I have just become a member of Seeds of Diversity Canada (formerly the Heritage Seed Programme) and know that some of you may be interested in it, too.
Mission statement: Our mission is to promote the conservation and the use of heritage and unique plant varieties. We are a living gene bank.
Corporate Objectives of this worthwhile organization include:
To search out, preserve, perpetuate, study and encourage the cultivation of heirloom and endangered varieties of food crops by:
Practically speaking, the organization will encourage me to learn more about heirloom species of fruits and vegetables. I’m hoping to learn how, for example, to overwinter seeds successfully, so I can help to perpetuate some worthwhile, productive varieties of plants.
Take tomatoes for example. The January 2002 issue of the association’s monthly magazine publishes this statistic in its “News from Québec” section.
“Did you know that 50% of the tomato cultivars offered in our seed exchange are not available commercially? About 60% of all the vegetable cultivars offered in the seed exchange are not found anywhere else. We are currently compiling a database to allow members to easily identify cultivars that are at risk, to facilitate their preservation.”
One section of the magazine has an eye-catching if not amusing title: “How You Can Help The Most: Tomatoes in Need of Adoption.” Writer BobWildfong lists the “most endangered tomato varieties in our Seed Exchange. These are the varieties that were grown and offered by our members last year, that are not commercially available, and that are not backed by Canadian or US government gene banks… In other words, as far as we know, these tomatoes are grown only by home seed savers and no one else.
“If you are looking for a special tomato to save from extinction, choose one of these.”
Which brings me to note that this organization works entirely by exchanging seeds that members have grown and saved, from one season to the next.
When my membership packet arrived, I examined the Seed Exchange Directory. This is the listing of members across Canada who are growers and savers of heritage seeds. A special note at the beginning of the list caught my attention: “Before Requesting Any Seed, Please Consider, Do you know how to save seed from this particular type of plant? Do you know how to keep varieties pure?”
These are pertinent questions and frankly, I don’t know the answer to either. But that doesn’t deter me, for the society publishes another booklet called “How to Save your own Vegetable Seeds” available for $8.00.
But below the list of questions and comments, there is an encouraging paragraph aimed at first-time seed exchange members like me. “Having said all that about using this Directory carefully and responsibly, I don’t want to frighten off beginning seed savers. At a conference I met one of our members who wanted to request some seeds from the programme but was too nervous to do so incase something went wrong.
“I’d like to encourage anyone who is serious to give seed saving a try. It sometimes happens that a variety you request simply does not do well in your growing conditions or that, despite your care, a late frost, a hungry groundhog, or a horde of cutworms can destroy a crop. All this is understood to be a part of the challenge of gardening. If you do request seeds from a grower and can’t list them next year for some reason, and if you feel like doing so, it’s a nice touch to let the grower know what happened.”
Now that’s user-friendly and encouraging, isn’t it?
Another decidedly human touch in this catalogue is the method of payment. The directory lists seed producers by province (yes, there is one other Pontiac member, in Luskville), and after their name and address, and number of frost-free days in the growing season and other important information, the method of payment is listed. How refreshing to see that not only is money acceptable: other valid currencies listed are Canadian Tire coupons, Canadian stamps, as well as the familiar cash and cheque.
Plants available. The directory lists categories followed by varieties within them. Starting off with Flowers and Wildflowers, it progresses to Fruits ( a nice selection of melons, but disappointingly, only one apple), Grains, Herbs, and a large listing of Vegetables. There are pages of legumes, and then several selections of other veggies such as ground cherries, kale, potatoes and many others.
I thought I could comprehend why some tomatoes might not have been ordered: frankly, there are an overwhelming number of varieties to choose from. Bull’s Heart Select, Peruvian Bush are just two amid pages and pages of types. A quick glance shows that the maturation can be 60+ days to maturity… whereas one Roma variety is listed as requiring 240 days to maturity.
At the back of the directory are listed Miscellaneous Vegetables such as edible burdock, Japanese Basil (top is green, underside purple), and Tatsoi. The latter vegetable is listed as an “Asian green that has a nutty flavour. Great in cold climate or for season extension — can freeze and thaw without harm.” That sounds interesting to me.
The Directory is bilingual as is the monthly publication. Also, seed exchangers identify themselves in the front of the directory as to whether or not they are bilingual. It’s refreshing to see people from Québec encouraging anyone to contact them, regardless of language. ““You may write tome in English or in French. Vous pouvez m’écrire en français où en anglais.”
The Seed Exchange is a worthwhile Canadian program. For information, contact them at Seeds of Diversity Canada, PO Box 36, Station Q, Toronto, ON M4T 2L7. Internet: www.seeds.ca or www.semences.ca
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and enthusiastic organic gardener who lives in and writes from her home north of Quyon, Québec.