she refuses to believe chips are ‘tatoes).
This brings me to my second harvest of the weekend, PaintedMountainCorn. This ancient variety is hundreds of years old, and is grown for maize and for popping. I grew it for fun and interest, and because I like to help continue endangered heirloom varieties.
I picked the corn once the husks had dried on the stalks, and dried it in the oven on a low temperature. I was stripping the kernels from the cobs and showing my youngest child, a teenager of 14, and explaining that we will be able to pop it on the weekend. I was telling them the history of this corn, and how continuing to grow corn like this contributes to the genetic diversity of the planet.
They stared at me for a long moment, listening to the ‘plink plink’ go the kernels falling into the tray.
“You are such a hipster. Even worse. You’re a nerd hipster.”
Correction: a nerd hipster with a jar of rainbow popcorn.
The Svalbard Seed Vault achieved a milestone in February when it reached one million species stored in its arctic vault in Norway. The Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday or Apocalypse Vault, stores seeds to protect the genetic diversity of the world’s agricultural crops. It is one of several seed vaults around the world, and saves the seeds that humanity relies on to feed itself, in case of war, environmental catastrophe, famine, or other global crises.
My seed vault is not hidden inside a sandstone tunnel in the Arctic, like a Bond villain’s hideout (although I wish). It’s my pantry, which is a cellar in our house. It is nice and cool, but not Norwegian ice fortress or Bond villain hideout cool. I also don’t have one million species. At the moment I probably have about twenty, saved over the past three years as our garden has grown and produced plants that have been worth saving.
Like one of my heroes, agricultural activist Vandana Shiva, I regard saving seeds as a political act. Many of the plants and seeds we have available to us are developed and owned by large agricultural companies, which are in turn owned by larger companies. Seeds are our heritage, not just because as humans we have selected and saved them and passed them down through generations, but because as beings that share this planet with all the other species that live on it, we owe a debt that requires we help ensure the genetic diversity of plants. A seed is a gift from the plant that came before it, and a promise of a new life. For millennia, plants have reproduced using this effective system, and plants, humans and animals have been the beneficiaries in a symbiotic relationship that has enabled all of us to survive and thrive.
Previously, gardeners and farmers would select the strongest or most productive varieties, and save the seeds of those plants for the following season. This would result in strong and productive plants being retained over generations. This practice also developed genetic diversity of plants over generations, as farmers and gardeners would select for plants that grew well in their local conditions. A tomato variety that grew well in one region would be saved and passed down, while a different tomato variety would be saved and passed down in another. Sometimes, a plant would mutate and a new variety was born. If that plant was stronger, tastier, or more productive, the seed would be saved and passed on. This is one way that we have ended up with such an interesting variety of plant species. A good example of this in Australia is the Granny Smith apple, which was an unexpected seedling that grew in the backyard of a lady called Maria Smith. The apple was so delicious and useful, she propagated the plant and it became one of the most popular apple varieties in the world, valued for its usefulness as a cooking apple. The Granny Smith Apples we eat today are all propagated clones of the original tree from Maria Smith’s garden.
In my small way, I contribute to this sustainable process. Last year, I grew a chilli plant I purchased from a gardener’s market. Labelled Devil’s Tongue, it grew more prolifically than any chilli I have grown. The plant itself was the largest chilli plant I have ever grown, and produced more chillies than I have ever seen one plant produce. It was also the hottest chilli I have ever tasted. That is fine by us, as we love hot chillies (particularly my husband, who will put hot sauce on anything). However for many people, it was just too hot! I couldn’t give many of these chillies away.
We loved it though, and at the end of the Summer, I saved the seed and planted it again this year. The chillies are just beginning to form, rather later than last year, but I am hoping for another bumper crop. The Devil’s Tongue is an heirloom, or open-pollinated plant. This means that its seeds have produced another plant the same as its parent. If it does well again, I will know that this is a reliable plant and I can feel confident to share my Devil’s Tongue seeds with other gardeners – if they dare (insert crazed Bond villain laugh here, mwah ha hahhhhhhhh).
Since the 1930s, large seed companies have been developing plants called ‘hybrids.’ These plants grow “true to type” (that is, as the packet says it will) for the first season. However, any seeds the plant then produces, if planted, will not grow true to type, if at all, the following season. As such, if you want to grow the same plant again, you will have to buy fresh seed.
For example, this year I grew a sweetcorn, Jubilee, a hybrid. It was fantastic: sweet, juicy, high yielding, and pest free. I’d love to grow it again. But if I want to grow it again, I will have to find the seeds from the same company. It’s a relatively large seed company, so that should be easily done.
Sometimes there are good reasons to hybridise plants. Plant breeders do it to breed stronger plants, or plants with certain characteristics, such as a high yield, good storing capability, or uniformity. Many of the common agricultural crops, as well as the seeds and seedlings we buy at large nurseries are hybrids. Farmers know that they can rely on the result if they plant them.
So what’s the problem? The corn I grew was great!
Reliance on hybrid plants reduces crop and plant diversity.
Heirloom, or non-hybridised, plants reproduce themselves year on year. Over time they may also throw up an occasional “sport” or genetic mutation. This can happen if they are cross-pollinated by wind or a bee, or can occur spontaneously. If this mutation is a better yielding plant, tastes better, or has better disease resistance, a new plant is born and the biodiversity of our foodchain and our planet is increased. As hybrid plants don’t produce new productive plants (they will still grow, but not reproduce reliably or at all), there is no opportunity for anything new from my hybrid sweetcorn. At best I may end up with a plant that is a weakened version of one of the parents that was used to create the original plant. I won’t get back my Jubilee corn – if I want the exact corn, I have to buy new seeds. This leads me to the next point:
2. Hybrid plants are more expensive.
These plants were created by companies for commercial purposes. They don’t reproduce reliably, so farmers and gardeners have no choice but to buy new seed each year. In the past, farmers saved seed for the following year. This saved money for farmers, and also contributed to genetic diversity as farmers in different regions saved seeds that did the best in their environmental conditions.When we plant hybrid seeds instead of growing open-pollinated or ‘heirloom’ plants, gardeners must rely on seed companies and nurseries for plants. Farmers must buy seeds from companies that produce seeds for their corporate conditions. This is of particular concern in developing countries, where farmers have been convinced to buy hybrid seeds on a promise that it will be higher yielding or pest resistant, only to find that they are trapped in a cycle of buying seeds annually. I can afford to buy a fresh $2 packet of sweetcorn seeds each year if I want to. A farmer in a developing country may not be able to afford to buy canola seeds for his farm each year. Purchasing seeds each year is a cost that poorer farmers could do without – and they have done for thousands of years until the late twentieth century.
3. Health, taste, and experience.
Many heirloom plants are not grown commercially because they do not travel well or store well in cold storage. We do not see them on our supermarket shelves. We grow used to seeing one kind of apricot, two kinds of nectarines, one variety of carrot, the black zucchini, the green broccoli, the white cauliflower. We think that this is the only kind of fruit and vegetables that exist because these are the varieties grown commercially and sold to us. By limiting the plant foods that are grown to only those that can travel in planes and trucks, and stored in the fridge, we are also limited in our understanding of what food tastes and looks like. For example, there are more than 7,500 apple varieties and 400 varieties of bananas, but in Australia we are able to buy about six varieties of apples and three varieties of bananas commercially.
Why is this a problem?
To me, it is a problem because our food choices, preferences, and health are being dictated not by what is healthiest or tastiest, but by what is commercially most viable. The Red Delicious is in my view, a pretty average apple (it looks like a cartoon apple, and tastes like cotton), but it is still sold commercially over other, tastier apples because it travels and stores well. The standard supermarket tomato does not taste anything like the Jaune Flamme I grew this year, but that tomato would not stand up to the rigours of the modern commercial supermarket; it’s too soft and ripens too quickly. Yet this gorgeous heirloom tomato is not only high in Vitamin C, but is also high in beta-carotene, is highly productive, and delicious. A hybrid tomato will tolerate being transported long distances and will put up with being handled by fussy supermarket shoppers.
An article in Scientific American , citing a paper published in the American Journal of Nutrition, reported that many of the fruits and vegetables we buy today are less nutritious than those available several decades ago. The paper found that this is because vegetables have been developed with a focus on certain characteristics to meet commercial requirements (size, uniformity, pest resistance). This has resulted in vegetables that are unable to take up nutrition from the soil because they grow too large, too quickly. The article did warn that fruit and vegetables are still nutritious – just not as nutritious as they used to be, because the focus was on breeding plants that grow to a certain size and appearance, rather than on nutrition.
So now what? Do we all stop growing hybrid plants?
I can’t say that – it would be hypocritical, for one thing. I grow some ornamental and edible hybrid plants, and I will into the future. I do think that hybrids have a place in the world. I think that hybrid plants can be better plants under certain environmental conditions, and in many instances offer plants that are uniform and high yielding for the home gardener. As a home gardener that can afford to replace seeds annually, there will be certain types of seeds that I will buy that I know are hybrids.
I also am not self-sufficient. I buy supermarket and produce market fruits and vegetables when I need to, and I understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to have a patch of dirt to grow the food that I do. Growing my own heirloom carrots is a time-consuming luxury, and I still have to buy the commercially grown carrots most of the time.
However, as my mini-seed vault grows, the number of hybrid plants I do grow and rely upon will be fewer. I want to be able to be mostly self-sustaining, particularly for the annual food plants I grow. I also want my children to grow up knowing that a zucchini can be golden or spherical, a pumpkin can look like a turban, and an apple doesn’t have to look like it came from a witch’s basket.
In my next post on Seed Saving I will go through some easy ways you can start saving seeds, and some simple plants you can try to grow if you want to save seeds.
*Please note that hybrid seeds and GMO – Genetically Modified Organisms – are not the same thing. A hybrid seed is created when two varieties of plants are crossbred. A good explanation of the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and GMO seeds can be found here.