April –  Planting Seeds Springs to Mind

by Catherine June Wallenburg

Hi! My name is Catherine June Wallenburg, I am an organic seed farmer and seed enthusiast located in the Farrellton, Quebec (roughly 45 minutes north of Ottawa/Gatineau). I grow over 120 varieties of organic vegetable, herb and flower seed. I’ve been growing seeds for the best part of 10 years, though for much of that time I was also working on other farms or keeping an off-farm job to pay the bills.  

For many years, I grew bulk seeds that I sold to seed companies. Then in 2019 I founded Northern Seeds and started selling retail. I wanted to offer some of the great varieties I’d come across over the years. When trialing or adding new varieties to my offering, I look for varieties that taste great and do well in our short growing season. 

For instance, I have a very early maturing butternut squash (Early butternut remix) that is the product of trialing and selecting for earliness, yield, flavor, smallish size and butternut shape by Adaptive Seeds in Oregon. This variety consistently ripens its fruits even when direct seeded. I also offer two remarkably early tomato varieties: Black Prince, a plum-sized Siberian heirloom that has a rich and balanced tomato flavor, and Glacier, a super-early newer variety with a squat plant habit making it suitable for container growing.   

Another thing I look for is resilience i.e. varieties that perform well with little care in suboptimal conditions. I think this is important generally, but also because climate change is bringing new unpredictable challenges. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen extreme heat, late frosts, droughts, new insect pests moving north from their previous range and more generations of the usual pests making them problematic for longer in the growing season. These phenomena are outside the norm and underscore the value of resilience.  There is also resilience in diversity. According to the Bauta Family Initiative for Seed Security, “in the last century we’ve lost 75 percent of agricultural biodiversity and only about 10 per cent of the remaining varieties are commercially available to farmers.” Some of this loss of biodiversity is due to societal shift away from agriculture, but there are also changes in the industry that have led to the disappearance of varieties. 

Since the 1950s, many seed companies (many of the largest seed companies started as chemical companies that sold pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, pesticides – and things like agent orange) shifted their focus to hybrids, and later to genetically modified seeds. Sometimes species can really benefit from hybridization – they can gain in uniformity and vigor. As a rule of thumb, outbreeders such as brassicas, cucurbits and corn can benefit from hybrid vigor, whereas the benefits are non-existent or marginal for self-pollinating species such as tomatoes. But at this point, much of the varietal development going on involves species that don’t even benefit from hybridization.

The shift in the industry happened, in large part, because hybrids have built-in intellectual property protection. Hybrids do not breed true, so the seed companies that offer them (and guard the secret of their lineage) have exclusive rights without the need to patent or otherwise protect their new varieties. And since they do not breed true, farmers and gardeners cannot save their own seeds from year to year as had been the practice for millennia. 

Many open-pollinated (OP) varieties are part of the public domain, either by design, when breeders choose to release a new variety without intellectual property (IP) protection, or because they are heirloom varieties. In fact, many breeders of open-pollinated varieties feel the need to protect their varieties from being appropriated and patented by large corporations. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was created to help prevent this from happening and to provide a legal framework to keep new open-pollinated varieties “open source.” 

As part of this shift in the industry toward hybrids, the work of variety maintenance of open- pollinated varieties has been overlooked. There used to be dozens of small regional seed companies in North America, and much of their reputation was based on the varietal maintenance work they did. In the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of small (relatively speaking) seed companies, many of which cater to organic growers, that have been “cleaning up” many varieties that used to be outstanding OPs. 

All the varieties we offer at Northern Seeds are open-pollinated. While there are some
outstanding hybrid varieties out there, and these can give large-scale growers an edge, I really find it important to maintain the quality of open-pollinated varieties. A variety is not a static thing, it changes over time, and if grown without care they do deteriorate. A breeder in Maine, John Navazio is known to say  “good (varietal) traits are like good teeth; ignore them and they will go away.”

Some people become confused about the difference between heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirloom. There is no official definition of heirloom, but most people agree that for a variety to be considered heirloom, it needs to have been around for at least 50 years. I use 1960 as a cut- off. 

Often heirlooms were varieties developed with different criteria than newer varieties. Tomatoes are a good example. Heirloom varieties were often developed (or just maintained over generations) for good flavor first and foremost and may be very soft when ripe and more prone to cracking, both characteristics which affect the ability to store and ship them. Many newer tomato varieties, especially those developed for large scale production, need to be firm, aesthetically appealing and uniform for ease of shipping, storage and marketing. There are always trade-offs in plant breeding and variety maintenance, so these newer firm and uniform varieties tend to be less juicy and have less rich tomato flavor.

I offer many heirloom varieties because I think my customers, most of whom are backyard gardeners, value flavor over firmness. However, there are some awesome newer open- pollinated varieties. Blacktail Mountain watermelon is one – a ridiculously sweet watermelon that matures in as little as 82 days. Dakota black popcorn is another – a black ruby whose kernels are like black opalescent gems and that make the crunchiest, nuttiest popcorn you’ll ever eat. 

Choosing which seeds to grow, and where to source them really depends on what one is looking for. If you already have a specific variety in mind – a quick google search can lead you to the companies that offer that specific variety. If you’re looking for heirlooms, some companies specialize in offering heirlooms exclusively. Other companies offer more hybrids (often annotated as F1 in catalogs and online).

Here at Northern Seeds, we try to offer gardeners the best open-pollinated varieties out there, based on taste, resilience and hardiness. Sometimes, those are heirloom varieties, sometimes they are newer varieties. I also want to support the valuable work of contemporary breeders, particularly those who make their work open source. Every year, we are expanding our offering to include more flowers, medicinals and less common vegetables like rapini, radicchio, collards, chicory. 

For gardeners, saving seeds is a great way to reclaim (or just celebrate being a part of) our food source. And for folks who already know a thing or two about gardening, it’s really not much of a leap. For all the common vegetable crops, isolation distances are well documented and readily available online. It can be a fun venture and will develop your appreciation for diversity (even in stable varieties, there are mutations). It can also be remarkably low tech – plates and paper towels, a sieve, colander, and a fan will go a long way. 

Whether you’re new to seed saving and have questions, or if you’ve been at it for a long time and have come across some weird crosses, feel free to be in touch – I love hearing about seedy stories! And if you have a special variety you think should be out there in the world, needs to be “cleaned up” or just needs a keeper, get in touch too!

Catherine June Wallenburg
Northern Seeds

Planting Seeds Springs to Mind