Here in Far New England, we have seasons the rest of the world can't imagine. Stick season falls between the departure of leaf peepers and the arrival of skiers. Mud season, which may or may not coincide with sugaring season, bridges winter and spring. And right now it's seed season, my favorite of all.
Momentarily, mailboxes all over Vermont will open their ice-encrusted doors to receive the year's new seed catalogs, and growers everywhere will throw another log on the fire and settle back with the new crop of titillating garden porn, page after glossy page of sun-blessed fruits and vegetables glowing in golden light and tempting all comers with promises of summer. Against such a seductive tableau of color and possibility, the winter blues have no chance.
Now we dream of tomatoes, basil, and beans. Carrots, cucumbers, and kale. The only question is… what to plant? Open-pollinated seeds? Hybrids? Heirlooms? Is there really any difference? You bet your beets there is.
Hybrid seeds are the result of intentional cross-pollination between two varieties of the same plant designed to produce certain traits in the resulting crop like disease resistance, higher yield, or bigger fruit. They're not to be confused with genetically modified seeds which have had their DNA synthetically scrambled in the lab.
Hybrid seeds can produce great things, but boosting one trait often comes at the expense of another like flavor or nutrition. And second generation seeds are usually sterile or produce plants lacking the hybrid's characteristics. That's why hybrid seed is often labeled "F1,"which means it's first generation and guaranteed to grow.
Open-pollinated seeds are from plants that randomly exchanged pollen by natural means like wind and insects. Because pollen was traded among many individuals, the seeds that result are more genetically diverse. That's why open-pollinated plants can slowly adapt to local climates and growing conditions over many generations.
As long as open-pollinated seeds are from parent plants grown out of reach of pollen from other varieties of the same species, their results will be true to type from year to year, and, unlike hybrids, their seeds can be saved.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been saved and handed down from gardener to gardener because the fruits and vegetables they produce were found to be naturally exceptional in some way. These seeds preserve a priceless genetic heritage that's sometimes centuries-old. When we grow them, we keep vital genes and their traits alive in a world increasingly awash in sterile artificial hybrids and unsustainable genetically-modified "frankenseed."
Our garden has mostly heirlooms. We're not against hybrids per se. We just think heirloom seeds produce tastier and more colorful and nutritionally dense harvests. Heirloom tomatoes, for example, may not grow as fast or as copiously as their hybrid cousins. But sliced warm from the vine on a honeysuckle-scented August afternoon, their riches will make you weep. There's no comparison to anything else you'll eat all year.
Now's the time to start feeding these dreams with some of my favorite seedy businesses:
Seed Savers Exchange is one of the oldest and best heirloom seed resources around. Tap into a network of dedicated seed savers keeping diversity alive. High Mowing Seeds has a lot of great varieties, many of which are bred for difficult growing conditions like those found in the Northeast. Baker Creek claims to have the USA's largest selection of heirloom seed. But who cares—their catalog is gorgeous. Heirloom Seeds has converted in recent years to an online-only operation. You won't find any pictures, which is odd, but they make up for it with a deep selection. The D. Landreth Seed Company is America's oldest seed company. They've been collecting seed since the Revolutionary War ended so you can bet you'll find some gems. Johnny's Selected Seeds is an employee-owned company with lots of heirloom, open-pollinated, and organic offerings.
Photo: Chiot's Run