seed saving

What’s The Deal With Heirlooms?

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Over the last couple of decades, a nostalgic nerve has been triggered by the rising popularity of “heirloom” fruits and vegetables and “heritage” meats in the gourmet food world. If you stroll through a local farmer’s market or peruse a fancy restaurant menu in any of the nation’s urban centers these days, you will likely find these foodie buzzwords posted prominently to woo discerning customers.

My fear is that the idea of an “heirloom” tomato or “heritage” pig conjures a fictitious pastoral image of life as it somehow used to be. The obsession with heirloom foods is concerning to me as it shows how easily we can fall prey to nostalgic narratives such as the pernicious one that currently threatens to split our nation apart: that somehow we can “make America great again” if we just magically go back in time.

Current politics aside, it’s time to look forward, not back. The integrity of our global food system depends on our ability to preserve genetic diversity – and heirlooms plant varieties and heritage animal breeds are part of that gene bank. More important than preserving specific plant and animal varieties, however, is allowing our crops and animals to adapt and evolve over time, mutating within each new generation, and this can only occur through a mixing of genes, not isolating them or somehow trying to keep them “pure.”

So why am I so fixated on the words “heirloom” and “heritage” as qualifiers for our foods? First of all, both happen to have fuzzy, unscientific definitions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an heirloom crop as “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heritage breeds are the animal equivalents of heirloom plants – the Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breeds as “traditional breeds that were raised by our forefathers.”

I believe that if we sincerely intend to be “food-literate” – to know what we are eating and how it impacts our health and the world around us – we must begin to be more scientific and less nostalgic when referring to our food. Specifically, we must clarify that whether something is an heirloom or not matters less than whether or not the seed saving and breeding programs are actually maximizing the number of genetically unique offspring within a population.

The best example of a genetically diverse domesticated plant type is an open-pollinated crop variety. These are crops for which the exchange of pollen between individuals within a particular species is not controlled or limited. Open-pollination leads to a maximum number of genetically unique offspring. According to Seed Savers Exchange, “This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.” Technically, all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated crops are heirlooms.

The heirloom/heritage craze has also completely overshadowed the value of hybrid crop varieties in our food system. Hybrids, genetic “crosses” between two distinct species, or two varieties within a species, are extremely valuable for growers and ranchers because they are often more vigorous, productive and pest or disease-resistant than the heirlooms and heritage varieties are. The vigor regularly observed in hybrids is a result of their mixed genetic makeup.

Two notable hybrid tomatoes are the “Sun Gold” cherry and “Early Girl” slicing tomatoes. Both are “F1,” or “first filial generation,” hybrid tomato varieties, which are often marketed as heirlooms, but actually are not! They just happen to be two colorful, delicious (and profitable!) tomato varieties that farmers often sell alongside their heirlooms.

A lesser-known hybrid crop, Kernza is a perennial grain that is currently being developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas through a rapidly-sequenced breeding program (not to be construed with genetic engineering). Kernza and other perennial seed crops are being bred at the Land Institute with the intent of restoring the historic prairie environment while providing food for humans and animals. Land Institute founder, Wes Jackson, calls this “ecologically intensified polyculture.” These seed crops are quite possibly the most revolutionary of hybrid crops being developed, as they hold the potential to completely upend the nutrient extractive, water polluting, soil degrading paradigm of current seed crop production (think corn, soy, wheat, rice, sunflower, canola, etc.).

Yes, we need our hybrids too.

Selective breeding (also referred to as artificial selection) is the method humans have employed since the dawn of agriculture in order to create plants and animals that serve our needs more effectively. Selective breeding involves humans intentionally breeding plants or animals with similar characteristics and selecting the offspring with preferred traits for breeding future generations. One major drawback of selective breeding, is it that it actually can drain the “gene pool” – while providing us with a plant or animal whose characteristics we like, the population as a whole might become more vulnerable to a particular intervening variable, such as a blight or virus because of its lack of genetic diversity. This is how our heirloom crops and heritage breeds were initially bred by our “forefathers,” which helps to explain their tendency to not be as vigorous as hybrid varieties.

In summary, we know that diversity ensures resilience, in living systems. And we’re living in  times of accelerated ecological upheaval of global consequence – quite likely, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert has asserted, the beginning of the sixth “great extinction” in the history of planet Earth. The rapid loss of genetic diversity in the world around us should be concerning to us all. And no, genetic engineering technology is not going to allow us to “hack” our way out of this dilemma. Nor is a fixation on “heirloom” and “heritage” breeds merely because they are genetically more “pure” and originated a long time ago. Instead, as farmers, gardeners and consumers, we must clearly focus our efforts on driving the demand for genetically diverse fruits, seeds, vegetables, and animals products. The resilience of our food system will depend on it.


Harvesting the Bounty

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It is officially summer time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that harvest season is upon us. Harvesting is one of the most rewarding aspects of edible gardening, but it takes practice to do it well. Each plant in the garden has particular harvesting needs. As British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick told his gardening disciples, “in general, everything is specific.”

If done well, harvesting helps our garden plants continue to produce delicious food for us throughout the growing season. In general the main principle is to encourage new growth while harvesting.

Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash are easily identified when they are ripe due to their size and color, but ripeness is not always so easy to determine with many other crops.


Summer Harvest Basket

Some plants are “cut and come again” crops and many are not. A “cut and come again” crop is a plant that you can cut back fairly low down (above the point where their first true leaves branch out) and it will still produce new leaves from the root system and the central core of the plant.

Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, parsley and arugula are great examples of crops that can be cut hard and will grow back – all of these can be cut with a knife, hand shears or pinched by hand – almost to the ground – and will still grow back with great vigor. Just try it! You won’t kill the plant!

A lettuce plant is not a “cut and come again” crop and should be harvested as a whole head for optimal production. It will never grow new leaves if you cut it back. Some gardeners like to harvest the outermost leaves off of many different lettuce plants for their salad. We find this a bit tedious and prefer to plant new lettuce seedlings frequently so that we always have whole heads ready for harvest, throughout the growing season.

Lettuce 1

 Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Leafy Greens such as kale, collards, and chard should have their lowest leaves picked first so that the middle of the plant can continue to produce new leaves. In general, breaking off the lower leaves at the main stem by hand with your thumb is better for the plant than cutting the leaves, as cutting will leave a wound that does not heal as well and can become a vector for disease.


Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots and radishes can be harvested when the top of their taproot is visible above soil level and the plant looks large enough to pick.

Tree fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be harvested when they fall into your palm with a ¼ turn of the stem. Subtropical fruit such as citrus and avocados have a wider harvest window and can be picked or cut from the branch when they have attained appropriate size and color, which depends on the specific variety of each crop.

For more edible gardening tips, download free PDF or purchase a hard copy of our Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food handbook and check out out the Grow Your Lunch Vimeo channel!

Happy Summer Northern gardeners!


School Garden Summer Success Secrets

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Summer presents numerous challenges in the school garden. Whenever we meet with school communities, the same question always arises, “What are we supposed to do in the summer time?” Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to common concerns about summer in the school garden.


Common concerns about summer include:

1.) There will be no staff, students or teachers on campus to take care of the garden.
2.) Summer crops use more water than spring, fall and winter crops. Why use lots of water to grow food that students will not be around to harvest?
3.) In higher latitudes and altitudes, summer is the main growing season. If we don’t grow in the summer, we won’t have a garden!
4.) Irrigation systems can falter – batteries die, leaks occur, water can get disconnected for construction projects, etc.

Our recommendations:

1.) Set up a calendar for families to rotate taking care of the garden for a week or two at a time. If a family can visit the garden two times per week to water, weed, and check that the irrigation systems are running properly, they get to take home any food that is ready to harvest. Orient families to their responsibilities before school gets out in the late spring.
2.) Create a summer program that links to other summer camps or summer school programs, local youth clubs, etc. in order to get more children into the garden when it is in full production.
3.) If possible, set up a paid internship program for teens to help take care of the garden.
4.) Fallow, mulch over, or cover-crop areas of the garden that do not need to be in production during the summer months. Mustards, buckwheat and cow peas are good summer cover crops for cooler climates, sun hemp (a legume) works well in warmer climates.
5.) Prioritize maximizing crop diversity in the garden over food production in the summer. A broader diversity of crops will help to ensure a more resilient garden ecosystem.
6.) Don’t be afraid to let annual plants get wild and go to seed during summer. Pulling out overgrown plants, saving seeds, building compost piles, and cultivating the soil are perfect gardening tasks for students to become familiar with at the beginning of the school year (video password: Grow2016).
7.) Plant the summer crops as late as possible in order to get a late summer harvest when students are back in school.

Three Sisters Original

Though the challenge of maintaining a school garden during the summer will remain as long as summer vacation exists, there are numerous ways to rethink the garden during summer that can allow for new opportunities and less frustration and lost production. We hope you find these tips useful!

As always, if you would like to connect with us to discuss your school’s garden program, you can schedule a free school garden strategy session here. If your community could benefit from a Garden Site and Program Assessment, you can find details here.

Happy growing!

The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Planting with Lunar and Solar Cycles

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Since the dawn of civilization, farmers and gardeners have been planting their crops in tandem with solar and lunar cycles.

Earth's Moon Phases

Based on solar and lunar calendars for the northern hemisphere in 2016, we’ve determined that the days between the first quarter moon phase (March 16) and full moon (March 23), closest to the equinox (March 20), will provide for the fastest germination and optimal production of our annual herbs, flowers and vegetables.

With this seasonal positioning in mind, we will be planting on Country Flat Farm on March 20.  If you’d like to join us for a propagation workshop that day, please register before March 18.

Planting with Lunar Cycles

Lunar planting theories vary as widely as the farmers and gardeners who ascribe to them.  Some claim that seeds will sprout best if planted during the new moon phase. Others claim that planting near a full moon is best. Though the exact timing of when to plant in the lunar cycle and the actual impact of the moon on crop production is debated, the gravitational pull from the moon on each water molecule on Earth – in the oceans (think tides), rivers, lakes and streams, even the water in our bodies and the water within sprouting seeds – does vary throughout the roughly 29-day lunar cycle. Based on tidal models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), our theory is that if there is an optimal time to plant seeds throughout the lunar month, it is when the moon is approaching it’s full and new phases.

Here’s why:

Between the first quarter and full moon and between the third quarter and new moon phases, each molecule of water on our planet is quite literally “pulled” toward the moon with increasing gravitational tug each day, peaking with spring tides (which occur twice per lunar month when solar and lunar tides are aligned), encouraging each sprouting seed (filled with water) to reach the surface more quickly:

Spring Tides 2Spring Tides 1


After the full or new moon phase, the tidal highs and lows decrease for a few days, reaching lowest levels on the first and third quarter, with the corresponding neap tides (which also occur twice per lunar month), as the sun and moon pull at the Earth’s water at a 90 degree angle:

Neap Tides 2 Neap Tides1


Optimal transplanting times are during the days between the full moon and third quarter and the new moon and first quarter (when tides move from spring to neap), as the gravitational pull of the moon upon each molecule of water on the planet decreases each day until the third quarter or first quarter. The theory goes that as the gravitational pull from the moon decreases, roots grow away from the gravitational pull of the sun and moon (deeper into the ground) more easily.

Planting with Solar Cycles

Planting on or near the spring equinox (late March in the northern hemisphere, late September in the south) is another technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. This relevance of this method is also debated, yet it too has some scientific clout: annual plants that sprout on or around the spring equinox will receive an increasing amount of light each day for three months, allowing them to grow large, healthy leaves and deep, prosperous roots. After the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (late June in the northern hemisphere, late December in the south), plants react to decreasing amounts of sunlight and begin to produce flowers, fruits and seeds, which we harvest in the late summer and early fall, near the autumnal equinox (late September in the northern hemisphere, late March in the south).

Though there’s never a guarantee with gardening and farming, we figure it can’t hurt to plant in accordance with these cycles as best we can.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – National Ocean Service (Tides and Water Levels)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Elliptical Orbit Models)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Lunar Day)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Spring and Neap Tide Models)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration – Earth’s Moon: Galleries


Sowing Seeds in the New Year

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In the final days of the year, we invite you to think about the seeds you would like to sow in next year’s garden.

Native Seeds/SEARCH - Seed Bank

Native Seeds/SEARCH – Seed Bank


One of our favorite winter activities is to comb through seed catalogs. There is something incredibly comforting about sitting inside on a cold rainy day, looking at beautiful images of vegetables that can only be grown in the opposite season, dreaming about what will grow in the garden next year.

Our favorite seed companies include:

The Living Seed Company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Renee’s Garden Seeds, Irish Eyes Garden Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Native Seeds/SEARCH, and Seed Saver’s Exchange.

Some excellent seed resources can also be gathered from the Organic Seed Alliance, Seven Seeds Farm and Top Leaf Farms.

Each winter we do a seed inventory, before we get too carried away ordering seeds. Do we have fresh seed for all of our old favorites – crops like ‘Lacinato’ kale, ‘Padron’ peppers (below), ‘Armenian’ cucumbers? Which crops and which varieties did best last year? Did we save seeds from any of the “open-pollinated” crops? Will the seeds we have leftover from last year still be good this year? Consider consulting a seed viability chart, like this one from High Mowing.

Padron Pepper - Renee's Garden Seeds

Padron Pepper – Renee’s Garden Seeds


We hope you enjoy this list of our favorite seed resources as well as the instructional video chapter of our Edible Gardening handbook on sowing seeds (below), to guide you if you are a beginner. Please feel free to share these resources far and wide.

Happy New Year and Happy Growing in 2016!


Seed Saving and the Preservation of Cultural Diversity

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The United States is the most culturally diverse country on the planet.  This diversity offers a unique, global guise through which to view the food system and human stewardship of the natural world.   Each culture represented here brings a food history, a way of eating from the country of origin.  Whether you and your ancestors are from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, or Native American, you carry this food history with you whether you are aware of it or not.

In the last hundred years, we have seen a dramatic loss in the diversity of the foods we eat.  Ask a grandparent in your family about what they ate as kids and you will learn about all kinds of interesting plant and animal foods that you have never tasted.

Many of the foods that our grandparents and great-grandparents ate are on the verge of complete extinction.  People and plants adapt in tandem over millennia.   Plants adapt to the environmental and cultural context in which they are grown and tended. People, along with all animals, are healthiest when they consume as wide an array of foods as possible. It is our responsibility to our predecessors and the generations to come to preserve the genetic diversity that still exists within our food system.

Instead of rattling off all of the reasons this loss of food knowledge has taken place, I’d like to paint a picture for reviving the traditions, the beauty, the vitality, the connectedness that re-learning can bring.

As gardeners and people who love food, we have limitless options for bringing the traditional foods of our forebears back to the table.

Here are some suggestions:

Start by learning about how to save seeds.  Learn which plants cross-pollinate in the garden and how to preserve the genetic integrity of the seeds we hold dear and plan to pass on to our grandchildren (some tips for seed saving can be founds below)

Dig up old recipes from your family and get as many generations involved in the kitchen as possible.

Eat together as a family at least once a week and share stories about food and family.

Learn the recipes of neighbors and friends who have different cultural backgrounds than you do.

Help to develop gardening and cooking programs in our schools where our children can learn to love and appreciate history through understanding where all of the food crops we hold so dear have originated.  When a kid learns that carrots come from Afganistan, all of a sudden what was a foreign and war-torn place becomes relevant to what he or she is eating for lunch!

Easy Seeds to Save:

the umbelliferae are the easiest (cilantro/coriander, parsley).

Beans are also easy and are not likely to cross-pollinate; they come in many shapes, colors and sizes, are native to the Americas and all have a story to tell.

The basic idea with saving seeds is to let the plant live out its full life cycle instead of pulling it out when it looks overgrown and, dare I say, ugly. For more tips on saving vegetable seed, check out Suzanne Ashworth’s “Seed to Seed.”

Happy Gardening!