Heirloom Gardening for Biodiversity

We all know biodiversity is a good thing. But how does gardening with heirlooms promote biodiversity? And how can you garden with biodiversity in mind?

We think of biodiversity on three levels: genetic, species, and ecosystem. All three apply to your garden or farm, no matter its scale.

Heirloom Vegetable Genetic Biodiversity
Pungo Creek Butcher dent corn, Yellow Fleshed Moon & Stars watermelon, Cosmic Purple carrot
Genetic Diversity

  • Heirlooms may carry genes that provide disease resistance or other useful traits we don’t even know we need.  Preserving heirloom varieties maintains this “gene bank” as insurance against future plant diseases or other threats.
  • Genetic variation within a planting gives that crop resiliency to cope with the unexpected – we may lose some plants, but we can build stronger varieties by saving seed from those that survive. To maintain diversity within a variety, we save seed from a large number of plants.
  • Traditional plant breeding with open-pollinated (OP) varieties builds biodiversity by creating new genetic profiles with each generation.  It also allows us to explore unexpected mutations – with plants, mutations often aren’t bad.  A mutation is simply a shift in the genetic code, sometimes with unexpectedly good results.

Species Biodiversity Mixed Herbs and Vegetable Production
Mixed herb and vegetable production.
Species Diversity

Just growing a lot of different kinds of plants creates species diversity in your garden.  But you may not be aware of all the benefits you’re getting. Ecologists correlate species biodiversity with productivity. That means more diverse systems produce more biomass.  And that means more veggies for your table!

Many modern varieties are bred for monoculture conditions.  Heirlooms are already adapted to gloriously biodiverse, ecologically grown gardens, like those of our ancestors.

And biodiversity of one type, like the plants in your garden, tends to come along with increased biodiversity of other species, like beneficial insects and micro-organisms in your soil – which compete with or prey upon garden pests and help control their populations.

Tan Cheese Pumpkins
Tan Cheese and other Moschata types thrive where other winter squash succumb to pests and disease.
Ecosystem Diversity

Your garden is unlike anyone else’s.  Celebrate it!  Instead of trying to grow things that aren’t suitable for your garden, seek out what is uniquely adapted to where you live.  You may find that you don’t miss growing Buttercup winter squash – which may not handle pests in the Southeast – because you can grow sweet, long-storing Seminole pumpkins – which don’t produce well in areas with cool nights.

Rather than bemoaning a garden that doesn’t fit the commercial “ideal,” seek out the heirlooms that have been developed over generations, right where you live.  Ecosystem diversity creates what foodies call “terroir” – the food grown where you live is unlike food grown anywhere else.

A Design Team for Southern Exposure’s new home

This is part of a series of blogs about the building of a new seed office headquarters for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE).

To help propel this encompassing project into reality, Paul assembled an SESE HQ Design Team.  My name is Darla Eaton, and I’ve been working on the Design Team since November, 2010.  Thus far, my primary modes of participation have been researching the cost, sustainability, and practicality of various building materials, gathering information on the most appropriate energy systems to meet our needs, and networking with professionals in the industry to help facilitate instructor-led sustainable building educational opportunities.  I’ve participated in an array of building projects including building a place to live, refurbishing community centers, and building maintenance, almost all with a strong emphasis in sustainability.

When I first joined the team, we were faced with a seemingly infinite supply of questions: What spaces in what configuration should comprise the general layout?  What alternative building materials are sustainably available to us?  What energy systems can we employ that have low energy input, both up front and over time?  How much will it cost?

Think you can help?  You’re probably right!  Most of the members on the Design Team, including myself, are new at this.  If you have expertise in any field related to sustainable building, and you’d like to discuss our project with us, shoot us an email.

Darla Eaton
darl...@gmail.com
Design Team Member

Who is Gary Nabhan? Chile Peppers and Place Based Foods

habanero peppersThe authors of the new book Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail singled us out as a force working for the preservation of heirloom chiles in a recent interview on grist.org – Hot stuff: chile peppers, climate change, and the future of food. Authors Kurt Friese, Gary Nabhan, and Kraig Kraft (an ethnobotanist, a chef, and an agroecologist) examine climate change through the lens of the chile pepper. In another grist post, Nabhan writes about Global weirding and the scrambling of terroir.

We carry seeds for three of the chiles they track in the book – Habaneros (the Yucatan), Fish Peppers (Chesapeake Bay area) (sold out for this year), and Jimmy Nardello’s (from Italy via Connecticut). 

Gary Nabhan will be presenting at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival on the findings of the book.  You can download free booklets on Place Based Foods from his website. The most recent – Appalachia – From Rarity to Community Restoration and Market Recovery – features a piece on heirloom grinding corns of Appalachia by our own Ira Wallace, as well as articles on heritage apples, pawpaws, wild spring greens, traditional sweet potato curing, and Bill Best of Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center on the Noble Bean.

Saving the Past for the Future