In the world of region-specific seeds, tomatoes can have names like “Dances with Smurfs” and be dark blue or purple in colour.
“Dances with Smurfs” was one unique variety among dozens of others on display at Fertile Ground Farm outside St. Agatha last week. The large garden was full of vegetables not likely to be found in any generic garden centre.
The Ecological Farmers’ Association of Ontario demonstration garden is a showcase of varieties of market garden plants curated to suit this area specifically.
Joining for the tour was a collection of garden-minded people including representatives from small-scale seed companies, market gardeners and farmers, and seed producers. Many of the seed producers had contributed varieties for showcasing in the garden, and eagerly waited for their variety of potato, melon or squash in the tour, to see how it had performed. When their variety came up, they took a turn to speak about it.
One grower, Jennifer Sanders of Meaford, spoke about the watermelons she and her partner, Karl Amdur, have been working on for eight years, which they call Ontario Gold. It’s a cross of three varieties with the goal to create a good tasting watermelon with the trait of turning yellow, and with fewer seeds. Ontario Gold turns completely yellow when ripe, including the entire plant. Sanders said a gardener will know when to pick them when the tendral opposite the melon stem dries out. After that, wait three days before picking, she said.
She indicated this in front of a dense patch of twining watermelon leaves, all of them in various stages of becoming yellow, with shy little melons peeking out from under the leaves. The patch was very thick; planted with two or three plants in one hole, and then each hole spaced out only one foot. Though, with this variety, it could have been even denser, Sanders said.
The tour was led by Rebecca Ivanhoff, the manager of the EFAO’s seed program.
She spoke about all of the people who grew and saved the old seed varieties, referring to them as caretakers. The plants growing in the garden around her were the result of generations of people saving seeds, passing them down, tinkering, preserving, trial and error-ing and discovering new things about the varieties.
“Every time you work with a seed, you are connected to so many relationships,” said Ivanoff. “Not only the soil, when you plant the seed and that plant grows, you have a relationship with that plant. Then when it produces food, you can share it with other people. Those are all relationships. But you also have a relationship with the people who have stewarded these crops.
“We were talking about landraces (varieties of seeds bred within and for a particular region) and particular crops being used for particular dishes, so you also have a connection with culture. And because you’re saving seeds and if you produce more seed from these crops, then you also have a relationship with future generations. I think those relationships are really important.”
Regional-based seed work is important, Ivanoff says, because in the conventional seed system, seeds are often produced in places far from where they end up being planted. This means they may not be adapted for the region’s soil or climate.
“Most seed is grown on the global market, and then it’s purchased by seed companies, and packaged and sold,” said Kim Delaney, an independent seed grower based in Palmerston. This can mean market gardeners in Ontario are growing seeds developed for a climate somewhere else around the world like swiss chard from Israel for example, with poor results or going to seed too early in Ontario.
Another important aspect of seed work is that it augments a region’s food security, said Ivanoff.
“Having the capacity to create new varieties that are still open-pollinated, that are still something that anyone can save and replicate, they’re not owned by private interests, like hybrid varieties are. So they have all of that accessibility, but they’re evolving and they’re changing and they’re meeting the current needs, of consumer tastes, of market gardener preferences, of current climate that’s so important,” said Angie Koch of Fertile Ground Farm, who hosted the demonstration garden and arranged for the labour and work to maintain it.
Another factor is that the seeds like those in the demonstration garden are developed by ecological or organic growers. Sometimes conventional seeds do not do well in ecological growing conditions, said Ivanhoff, and ecological growers need seeds suitable for them.
Finally, Ivanoff says the work of selecting seeds specifically adapted to a region is even more important in the face of climate change, when seeds will need to be adapted as traditional growing zones shift.
The EFAO’s demonstration garden in St. Agatha is one of many such gardens across the country part of the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. Each of the gardens across the country is focused on the crops important to their regions. For example, a market garden in the prairies may focus on growing grain, said Ivanoff. The program was funded by Agriculture Canada through the Bauta Family Initiative and administered by the EFAO as part of its portfolio of seed-related work.
Ivanoff says she wants to expand the EFAO’s education work to help more people learn about this kind of seedwork, to connect mentors with people who want to grow seeds and to find more market gardeners who are willing and interested in growing seeds.
“Remember that all of our food starts with seed. And that if we want a local food system, we need a local seed system. And that when we eat or when we plant, to remember that those seeds have passed through many hands and that they have stories and that we are part of the process.
“Seeds are an important part of the way that we’re going to adapt to a changing world.”