Preserving diversity with heritage seeds

Did you know that in the 1940s, almost all of Canada’s vegetable and flower seeds were grown in the greater Victoria area? Or that the old Dominion Experimental Farm in Sidney grew the seed of over 25 vegetables for commercial growers? What’s more, these seeds were all open-pollinated varieties. This meant that gardeners and farmers ‘back in the day’ could save and use their own seeds from year to year knowing that these offspring would be true reproductions of the mother plant.

  • Feb. 15, 2011 8:00 p.m.

Did you know that in the 1940s, almost all of Canada’s vegetable and flower seeds were grown in the greater Victoria area? Or that the old Dominion Experimental Farm in Sidney grew the seed of over 25 vegetables for commercial growers? What’s more, these seeds were all open-pollinated varieties. This meant that gardeners and farmers ‘back in the day’ could save and use their own seeds from year to year knowing that these offspring would be true reproductions of the mother plant.

Things aren’t so simple today. With four multinational companies controlling 75 per cent of North America’s seed production, finding long-cherished and open-pollinated varieties can be a challenge. Nutrition, taste, and adaptability to local conditions – factors important to the home gardener – simply aren’t priorities for industrial agriculture. As a result, there has been an enormous decrease in genetic seed diversity over the past 50 years. This is arguably a recipe for disaster, not only in terms of agriculture (think Irish potato famine and other mass crop failures), but also in terms of the loss of broader biodiversity and its subsequent impacts.

It doesn’t take a genius to grasp that maintaining a variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers in the landscape supports a more diverse and healthier ecosystem overall. Fortunately, small farms and individual gardeners across the country have been stepping up to the ‘plate’ with this very goal in mind. One of their key strategies: inform and educate!

Christene Rafuse is one of Sooke’s local champions for seed diversity. Armed with knowledge accumulated through formal education (degree in agriculture, specializing in botany), work experience (head gardener, manager of research greenhouses) and home gardening, Christene will share information and insights at this month’s meeting of the Sooke Garden Club. Her presentation, “Heritage Seeds and Why They Are Important,” will focus on the history of seed production in the Victoria area, who is producing open-pollinated seed today, and Seeds of Diversity, a heritage seed program initiated in 1984 in response to the loss of food plant varieties. She will also talk about her own experiences with growing heritage seeds in Sooke.

And just what are heritage seeds? They are generally considered to be those seeds developed or sold before 1950, when hybrid seeds began to be widely introduced. Heirloom seeds, another term we frequently hear these days, are seeds that have been passed down by individuals or families; they may have been saved initially from a commercial variety that is no longer available, or they may have been selected and saved over generations for their robustness in a particular area.

Please join us on Wednesday, February 23, 7:30 p.m., in the Sooke Legion Hall.

Membership is $15 for the year and can be purchased at the door. There will also be a parlour show.

For more information:mailto: sookegardenclub@yahoo.ca or phone 250-642-0058.

Contributed by Loretta Fritz

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