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Visit to Wynndel

Growing Heirlooms

Seed companies and nurseries that sell heirloom and rare or endangered varieties

   At the beginning of September 2010, four years since I last saw
them, I went to Wynndel in the Creston Valley to see again the two greatest vegetable gardens I have ever seen and their keepers, two amazing organic gardeners, Dan McMurray and Alex Bone.

    Dan and Alex have different styles of gardening. Alex is traditional.
He calls his garden old fashioned. Dan in some ways is old fashioned, too, he grows only heirlooms, but first of all he is an experimenter.
Alex's garden looks beautiful. You don't see beauty when you look at Dan's garden, but you see great beauty when you look at his plants.

    Alex and his wife Ruby, who takes care of the flowers, and Dan,
love their gardens. They don't treat their plants with "drugs" - herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They create for their plants optimal conditions to flourish. On little plots of soil they both grow vegetables that could feed ten families. They don't sell their bounty but share it with others.

   When looking at their gardens it strikes you as a true miracle what  the nature can produce from the combination of a tiny seed and soil.
You start looking at the land with different eyes. You look at it with wonder and reverence. It is not "dirt" under your feet, it is the source
and the holly sustainer of life.

    I am thinking: instead of paving the land with asphalt to transport goods, mostly food or related to food, its production, packaging and
 

distribution, how much better it could be to cover it with gardens and grow our own. How much healthier that could be for ourselves and how much more respectful for our environment!

   Unfortunately there are less and less people who can do the gardening. Some time ago I wondered why there are not that many really good vegetable gardens around. I thought, anybody can garden. Now I know better. Gardening is a difficult art, that requires love, knowledge, understanding and experience. It is why! For a person who, like most of us, has lost her/his connection with the land not just in the physical, but first of all in the spiritual sense, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to become a good gardener. It becomes the proverbial catch 22; we transport more and more because we grow less and less ourselves and we are less and less capable of growing our food ourselves because we have more and more brought to us.


   I went to Wynndel with the purpose not only to see the gardens and the gardeners, but also to get some heirloom seeds from Dan.
 

Among other seeds, I got this little Small Shining Light Watermelon. It is sweet and juicy and it is tiny, 12 cm in diameter (~ 5 in) and weights less than 1 kg (~2 lbs). I ate the flesh, happily collected the seeds and will grow it next year in my own garden.

Dan's heirlooms - September 2010
   

   
Immature Melon De Luneville Melon De Luneville at maturity
   
   
   
Melon Weeks NC Giant Bush Bean Borlotto Lingua Di Fuoco
   
   
   
Pole Bean Cousin Oliver's Pole Bean Trionfo Violetto
   
   
   
Corn Red Miracle_F5 Pumpkin Rouge Vif D'Etampes
   
   
   
Watermelon Ice Cream Watermelon Small Shining Light.
   
   
   
Squash Jumbo Pink Banana Squash Bush Banana

Here are links to Dan's web albums where you can see more pictures of his plants:

Photos_of_the_Varieties

Photos_of_Dan's Tomatoes

 

 

    I  lean more and more towards heirloom gardening. Heirlooms are heritage varieties that have been in cultivation for at least 50 years. Over the years they were able to withstand on their own adverse weather conditions, invasion of diseases and insects. Now they are quickly and irreversibly disappearing (as do other open-pollinated varieties) due to conventional agricultural practices favouring big monocultures where only a few varieties or, more and more often, F1 hybrids or genetically modified plants, that require heavy application of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and often intensive irrigation, are chosen for cultivation first of all on the basis of high yield, ease of harvesting, long storage and transportation.

    It took 10,000 years for humankind to create, through selective seed saving, agricultural diversity we had 50 or so years ago. It took 50 years or so to destroy most of that diversity and replace it with unsustainable monocultures of super-hybrids.

    But there are many wonderful heirlooms still left (not always easily available, though) and worth preserving. Besides their great taste, often beautiful, unusual or funny looks, another great thing about heirlooms is that, as with newer open-pollinated varieties, you can save their seeds and, if not allowed to cross-breed with another varieties, the plants will always come true to type. This is not the case with F1 hybrids that do not produce seeds true to the parent.  I am not one hundred percent enemy of hybrids. Growing them can be sometimes a good idea, without bothering with saving their seeds, though.

    Preventing heirlooms, as well as other open-pollinated varieties, from cross-breeding is especially easy in the case of  in-breeding, self-pollinating species  like French Beans, Lettuce, Peas, Peppers and Tomatoes. They have bisexual flowers that have both stamen and a pistil and are built in such a way (retracted pistils) that they almost always self-pollinate. Cross-pollination can occur, but is rare. There are some varieties of Tomatoes, like potato leafs and currants, that have exposed pistils and can normally cross-pollinate, though. By their very nature in-breeding species are not prone to in-breeding depression. You need not to worry how many plants you grow for seed. Even one is good enough.

   Out-breeding plants are made for cross-pollination. Preventing open-pollinated varieties (heirlooms in particular) of out-breeders from cross-breeding with other varieties within the species can be difficult.

    Out-breeders can be monoecious or dioecious, but there are also many species with bisexual flowers that don't self-pollinate.

   Pollen from out-breeding plants can be carried by pollinators or by wind quite far, sometimes much farther than the area of your garden. If you grow more than one variety of any out-breeding species you can be absolutely sure that cross-pollination didn't occur only if you hand-pollinate your plants. Even if you grow only one variety, but your close neighbours garden, too, and grow different varieties than yours, chances are your plants will cross-breed with your neighbour's.

    Things get even more complicated with out-breeders that are prone to in-breeding depression. In-breeding depression is a loss of vigor because of cross-pollination between insufficient number of plants within the variety. Carrots, Beetroot and Swiss Chard, Onions and Leeks, Brassicas and Sweet Corn belong to this group. You have to grow a lot of plants of the same variety for seed to maintain healthy gene pool for cross-pollination. Carrots and Sweet Corn are especially prone to in-breeding depression and at the same time most easily cross-pollinate with other varieties within their species.

    To conclude, to keep out-breeder variety pure and strong you must not only prevent plants from cross-breeding with other varieties but also grow sufficient number of them to ensure good enough gene pool for pollination within the variety. That could be either impossible or at least very impractical for many gardeners to do. It is what farms, even small ones, are good for. That doesn't mean you should not save seeds from open pollinated out-breeders. Just be aware of the problems, and when it comes to seed saving, do it right.

For more information see:
International_Seed_Saving_Institute_Seed_Saving
Daughter_of_the_Soil Seed_Saving
The websites belong to experienced long term gardeners and seed savers.

To avoid confusion here is how the terms used above should be understood:

Flowers can be
- Bisexual or hermaphrodite  with both. male and female reproductive structures, in the same flower. They are called perfect flowers. Some self-pollinate. Others are self-incompatible, meaning they will not receive their own pollen.
Unisexual (imperfect or incomplete flowers) with reproductive structure that is either male or female.

Plants can have
- Bisexual flowers only (hermaphrodite  plants, most common, 85% of plants are hermaphroditic)
- Separate unisexual male and female flowers on the same plant (Monoecious plants)
- Only male flowers or only female flowers on an individual plant (Dioecious plants)
- There are also plants with combinations of both, bisexual and unisexual flowers, on the same plant.

There are two kinds of pollination:
- Self pollination: Pollination of a flower by its own pollen, in a flower that has both stamen and a pistil
- Cross pollination: The movement of pollen from one flower to another, either on the same plant, between different plants of the same variety, between plants of different varieties, and sometimes between plants of different species.

In-breeding plants: plants that self-pollinate

In-breeding depression : A loss of vigor because of cross-pollination between insufficient number of plants within the variety.

Out-breeding plants: plants that don't self-pollinate

Species: A group of organisms (plants) capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Variety: A taxonomic rank below that of species.

Open-pollinated variety: A variety that is stable and will always come true to type from seed if not allowed to cross-pollinate with another variety.

Hybrid -  offspring produced by cross-pollination between different varieties or species. Plants grown from seeds produced by a hybrid almost never come true to the parent.

  September in Alex's garden  
     
Amazing Onions. On the left Tomatoes, on the right Leeks, amazing as well! Rows of Tomatoes Ruby and Alex's favourite flowers, Dahlias.
    It is hard to believe this garden is a labour of love of one 75 years old man. For 37 years already Alex grows his own food there and shares surplus with others.

    There is a lot of talking these days about buying local, green living, 100 mile diet, etc. Buying local is a good idea, growing our own in the earth friendly manner is even better. How different our planet could be
if there were more people like Alex, just doing, without big words and fanfare!

    I hoped for a long conversation with Alex, who loves talking about his garden and his plants. Unfortunately, it started to rain soon after I came to Ruby and Alex's place what stopped my visit and picture taking there. I had three hours drive back home and didn't want to sit in the car soaked wet and get cold. May be next year...

    ... Alex passed away suddenly, on April 12, 2011, from complications with pneumonia. His death is a great loss for the Kootenays gardening community.
    We will miss you, Alex, very much.


 
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