Do you start the vegetables in your garden from seed? There are many sources for seed in the marketplace, and in this week’s Ask A Master Gardener, Susie Everding leads us through the decision she made to use those that are organically produced.
Conventional Seed Production
Have you ever considered how seeds are produced for sale? Many conventional seed producers rely on chemical intervention to control insects, weeds and diseases, with nutrition for developing plants provided by synthetic fertilizers. This practical approach ensures (relatively) trouble free crop and seed production.
- Herbicides may be applied at multiple times during the life cycle of the plant. “Pre-plant” herbicides kill existing weeds so that a new crop can be planted without competition. As well, “pre-emergent” and “post-emergent” herbicides are applied to deal with other weed pressures.
- Pesticides and fungicides may also be used. While these address specific crop problems, there is also a chance of “pesticide drift” which has the unintended effect of endangering nearby habitats and species.
- To ensure healthy crops with good yield, synthetic fertilizer provides needed nutrients. However, any excess not taken up by the plants, (like nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) can find their way to nearby water bodies, damaging the aquatic ecosystem.
Organic farming relies on renewable, sustainable practices such as composting, crop rotation, cover crops and providing habitat for beneficial insects. These labour-intensive practices are driven by observation. When crop failures, weed pressure and insect infestations happen, and they will, organic farmers determine what conditions have favoured a particular pest or problem in their search for a solution.
While a conventional approach might be to “spray away” any problems with pests, the organic farmer seeks other solutions. The exposure of crops to imperfect environmental conditions ultimately creates successive generations of seeds that are adapted to those conditions.
Well-known UK author, horticulturist and organic market gardener, Charles Dowding, is conducting an interesting experiment in his garden. He plants fava beans and year after year collects seeds, successively growing them in the same plot of land, rather than rotating them from bed to bed according to conventional wisdom. His beans are thriving, and he postulates that this is due to seeds that have adapted to the soil conditions in which they were grown.
The time it takes to grow out a plant for seed production is longer than to grow for most food harvest. In Susie’s garden, she sows radish seeds and is eating them in her salad a month or so later. To grow out for seed, she invests many additional months of time and labour, caring for the plant until it flowers and goes to seed.
Are Local Organic Seeds the Best to Buy?
It depends! For certain crops, local conditions may favour the production of a food harvest (e.g. lettuce grown in a cool temperature area), but not the hot dry weather needed for seed production. Some organic growers therefore choose to have their seed grown out elsewhere. The seeds adapt to the areas in which they are grown.
We are fortunate to have commercial seed growers in our area who grow a diversity of seeds – vegetables and flowers – that are locally adapted to our region.
At Kitchen Table Seeds (Wolfe Island) most crops are grown in their own farm fields, but a few, such as broccoli, produce very little seed in the heat of our summer. So instead, they source their broccoli seed from other trusted, organic growers that enjoy the cooler conditions during seed development that broccoli requires.
At Bear Root Gardens in Verona, they have decided to only sell seeds that are adapted to grow well at their farm. If a variety doesn’t do well for them in breeding trials, then that plant simply is not included as part of the collection they offer.
You could purchase, for example, the ‘Black Beauty’ eggplant from a seed company in California, that through years of plant breeding, is adapted to the Southwest environment and takes advantage of the region’s long growing season. Or you could source the same variety of eggplant seeds from a local seed company, and benefit from seeds that are adapted to OUR climate and shorter growing season. Susie’s choice was to buy local!
DIY in the Garden
Many organically grown seeds are open pollinated (OP). This refers to the open flow of pollen between plants of the same variety, with pollination by insects and wind. As long as the pollen isn’t shared with another variety within the same species, the resulting seed will be true to the parent plant. So, if you want to collect seeds for use in the garden next year, simply plant your favourite OP varieties, enjoy the produce, but let a few plants go to seed. And then enjoy the satisfaction of a head start on next season’s bounty!
With the purchase of organic seeds, the gardener is choosing varieties that have been grown and selected under real life conditions, so perhaps healthy crops with good yield are more likely to ensue.