Back to our roots

Vancouver gardeners are being more particular about where they get their seeds.

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Demand for heritage seeds sparks a feeding frenzy


When I caught up to Jeanette McCall last March she was in the midst of a tremendous storm. The owner of West Coast Seeds was breathless, and just this side of overwhelmed at what was happening to her business.

While the global economic downturn was crushing most entrepreneurs, McCall’s niche seed operation was exploding. The appetite for her organic, heritage seeds jumped last year by 40 per cent. This year it is up 270 per cent.

Let me explain a few things about heritage seeds. The end of the Second World War was about the time we entered the era of factory farming, the mass production of fruits and vegetables for faraway markets. Many of the diverse varieties being grown at the time were cast aside; the gene pool shrank in the hunt for the few varieties that would grow uniformly, resist diseases, travel well and be able to be picked green and ripen in transit. In many cases hybrids were created. And in many cases taste was sacrificed. Think of those pinkish tomatoes you buy in the winter that taste like cardboard.

When she bought the business 18 months ago, McCall says, she looked at it as something she could do part-time: “I thought I could work a few hours a day.” Now she says she and her staff, who work out of a small barn in Delta, are going seven days a week. They are so busy they have had to enlist their children to help out. One kid is there with her grandmother doing nothing but putting UPS labels on orders. There are so many orders they are running out of stock.

And the top sellers are vegetables: tomatoes, squash and onions. So what is going on? In these difficult economic times, in this political environment, what with the 100-mile diet and folks more conscious about what they are eating, more of us are growing our own.

It’s happening on rooftops, in backyards, patio planters and community gardens. And gardeners are being more particular about where they get their seeds, which for more and more people means getting heritage seeds.

Over the past 20 years, Seedy Saturday at VanDusen Gardens at the end of February has become the Mecca for people looking for organically grown heritage seeds. If there is an urban agriculture movement in this city, it is here. This year the Floral Hall at VanDusen was packed to the point of paralysis. There were more people than ever before pressing past each other to check out heritage seeds being offered by a dozen seed sellers.

Hugh Daubney, an emeritus research scientist with Agriculture Canada, was there making a pitch for Canada’s heritage seed program, called Seeds of Diversity. He says hybrids tend to be more general in terms of where they can be planted, and the diverse options with heritage seeds allow you to find a variety that works best in your area. Besides, maintaining a diverse biosphere helps prevent one disease from wiping out a whole species.

Patrick Steiner with Stellar Seeds in Sorrento gave a workshop on seed collection. He pointed out that one advantage of many heritage seeds is that they are “open pollinated.” That means their seeds will produce the same fruit, time and again. With hybrid seeds, on the other hand, you never know what you’ll end up with. And growing from heritage seeds, you can even do your own selecting over several seasons to pick the best fruit to provide you with seeds for the following year.

Last January, long before this year’s Seedy Saturday and before Jeannette McCall and her staff were being overwhelmed by orders, Bruce MacDonald was going through his seed packets dreaming of the spring plantings to come. MacDonald is the “propagator” at VanDusen Gardens. This will be the third year he has put in a heritage vegetable patch.

MacDonald says his first notion was to try and locate varieties of veggie grown in Vancouver at the time it was first settled. He searched through the archives for old seed catalogues and newspaper clippings. Where possible, he labels his plants with information he’s dug up.

But like most gardeners, MacDonald has a romantic streak. For him, vegetables grown from heritage seeds are more “exciting” to eat. He says the idea of striped tomatoes, speckled lettuce, German butterball potatoes, things you can’t find at the grocery story, “it just suits my style.”

It may suit your style too.

Read past columns by Allen Garr.