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CT OUTDOORS ~ Save the Seeds!

Winter is arm-chair gardening at its best. Content that voracious insect pests must be literally freezing to death in our true New England weather, I'm safely inside, curled up with my seed catalogues, dreaming of veggies to come. Juicy purple beets, gargantuan runner beans, prolific pumpkins, and juicy tomatoes.

I am faced with a delicious dilemma in 2010. Last year, in one of my well-intentioned organizational frenzies, I used up all of my old garden seeds. So, I get to start new this year.

Admittedly, seeds aren't something with a long shelf life. Although weeds can last for decades, it's best to use up the vegetable seeds one buys, barters, or saves each year for optimal germination. This year, I'm turning to the Seed Savers Exchange for heirloom seeds.

Plants that breed true to their genetic traits each year are known as "standard" varieties. Hybrids, or crosses, express traits of both parents, sometimes the best ones, sometimes the worst. Hybrids are often bred and selected for enhanced disease resistance, sturdier stems, higher yields, or thicker skin and delayed ripening that make transport easier.

As more Americans discover gardening and chefs look for interesting cuisine, heirloom seeds are all the rage in home gardening and at local farmers markets. The largest non-government bank of heirloom seeds in the country, Seed Savers started as one woman's mission to get some of her grandfather's morning glory seeds, back in the 1970s.

"Growing up, I would always sit on the porch with my grandparents, looking out through my grandfather's morning glories growing up twine trellises, while he told stories," said Diane Ott Whealy. She didn't know until years later when she asked him for some seeds that her great-grandparents brought the originals from Germany in the late 1800s.

"I had never known that these flowers came from my ancestors, who I never met," she said. Her grandfather passed away later that winter.

"I thought, if he hadn't given us his seeds and told us the story, it would have been lost," she said. "We realized that happened over and over again, when people immigrated into this country, they brought seeds with them. In many cases, these seeds would not be found anywhere else. They were passed down, generation to generation."

Meanwhile, as the seed trade introduced hybrids and gardeners sought newer varieties, Whealy said, many of the breeders didn't find it profitable to maintain the old ones.

In the 1970s, Diane and her husband, Kent, started a homey newsletter called "True Seed Exchange" and sent it to a handful of supporters.

"We had the idea we could become a seed bank, a safe place, where we could maintain these seeds," she said.

Thirty-five years later, the exchange, based on Heritage Farm, near Decorah, Ia., maintains nearly 24,000 different varieties of heirloom seeds and serves as a source of seeds, information, and inspiration for seed savers. The 900-acre farm also has a herd of Ancient White Park cattle, a heritage breed, and close to 500 varieties of heritage apples.

There are 23 certified organic acres, divided into 60 plots that used for preservation gardening and commercial production of heirloom seeds that are sold to the public though an annual catalogue. Crops are rotated to avoid pest problems; different plants are grown to keep perpetuating the seed bank and provide a live display for farm visitors.

Whealy says the northeast Iowa farm, in USDA Zone 3, is a good basis for gardeners in much of the country. The exchange also contracts some seed production with certified organic heirloom gardeners in other parts of the country.

Heirlooms are often more suited for home gardens and local markets, with short trips and little time between harvest and dinner.

"You'll find that most of the tomatoes in our collection are very thin-skinned. They are very juicy-they have to get only from the garden to the kitchen table," Whealy said.

To get lost in the heirlooms, go to www.seedsavers.org or call 563-382-5990. Seeds can be ordered from the free catalogue. For an annual fee, members receive a quarterly magazine, access to thousands of unique varieties, a discount on purchases, and more.

Suzanne Thompson, host of "CT Outdoors," which airs Tuesday from 12:30 to 1 p.m. and Sunday from 7 to 7:30 a.m. on WLIS 1420 AM and WMRD 1150 AM, has bachelor's degrees in horticultural sciences and journalism. When she's not writing or talking, she can be found puttering around her gardens in Old Lyme. Contact Suzanne at sthompson@
wliswmrd.net.

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