Your garden can support healthy farms
So you want to plant a garden, or seed a lawn, or just grow herbs and flowers in a pot in a window or on a balcony. One of your first choices is what kind of seeds to buy. Seeds grown by farm operations that use synthetic fertilizers, bug poisons, and weed killers can harm the environment in many ways, from poisoning wells in the Midwest to washing all the way down the Mississippi River and creating a “dead zone” in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Organic seeds aren’t grown with these chemicals, and are therefore better for the environment. Organic farmers also tend to use other farming techniques that prevent erosion and are safer for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.
Another good reason to buy organic seeds: The companies who sell them tend to offer a broader range of plant varieties than other seed distributors. Moreover, the U.S. government doesn’t allow organic seeds to be genetically engineered, a process in which a gene from one species may be spliced into another. For example, a gene from a nut might be introduced into a bean. This practice has been challenged because of possible health and environmental hazards.
- Think outside the supermarket. Instead of raising supermarket mainstays at home, try vegetables that you often won’t find in the supermarket. Among the interesting and tangy options are greens–such as arugula, chicory, collards, dandelions, endive, escarole, mizuna, mustard greens, turnip greens, rapini (Raab broccoli, cima di rapa)–as well as various Asian greens such as bok choi or gai lam, or different types of squash, such as the Mexican chayote.Why aren’t these tasty, nutritious options available in supermarkets? It may have a lot to do with shelf life. Dandelion greens just don’t hold up as well as iceberg lettuce, and Raab broccoli can’t outlast conventional broccoli.
- Choose the right seeds for your area. Just because a local garden supply store carries a pack of organic seeds doesn’t mean they’ll grow where you live, and this is also the case with seed catalog companies that ship all over the country. Learn about the principles of climate-appropriate planting in your area.
- Know when to plant. Stores often display seeds long before or after they should be planted, and seed catalogs make them available pretty much year round. Read the seed package carefully to determine when to sow seeds.
- Plant varieties with different maturities. Diversifying will give you an edge in fighting pests and diseases. Having different maturities gives you a longer growing season, and ensures that everything doesn’t ripen at the same time. Of course if you plan on doing a lot of canning or freezing, you might want things to ripen at the same time.
- Trade seeds, and experiment. It’s helpful to trade seeds with other organic gardeners and experiment to see if they do well. Think of your garden not just as a garden, but as a test plot where you strive to learn what works best for your soil and climate.
Saving seeds from your own organic garden can be a useful strategy. It may not be worthwhile if you have space limitations, however, because, except for fruiting plants such as tomatoes or squash, seeds only ripen long after the plant is done producing. Moreover, continuing to save seeds from just a few plants can result in inbreeding, which creates weaker plants with lower yields. Saving hybrid seeds is problematic, too. A cross between two or more varieties of the same species, hybrids often yield more and have better disease resistance than plants grown from open pollinated types of seeds. But this “hybrid vigor” doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next generation. Only try the offspring of hybrids if you have room to experiment.
Organic seed gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting growers who care about the environment and safer farming practices. You also have a great excuse to spend more time outdoors!
…to your wallet
Planting your own garden is often less expensive than purchasing products at the grocery store.
…to the Earth
Organic seed production reduces the burden on the environment caused by the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
- Rejecting hybrids. Some organic gardening enthusiasts confuse hybrids with genetically engineered plants and refuse to use hybrids. They are unnecessarily denying themselves some high-yielding, hardy plants. Hybrids are crosses of varieties within a species. Genetically engineered plants involve taking much greater, and riskier, genetic leaps.
- Planting monocultures. Whatever you plant, it’s best to plant several different varieties of the same plant. Resistance to different pests and diseases varies, so if you have only one type and it happens to get smacked hard by a pest or a disease, you’ll have a complete crop failure. With different varieties, you’re more likely to have some plants that do well.
- Inbreeding from saved seeds. The quality of many vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, chard, corn, and onions, can decline greatly if you keep saving seed from a small number of plants for several generations.
- Cucurbita crossing. A genus in the gourd family, cucurbita (which includes squash, cucumbers, watermelon, and chayote) tends to cross-pollinate easily. If there are different types of cucurbita in your garden, you may not get, say, the type of zucchini you were expecting because it crossed with another kind of squash. If you want predictability growing this group of plants, you have to hand pollinate.
- Expecting too much from heirlooms. “Heirloom” seeds from plants that are not widely used are becoming increasingly popular with organic gardeners. This is a welcome development, because it encourages gardeners to experiment and keeps a broader variety of plant genes in circulation. But beware of high expectations. Heirlooms don’t necessarily yield as much or taste as good as some of the more common varieties. Those hybridizers were sometimes crossing varieties with home gardeners in mind.
Browse the seed catalogs. Thanks to the booming interest in organic gardening, organic seed purveyors abound. Since the selections in garden shops may be limited, it’s a good idea to take a look at some of the catalog offerings. You can find them on the Web.