Purple carrots and stripey tomatoes? Melinda Williams learns why heritage fruit and veggies are much more than an urban gardening trend.
Purple carrots, striped tomatoes and sculptural broccoli—heritage vegetables sure make for some interesting salads. But they’re much more than an urban gardening trend. Our seeds are tiny pieces of our history, and the food they produce may be uniquely suited to Kiwi diets.
In a country as lavishly green as New Zealand, it’s easy to see plant life as a kind of irrepressible force, germinating in unlikely places with abandon, forcing life out of cracks in the pavement, and clinging on in desert and alpine climates. But in our back gardens and fields, a biodiversity crisis is underway. Today, less than ten percent of the food plants that our grandparents and greatgrandparents sowed and ate still exist. The seeds they brought here, planted and saved from year to year have simply disappeared.
The problem isn’t that we’re short on seeds. In every garden centre there are hundreds of varieties of vegetable and fruit seeds, mostly produced by large multinational seed companies. The biggest problem for home gardeners seems to be choosing from the racks of possibilities. But from the perspective of the people who run New Zealand’s seed-saving organisations, home gardeners’ options are far more limited than we realise.
To start with, most seeds in those garden centre packets are F1 hybrids (see box, page 43). They’re usually bred for high yields, but also for commercial advantages like an attractive appearance, transportability and long shelf life. Most of these seeds will produce one nice-looking crop with a reasonable yield. But results with the second generation of hybridised plants are wildly unpredictable, so each year the gardener has to go back to the seed company to buy a new packet of seed. That means the future of most of the food we grow ourselves now lies in the hands of multinational companies.
The second problem with commercial seeds is the quality of the produce. Most seeds sold in New Zealand have been grown overseas, so may be unsuited to the New Zealand environment—which, of course, differs from one end of the country to the other, says Kay Baxter. Kay is the godmother of seed-saving in New Zealand. She runs the Koanga Institute, the country’s only commercial seed-growing organisation that deals exclusively in New Zealand heritage seeds (‘heirloom’ is the American word). “The multinationals are growing the same seed to sell all around the world, specifically to make lots of money,” she explains. “It doesn’t relate to individual climates or soils. They’re being grown for production rather than nutrition.”
An international treaty protecting the access of farmers, indigenous peoples and communities to the genetic material of 64 of the world’s most important food crops, as a means of ensuring food security, came into force in 2004. The New Zealand government, fearing implications for the Waitangi Tribunal flora and fauna claim, has not ratified it
Kay began saving seeds in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when she realised New Zealand was reliant on seeds imported from the Northern Hemisphere. For her, the nutritional content of food plants is their most important quality. “Nutrient-dense food is the key to our health. So learning about our own heritage seeds, and learning to grow our food to be nutrient-dense is where we really need to focus if we care about the health of our families, and our children’s families,” she says. “The health of the human race is getting worse and worse at a faster and faster rate, and the answer is in nutrition, and part of the nutrition puzzle is heritage seeds. There’s an inevitable inverse relationship in all our food plants between production and nutrition.”
Saving seeds is a cultural issue as well as a practical one—a way of preserving our botanical past and handing it on to future generations, the same way we might pass down stories, songs or family antiques. The plants that our forefathers brought from their homelands and planted year on year have grown up with us, adapting to New Zealand’s unique conditions, becoming naturalised Kiwis alongside generations of Wilsons, McKenzies, O’Connors and Babiches.
“Our ancestors brought these seeds with them because they were their most precious belongings,” says Kay. “They had intimate relationships with those seeds. It was are. They are our cultural taonga.” The peripatetic nature of we Kiwis—always on the move, in defiance of our flightless namesake—may have contributed to our blasé attitude towards preserving this aspect of our history, she thinks. “Somehow we’ve done a lot of travelling around the world from our homeland, and we’ve lost that connection. There’s virtually no awareness in New Zealand that if you choose a plant that does better for your area, it’s going to do better for you.”
Still, despite the neglect of recent generations, some varieties of food crops that have grown in New Zealand for decades, or even centuries, survive. Bart Acres is a freshfrom- university home gardener who runs the Otepoti Urban Organics network and Symbiosis Seed Exchange in Otago. He tells of a collection of potatoes donated to him by an Otago gardener who had been gathering them for years from old farmhouse sites and coastlines around the region. “We have a history of whalers that dates back to the late 1700s, and one of the things they would do when they were dropped off for a few months was grow potatoes along the coastal areas, and they would inevitably leave some behind. So there are some varieties that have been there since potentially the late 1700s.”
Right now, the burden of preserving our heritage fruits and vegetables is falling on the shoulders of just a few. Although several seed-saving networks exist, members generally number in the hundreds, and only a small percentage return sufficient seed to the exchange for commercial distribution.
When Kay and Bart initially set up their seed collections, they both discovered the only goldmine for seeds left in the country: elderly gardeners. “I’d been saving fruit trees for ten years before I even thought about the seed thing,” Kay recalls. “I was handed some seeds at a garden club one day by an elderly woman who said, ‘Oh, you’re the lady who saves the fruit trees—you might like these bean seeds.’ Of course, then I realised that’s where the seeds were, with the old gardeners, and that’s where I started looking.”
An article in New Zealand Gardener magazine led to an influx of seed donations. “Seeds just flooded in to us. It was unbelievable,” Kay marvels. “It’s the old people now who feel that real connection between our bodies and our food plants.” Today the Koanga Institute, based in Kaiwaka, north of Auckland, has around 650 lines of New Zealand heritage vegetables and hundreds of fruit trees. Around 400 of these are available to the public through mail order, a website and seed stands in organics stores and garden centres around the country. The seeds are hand-grown by volunteers, so the institute is still heavily dependent on support from the general public.
If you don’t have the space or skills to grow heritage produce yourself, buy heritage vegetables at your local farmers market, and request them at organics stores and supermarkets. As it says on the back of every Koanga Gardens seed packet, preserving our food heritage is a gift “from our past, for our future”.part of their culture, part of who they
For more information or to buy heritage seeds, see www.koanga.org.nz and www.urbanorganics.org.nz. For a list of seed retailers in New Zealand, see the Organic Pathways directory under ‘Seed’ (www.organicpathways.co.nz)
The birds and the bees (and the patents)
About 10,000 years ago humans discovered that by collecting the seeds of the plants they gathered for food and putting them in the ground, they got more food. It’s so simple that anyone with a little bit of land can feed his or her family for free. Or can they? After thousands of years of sowing and harvesting, collecting seeds and sharing them with our neighbours, the rules have changed. Today, it’s often not possible—it can even be illegal—to grow next year’s crop from seeds gathered from this year’s.
Because Monsanto owns the rights to those particular genes, it’s illegal to collect seeds from the plants with these genes and sow them the next year. It’s even illegal to have plants growing from seeds that have fallen on the ground. And in Percy’s case, it turned out to be illegal to have them on your land against your will.
It’s getting harder to choose not to buy seeds from big business. Just four companies—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Groupe Limagrain—own more than half the world’s seed sources, so even when you think you’re buying independently produced seeds they could easily come from one of the big four.
In New Zealand, most of our home-grown seed companies, like Kings and Egmont, refuse to buy from the likes of Monsanto. They pride themselves on being GE-free and having many lines of open-pollinated seeds, but most of their seeds come from overseas. (Yates was founded in New Zealand in the 19th century, but is now owned by an Australian chemical company.)
The seed situation has many people worried. Arty Mangan, the director of food and farming at US-based Bioneers, says that monopolies limit farmers’ choices, diminish genetic diversity, and put the food system at risk. “Biodiversity is the foundation of all life,” he said. “A wide spectrum of genetic diversity in food crops creates resilience and provides a buffer against extreme weather, pests and pathogens.”
But it’s not enough. Dr Warwick Easdown, a scientist at the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, says locking seeds in a vault won’t keep us fed. He and his colleagues are working with thousands of little-known varieties of vegetables, many of them indigenous to Africa and Asia, to make varieties suitable for commercial cultivation available to small farmers who can’t afford to buy seeds from the multinationals. There’s a treasure trove of vegetables that could increase the range of nutrients available to us, says Warwick. They contain characteristics that’ll be important as our climate changes—but we risk losing them.
“Seeds have to be grown,” says Warwick. “About the longest you can keep seeds in perfect temperature and humidity is 50 years. And if they’re kept on a shelf in a vault, how do we know what they’re like?”
International funding for growing and scientifically analysing the plants is woefully lacking, he says, but consumers can do something about it. “Try new vegetables. Go to an area where there are migrants to your country and find out what they eat. Try it, and ask your supermarket to stock it to create a demand.”
Rough guide to seed saving
Saving seeds is simple, says Bart Acres of Otepoti Urban Organics: just wait until the seeds have fully developed, then harvest them in a way that suits the plant. Here’s how to save the seeds of our favourite vegetables
eg carrots, spinach, silver beet, lettuce
Wait until the flower spike has matured and begun to dry out. Green or bright yellow seeds should be turning black or brown. When the plant is fully dry, thresh out the seeds in whatever way is practical. Sometimes it’s as easy as drawing seed heads through a clasped hand; other seed heads are more easily threshed over a tarp or can be rubbed vigorously between the hands over a large bowl. If seeds are falling freely from the mature plant, secure a paper bag around the entire seed head using a rubber band, then cut the whole thing off once the seeds have matured.
eg peas, beans and broad beans
Leave the plants in the ground until the pods have dried out, harvest them from the plant and remove the beans or peas. Lay them in a tray or box, and keep in a dry, airy spot for a few days until they’re fully dried out.
Pumpkins and zucchini
Allow the fruits to fully ripen on the plant. For pumpkins, this is when fruits have developed a mature skin colour and the leaves of the plant have died back. For zucchini, a large marrow will form, and it is mature when the skin becomes slightly dull and leathery. Fruits intended for seed saving should be propped up above the ground using a brick or clean straw, to prevent rotting. When fruits are mature, pick them—but wait at least a week before harvesting the seed. To harvest seeds, chop the fruit in half, scoop out the seeds, rinse them in a sieve under a tap to remove excess pulp and dry completely before storing.
Wait until the tomato is fully ripe, then cut it in half and squeeze the pulp into a small container, such as a clean yoghurt pottle. Allow this to ‘ferment’ for three days or so, when a layer of caked white fungus should have formed (this is beneficial for the protection and viability of the tomato seeds). Pour the lot into a sieve and rinse thoroughly under a tap, removing all fungus and pulp, leaving behind only seeds. Dry these out and save them.
Another method is to spread the freshly harvested seed pulp on paper towels to dry out. The seeds can then be torn off one by one, and planted with the paper attached.
For more information see www.urbanorganics.org.nz
Beware of cross-pollination
Silver beet and beetroot are actually the same species: Beta vulgaris. One line has been selectively bred for its root, the other for its leaves. Because they’re the same species and wind-pollinated, when planted in the same garden these plants will cross-breed, messing up hundreds of years of selective breeding! The same goes for the species Brassica oleracea, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. So before saving the seed of these veggies, make sure that no other varieties of the same species are flowering in your garden at the same time.
Seed saving tips
- Choose your plants carefully: it’s important to save seeds from the plants with the characteristics you want to preserve or enhance. This might mean marking the better plants with a ribbon or some other label, to remind you they’re being saved for seed. For example, beans that ripen early are desirable in the South Island where the growing season is shorter. It’s tempting to eat all the early beans and save the last ones for seeds— but this is selecting for slow-maturing traits, which is the opposite of what you’re after!
- If the seeds are nearly mature but heavy rain is forecast, pull out the plant by its roots and hang it upside-down somewhere dry, such as a carport. The plant will direct the last of its energy into seed production.
- Ensure your seeds are fully dry before storing them. You can do this by keeping them in shoeboxes or paper bags somewhere very dry. Alternatively, they can be put in an oven on a very low setting (40–50°C) with the door open, for as long as necessary. Don’t let the seeds themselves get above 30–35°C.
- Once seeds are dry, they can be stored in a dry spot in sealed glass jars or paper envelopes. To ensure complete dryness of seeds in the long term, silica desiccant sachets (stocked in some Asian food stores) can be added to sealed jars.
- Seeds can be separated from bits of leaves, stems and seed casings by putting everything in a tray and wiggling it at a slight angle—seeds will usually go to one end and debris to the other. It doesn’t matter if the debris isn’t removed though, as it won’t affect the viability of the seeds.