Seeds: Heirlooms, Hybrids, GMOs, OPs

I found that there is some confusion about all these terms used for seed. And since seeds are where it all starts when it comes to gardening, I thought I would take a bit of time to clarify things.

Open Pollinated, or OP, means that a plant will come “true” from seed; the next generation will look reasonably like the last, so long as there has been no accidental crossing with other plants. All Heirlooms are OP, but not all OPs are Heirloom. New OP varieties are created every year. Generally, a hybrid between two OP varieties is created, and the best of the resulting plants selected over many generations until they “come true.”
“Heirloom” means that the OP strain in question is about sixty years old. Every heirloom plant was new once.
“Hybrid” means that two OPs were crossed to grow the seed for the plant in question. If a zucchini and a pumpkin were planted next to one another, and the seed was saved, it would almost certainly be hybrid seed; bees would have crossed it. The seed that was planted next year (the “f1” generation of a hybrid) would all come up looking alike, but different then either parent. If it was better than the originals in some way, the gardener might decide to do the same cross again to generate more hybrid seed. If, however, seeds were saved from the plants in the f1 generation, the resulting plants (in the “f2” generation) would be wildly diverse. Selection over may years could then create a new OP variety which would come true from seed. Most heirlooms were once hybrids. So a hybridization is a natural process. The problems start when seed companies drop all their OP varieties and switch exclusively to hybrids, making it harder for gardeners to be self sufficient in seed and destroying biodiversity. Also, many modern varieties, whether OPs or hybrids, are suited to modern agriculture, and need large amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and perfect growing conditions. Older varieties are more likely to perform well in sub optimal conditions.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are lab creations; they are not hybrids. GMOs are generally not sold to home vegetable gardeners; farmers who grow them have to sign complicated legal documents that prevent them from saving seed and cutting into the profits of the seed company. In fact, there are few GMO varieties of vegetables; most GMOs are grains or oil seed crops.  GMOs pose many problems on many different levels.

In my next post, I will explain our strategy for saving seed on the farms and avoiding many of the difficulties involved in saving pure strains of OP varieties.



Getting the greenhouse ready for spring

Slowly but surely, spring is drawing nearer. Denver weather being what it is, we have been on a roller coaster ride between warm, sunny days and cold, snowy ones. But by mid February, it will be time to plant our high tunnel / hoop house greenhouse on the Littleton Farm. It is a simple, Eliot Coleman style structure, with PVC pipes covering rebar rods for the frame, and a layer of plastic stretched over it and buried on each side.

Denver is a different climate then Maine, where Eliot Coleman pioneered this type of structure. There is a greater chance of hot weather in mid winter and a stronger sun. (Last February, as we built this greenhouse, it was 80° F and sunny. ) These warm spells can give way to intense cold and high winds with little warning. Even the average winter day can have a fairly dramatic temperature swing over the course of the day. So we will be adding some thermal mass to the hoop house to damp down these swings, in the form of some 55 gallon barrels full of water, and some insulation to the North side. We also have to repair some storm damage, and we will be replacing the flap style entrance with a real door that will help seal out the weather.

Last year we grew in the soil of the hoop house. This caused several problems. The soil is not that great. It is infested with very persistent weeds, including bindweed and prickly Buffalo Burr, which were hard to sort out of the salad crops. Because of the low headroom, the central path had to be lower then the beds on either side. This tended to drain water off the beds. Finally and most seriously, the hoop house quickly became too warm for cool season crops in the spring, long before they were finished. Warm weather crops could have been planted, but the cool season ones were in the way. The same thing happened in reverse in the Fall; by the time the warm weather crops froze out, it was too late to start cool season ones.

We thought about remodeling the hoop house so that it would be movable to counteract this problem. However, that solution would be expensive and take quite a bit of work. We might do it once our current tunnel wears out, in another few years.

Instead, we are going to experiment with containerized growing in the tunnel, using food grade 5 gallon buckets that can be obtained free from bakeries. Our concern is that they will increase the soil temperature swings, and we will try to avoid this by burying them in either sand or woodchips. But otherwise they should solve all our problems; we will incorporate water reservoirs and use prepared potting mix. And when the weather outside warms up, we will move the buckets of salad out under row cover and move in new buckets to get a head start on growing eggplants, peppers, and sweet potatoes. Similarly, cool season plants can be started outside in the Fall, ready to move in as soon as the warm weather crops freeze out.

We will let you know how it goes!

A new focus!

Our group of gardeners has been growing more produce then members could eat. And as our membership grew, we decided to formalize our decision making process.

We had already been supplying produce for member families and the Carmelite convent, and now we will be providing vegetables for the St. Mary’s food bank and possibly other food banks in the area. We decided to formalize our decision making process, with a three person board directing the activities of the group.

We also decided to focus more on monthly events instead of biweekly work days, and discussed ideas for fundraising and garden planning.

Under the patronage of St. Isidore, we look forward to another great year in 2016! Thanks so much to all those who worked hard getting us to this point!