Just like the stores seem to pull out the Christmas stuff earlier each year, the seed companies seem to be in a race to get the catalogs for the coming growing season out far earlier than necessary. We haven’t even finished picking corn, and already I’ve received two! In case I misplace then during the holiday season, I’m sure duplicates will come my way in January or February. While I love looking through them on a cold winter evening, with temperatures still rising to near 60 every day this week, I’m still outside, finishing up this year’s garden! Dan put the rhubarb to bed for the year…our secret to a bountiful crop that produces clear into fall is blanketing it each winter with a thick layer of horse manure, which is never in short supply here. It keeps the crowns of the plant safe from winter’s bitter cold, and as the manure breaks down gradually over the coming months, it not only provides a bit of warmth, but also valuable fertilizer. We’re also closer every day to having all of the corn in the corncrib. Once that happens we’ll take some to a mill to have our own feed mixed, and some will be fed to the animals still on the cob. And I’m picking the last of this year’s beans. They are no longer green anywhere, but have produced hard dry beans inside the edible part. These can be soaked and used in any bean dish, but can also be used to plant next year’s crop, as long as you have not planted a hybrid variety. (While hybrid seeds will sprout, the fruit of the plants has no guarantees…it most likely won’t taste anything like what you enjoyed the year before.)
So although I haven’t even opened the catalogs, I’m busy planning my garden next year and saving seed. I have my colored corn, giant sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and several types of beans. I also did some herbs earlier before the seeds dropped and supplied next year’s sprouts themselves! You might wonder, if a bunch of mail-order catalogs featuring every plant under the sun are coming right to my door, why would I spend my time letting plants go to seed, picking the seeds and preparing them to keep through the winter? Farmers are always short on time, but saving seed is worth the time in my opinion. I’m helping to preserve the biodiversity of agriculture by not relying on the newest super-seed Monsanto or some other heartless corporation is pushing, and saving money to boot. Also, if you save the best seeds from the best plants in your garden for a few years, you will end up with a plant that is most ideally suited to the climate conditions of your particular farm. You can also help save a piece of history. Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, which we bought seeds from Seed Savers Exchange to plant this year, has been saved and replanted since the Civil War. While it didn’t keep at all once picked, and therefore would never be an option at the supermarket, it was a beautiful combination of red and green leaves, had a fabulous taste, and never got bitter, even on those hot summer days. It would be a shame to let this piece of American food heritage go by the wayside just because it doesn't appear in the big catalogs or on the racks of seed packets at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.
The biggest drawback to the heirloom vegetables which you can save seeds from is that they may not have the high disease resistance that hybrids are known for. The only crop that we really had trouble with this year was tomatoes, the late blight hit hard and earlier than usual in our area this year. Whole crops were lost whether you sprayed chemicals or not, and no matter what varieties were planted. We were fortunate to get some tomatoes, and neither Dan nor I saw any real difference in the disease resistance of the various varieties, as none of the plants survived and all the tomatoes were spotted or rotten after a time. I may have been overly optomistic, but the heritage Riesentraube cherry tomatoes seemed to have had more useable ones than any other plant. It may have been the sheer number produced by these prolific plants though, as a small percent of each tomato variety were salvagable, but 20 cherries may have been comprable to 1 beefsteak. I'm not sure they won if you looked at percentages. While I was disappointed I really wasn’t able to save seeds from them this year, we both agreed that we’re not giving up on heirloom tomatoes. So when the snow starts flying and I get into real garden planning mode, I’ll be ordering them again. Hopefully, it is the last time I pay for tomato seeds, at least until I find another variety that sounds too good not to try!