My friend Mary-Lynne Weberg and I spent a day in Delta with Steve Solomon, founder of the Territorial Seed Company and my favourite author of several gardening books, and Mary Ballon who bought the company from Steve and re-named it West Coast Seeds. He signed my books and we learned about gardening from the horse’s mouth.
A seedsman like Solomon investigates everything he can regarding propagation and creating the most productive seed, because our future looks uncertain and we must learn how to feed ourselves; how to save our own excellent seed stock and how to grow nutrient-dense food so we don’t just survive, but thrive.
He explained the differences among GMO, hybrid, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, since these types are often confused. GMO seeds have had their DNA or germ altered with the DNA from another species and often are able to pass on these genes to their offspring. For example, much corn DNA has been engineered to contain insecticide while other corn can withstand sprays of Round Up. GMO seeds are not created in nature.
Hybrid seeds are created by cross-pollinating plants of the same species and does not involve adulterating the plant’s DNA with another species. When growers want to unite specific properties they select the parent stock and pollinate them by hand, sometimes very meticulously by opening a flower, pollinating it from another and closing the flower back up, enclosing it so it cannot be pollinated again. This is an expensive process so hybrid seed usually costs more — sometimes a lot more. Breeders have told us that hybrid seeds cannot produce seeds that are true to type, but Solomon discovered a way to pass on hybrid qualities to an open-pollinated type and he explains how he did this in his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.
Open-pollinated seeds have become pollinated without human interference. Heirloom seeds have been kept isolated for generations in order to preserve certain characteristics and are not necessarily better than open-pollinated or hybrid seeds but represent what previous generations grew.
When I’m looking for seeds, I don’t care what type they are as long as they’re not GMO, as long as they’re fresh and produce good-tasting crops. My favourite corn, for example, is a very old open-pollinated cultivar called Golden Bantam that produces six-inch delicious, corny cobs on six-foot-high stalks. This year I think I’ll try to cross-pollinate it with a larger hybrid to see if I can get bigger cobs next year or the year after and have Golden Bantam’s rich flavour with the hybrid’s size.
Always experimenting, always getting better.