Seedy stalwart or hybrid?

Rob Johnston, the chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maaine Johnston, is a fan of heirlooms, which in the broadest sense, are old varieties of “open pollinated” seeds that will grow the same plant again.

But he argues that his typical customers – small market farmers and avid home gardeners – have better choices. Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” he said.

Heritage seed buyers could rebut some or all of those claims – and they do. But agronomy, in a sense, is the least of it. Seventeen years ago, in The New York Times, the writer Michael Pollan spelled out the economic and environmental hazards of hybrid seeds in an article that came with a fright-movie title, “The Seed Conspiracy.”

In the years since, the superiority of certain types of seed has grown into a kind of orthodoxy among right-thinking gardeners. The philosophy could be called heirloomism.

Sales shot up 100 percent in 2008 at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a Missouri-based garden company that stocks 1,200 vegetable varieties, and the last two years have brought 20 percent annual growth, said the company’s owner, Jere Gettle.

According to a survey by the National Gardening Association, one in five American households with a yard or garden reports an interest in heirloom fruits, berries and vegetables. But Gettle, 30, contends that his generation cares even more about heirlooms.

“New gardeners, younger gardeners – 90 percent are interested in heirlooms and traditional varieties,” Gettle said.

Gettle said his customers espouse “almost a total rejection of GMOs,” or genetically modified organisms. Further, they don’t want “hybridization in their seed supply. They want to be independent and be able to save their seeds. They don’t like the big boys.”

One of the first print references to heirlooms appeared in a 1949 article in The New York Times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That dictionary’s definition of “heirloom” matches the one used by Seed Savers Exchange: open-pollinated varieties that are more than 50 years old and have been handed down through generations.

But that classification describes only a portion of the 13,500 varieties in the group’s annual yearbook. And so Torgrimson, 60, embraces a wider and more useful classification that includes four categories.

First, there are the family legacies, like Bakery’s squash. Emma Adkins, of Van Lear, Kentucky, took this striped acorn cultivator from her mother’s garden and donated it to Seed Savers in 1994.

Perhaps the greatest number of heirlooms come from the second group: old market varieties. A classic example is the Danvers carrot. The Fedco Seeds catalog traces this vegetable back to Massachusetts farmers in 1871.

Third is a “modern heirloom” like the sugar snap pea. The vegetable breeder Calvin Lamborn developed this open-pollinated favourite for Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in the 1970s.

The origins of the sugar snap, a rogue, thick-walled pea, lie in Torgrimson’s fourth category, “mystery heirlooms.” These are serendipitous discoveries and field crosses that farmers and gardeners decide to preserve and plant again.

In the plainest sense, heirlooms are just old seeds. What has changed is the way we venerate them, said Bill Tracy, 56, a sweet-corn breeder and professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. Tracy knows the old sweet corns well. He estimates that, over the decades, he has grown 75 to 80 percent of these varieties.

Marketing them as heirlooms, however, is “a new concept, a concept of the early 21st century,” Tracy said. Plants are sexually active, mutable things, he explained. And they can be adapted to different climates, soil types and planting and harvest dates.

“The farmer or the gardener has the opportunity to select the type that is best for their farm,” he said. And “previous generations of farmers, our parents or grandparents” did just that.

An open-pollinated seed wasn’t an item to be named, treasured and monastically cloistered. For their part, the seed companies and catalogues, which were then small and regional, collected local seeds from the plants that performed best from year to year.

John Navazio, 56, a Washington State University seed specialist and senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance, suggests that the growers who developed heirloom seeds wouldn’t be content with them today.

“A 1902 cabbage by Burpee was a perfectly good cabbage by 1902 standards,” Navazio said. “But the truth of the matter is, none of our ancestors ever viewed these things as done. You never stopped breeding your livestock. You never stopped selecting your cabbage.”

The great bank of heirloom seeds is ripe for fresh creations and practical improvements, Navazio said. “When people say that hybrids are better than the OPs, well, duh! You’ve been throwing all of your brainpower at developing hybrids for more than 30 years. And the nonhybrids, the OPs, have sat and languished with almost no one doing any good selection and genetic maintenance on them.”