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Heirloom seeds preserve tradition

December 04, 2008|By DIY Network

A palm seed was found in an Egyptian tomb and planted in the modern-day Holy Land. It grew into the long-extinct Judea palm, resurrecting this species. That seed survived 2,000 years in storage, but your food garden plants are a whole different story.

When a seed is viable, that means it's alive inside and able to sprout into a healthy seedling. Some plants produce seed that have only limited viability, which means they "die" inside after a certain amount of time.

The Judea palm shows us the greatest extent of viability, but our garden lettuce shows just the opposite. Under optimal conditions, lettuce seed will store for only one year, pepper seed for two and peas for four. Often the whole packet of seed will not lose viability all at once, but gradually declines over time. A fresh packet will enjoy about 100 percent viability. The next year it might go to 80 percent, then 60 percent and so on, until all of it is dead. When you try to sow seed that is in this process of decline, you'll see spotty germination in the garden.


This illustrates a very important point that everyone should understand about the nature of food crops, your garden and the future of the world. Seed is our most important insurance policy against the threat of climate change on food availability. Inside each seed is all the genetic characteristics of its species, whether redwood tree or radish. Some genes are turned on and exhibited in the plant we see, while others are there for reasons of adaptation.

Since that plant first appeared on Earth, it had to have an ability to change with the world's climate, the coming and going of ice ages, great floods and even greater droughts. Right now we don't need those particular genes, but they are still vitally important. The food plants that fed the world before the advent of hybridization and modern breeding are close to their wild ancestors, which contain the widest, most diverse pool of genetic characteristics.

The problem is, we don't grow the old strains commercially anymore. The only way to ensure their gene pools remain intact for the future is to save the seed. But we know that food-crop seeds average one to five years of viability in optimal storage. So how do we as individuals help keep them around for posterity? The answer is continuous cultivation. If each plant is in cultivation every year, we are assured of a large fresh crop of seed.

The government cannot do this. Commercial growers cannot do it because it's just too massive a project. No, it can only be done by each one of us who chooses to cultivate clean, organic and healthy food in our own back yards.

As we go into seed-catalog season this winter and as everyone ponders how to save money, live healthily and do our best for the environment, give some thought to what you can do to protect the seed-plant gene pool. Explore the catalogs that feature heirloom varieties because these are very old crops that aren't grown by standard production farms. The following are among the most reputable sources for these seeds, which feature both extensive online and print catalogs:

  • Baker Heirloom Seeds -- Fun, user-friendly site and catalog.

  • Native Seed/SEARCH -- Nonprofit dedicated to preservation of seed strains of the desert U.S. Southwest and Mexico.

  • Seeds of Change - A gourmet's choice for unique food-plant seed from around the world.

  • Seed Savers Exchange -- Originally a group that exchanged seed from garden to garden has grown into an heirloom-seed producer.

    Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and former host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY Network. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at E-mail her at

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