Last night, I had a panicked dream in which I was running around on my wedding day, in my dress, looking for someone to do my makeup and cover up my two black eyes. (Which, in reality, are thankfully gone.) It's that last mad scramble and the panic of realizing that my wedding is in three weeks!!!!
So what do I do to calm down? Look at seed catalogs. Weird, right? But it gets my mind off of things (I don't have the final menu yet! I don't have the final guest count yet! Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh....) and it's oddly soothing to plan out my dream garden. In fact, I saved a document that lists some of the seeds I'd like to order for next year. Of course, I listed far too many seeds and won't get around to nearly all of them. But it's a good starting point for the spring. And I found them all on heritage seed sites, so many of them are unusual. As in, you'll never find these at the grocery store. One of the major problems with our current system of agriculture is that the big companies (and grocery stores) have narrowed down the possibilities of what can be sold to just a few different types. Sure, there are cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. But are there black tomatoes? There are only about 10 different types of apples in the store when there are really over 7500 varieties of apple. How many flavors and sensations are we willingly sacrificing? And not only what flavors, but how much flavor? In his book "Epitaph for a Peach" author and farmer David Masumoto writes about a peach that was his favorite as a child. It had such an intense, sweet flavor. To read his words, it's a crime that grocery stores have given up foods like those peaches in favor of tasteless fruits whose only virtue is the ability to travel and sit on a shelf for a long time. I'm thinking that I agree with him. It makes me think of my mom's apple tree, the little apple tree that could. It was supposed to be a crabapple tree, but the tiny fruits were so sweet and juicy. The tree itself produced so many that each spring we had to go out and pick about half of the started apples off to keep the branches from getting too heavy. (That's how it eventually died--suicide by overproduction. I did say that plants are optimistic.) When it was apple season we made so many apple pies, apple tarts, and practically ate nothing but applesauce for weeks. I miss that apple tree. (Don't worry, Mom planted another in its place, it just hasn't started putting out apples yet. At least, not in any quantity.) Those apples never would have won any prizes (despite their sweetness, they tended to be mealy which is why we cooked most of them), and they certainly wouldn't have been put out at the grocery store or used in commercial products, but we loved them.
One of the other problems with getting rid of the diversity of food plants is that the ones that are left don't have as much pest resistance. One of the reasons there's so much variety in the first place is that each species had its own defenses and its own reason for being. This one might do better against moths while that one does better against beetles. If you only have the one that's better against beetles, what do you do in a year when there are lots of moths? You use more pesticides, and even then you probably lose more of your crop than you otherwise would. Variety has always been a way of protecting yourself against the vagaries of nature. This one does better in a heavy rainy season, that one in a dry season. Can you really predict what the weather will be like? Nope. So plant both, and at least one should do well.
There are a bunch of people, mostly small scale and subsistence farmers, who are fighting back. Heritage (also called heirloom) seeds are seeds that have been saved, usually for generations. There's amazing variety among them, even just in how they're colored. Do you think that lima beans are just tiny, kidney shaped beans? Guess again. (In the top right corner, the beans she's holding are lima beans.) What about grey zucchini, or red celery? Many of these heritage seeds can be dated back to at least the 1800s. And as I said before, the flavors are intense.
Not only that, but they have wonderful descriptions of the proper growing conditions. I've been able to find a lot of seeds that are from Russian varieties, or at least from northern locales. They're used to smaller growing seasons and all of the other oddities that come from living here. I think the one I'm most excited about is the determinate (bushy) tomato variety called Cosmonaut Volkov. Either that, or the type of pea called Alaska.
There are also heritage animals, though. I bet you didn't realize that there are breeds of domesticated chicken that are almost extinct, did you? (Don't worry, I didn't either.) Commercially, there's really only one type of (meat) chicken and one type of turkey that are grown in this country. One or two types of beef cow, one type of dairy cow. But just as with the seeds, small farmers are starting to bring back many of these rare animals. One day, I'm going to have chickens and turkeys. (Shane has made clear that he wants nothing to do with that.) The main objection to chickens that I've heard is that "they're disgusting animals". Well, it depends almost entirely on the breed. The main one that's used in factory farming, the ubiquitous white chicken, is only grown because it has a lot of breast meat. They're stupid, they're not good laying hens (that's a different type of chicken) and they are pretty gross. Some of the heritage chickens, however, have more pleasant personalities and even different tastes to the meat. My aunt bought some chicks this year and it's been fun hearing her take on raising chickens. It was also funny to have her describe one breed as being obviously stupider than the others.
To support heritage animals, however, you don't have to grow them yourself. It can be as simple as ordering one for your Thanksgiving meal.
So when I plant my garden next year, and every year after, these are the resources I'm going to use. I simply googled "heirloom seeds" and came up with tons of sites. And when I plant my seeds next year, I'll be sure to let you know how each one does.