Planting a seed has a pretty obvious purpose: once you put it in the ground, if you’re lucky, a few weeks later something pretty or useful pops up. But for some people, seeds are a lot more than that. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has this report:
Planting a seed has a pretty obvious purpose: once you put it
in the ground, if you’re lucky, a few weeks later something pretty
or useful pops up. But for some people, seeds are a lot more than
that. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has this report:
Greenfield Village is a historical village that’s part of the Henry Ford
Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The village has one of those “living history”
farms where people do things like shearing sheep and chopping wood, while
dressed in 19th century clothing.
They try hard to make the farm authentic,
and part of this has to do with the seeds they plant — they’re the very same
kinds that 19th century farms in this part of the country would have used.
They’re called heirloom seeds. Jim Johnson is the manager of special
programs at Greenfield Village. He says that the vegetables that heirloom
seeds produce aren’t what people are used to seeing.
“They’re lumpy and bumpy and sometimes have a strange look to them, but some of these varieties have a taste that cannot be compared to the things you can find on the supermarket shelves today. Most of the things you can find today in the standard produce section, they’re grown to be uniform, they look appealing to the eye, but typically they don’t have a very good taste and have been around for a while.”
Johnson says that it’s important to use seeds that are authentic. That’s
because what people plant, can show a lot more about them than just what
they eat. Laura Delind is an anthropologist at Michigan State University;
she says that even the names of seeds, can say a lot about a group. She
points to a seed grown by traditional farmers in Africa, that has a much
more telling name than what you’d see on a seed packet at your local
“It grew at a time when a majority of other beans didn’t. And what I found compelling is the seed was called ‘So the Grandparents Can Survive.’ Inherent in the seeds is a whole set of social relationships, responsibilities, cultural understandings, and a collective wisdom about how to manage, live well in a particular place.”
Delind says that in the U.S. we’ve lost a lot of this. But for many people, growing heirlooms isn’t just a thing of the past or something that people do in far-off countries.
Heirloom gardening has become more popular in recent years. In part that’s
because of the taste. It’s also because people have become more concerned
about commercially developed seeds, which are sometimes genetically
modified. Royer Held offers classes about heirloom seeds. He says that
planting, saving and sharing heirloom seeds, are important for a lot of
reasons, especially now when the food we eat comes from fewer and fewer
“People are giving up the cultivation of these varieties they’ve maintained over centuries and millenia. We’re basically at risk of losing a lot of very unique agricultural material. And what we’re trying to do here in Ann Arbor is to encourage the gardening community here to take on as their personal responsibility the maintenance of these varieties.”
Although Royer Held is a long-time gardener, he can’t say that he’d given
that much thought to spreading the word about heirlooms until a couple of
winters ago. When bad weather kept him inside, he passed the time reading.
In one book he found that that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kept
supplies of lots of heirloom seeds that weren’t widely available.
He requested several kinds of potato seeds from the agency. When they arrived
he and his friend Marcella Troutman planted them along with some other
heirloom seeds. They saved the seeds and cuttings from the new plants, and
now they’re making these available as well as trying to get people used to
the idea of saving their own seeds. She says that people can be a little
intimidated by the idea.
“They almost think it’s not going to be as good as having bought seeds in a packet from a reputable seed company.”
She hopes that in time, people will get over this. Royer Held adds that saving seeds and sharing them with your friends are all part of what makes gardening rewarding.
“If you grow heirlooms, you should save the seeds, because it’s only by saving the seeds that you can allow the plants to grow and develop and adapt to particular growing conditions. And if you do, save enough for your friends because they might want some too. And if they take time, they’ll probably wind up liking them better, which gets us back to why we all garden.”
They hope that in the end, people will get comfortable enough to start creating and sharing their own varieties.
For the GLRC, I’m Nora Flaherty.