Your Garden is Chemical-Free, Are Your Seeds?
There is a groundswell among home gardeners looking to grow their gardens in a less chemically intensive and more biologically responsible way. They spend hours reading and researching the best ways to build the health and fertility of their soils, improve the microbial communities in the soil and attract earthworms and beneficial insects and pollinators. The appearance of more earthworms, a new species of butterfly or pollinating moth is cause for celebration.
Seeds are a high priority for these gardeners. The purity, quality and provenance are paramount. After all the work and care that goes into the soil and preparation, they rightly want the best and highest quality seeds possible.
Surprisingly, this is exactly where the home gardener and small scale grower may be getting shorted on quality. Growing for seed as opposed to growing for food has its own unique challenges. For a plant to set seed it must reach full maturity, set flowers and produce seed. This takes much longer than a plant grown for food which is usually harvested at a much younger stage, succulent and tender. Producing seed exposes the plant to a whole host of insects and diseases that younger plants may not experience, due to the phytochemical changes that take place as the plant matures sexually in order to reproduce.
Margaret Roach wrote a great opinion piece in a recent New York Times Sunday Review:
“In my own vegetable beds I use no chemical heroics, and yet I had been using some conventionally produced seed that is often coddled and adapted to a life of “high inputs” that it won’t get from me or from an increasing number of other chemical-averse home gardeners.
That packet of seed may not grow as well in my garden as one that wasn’t grown with chemicals, and it also probably contributed to upstream pollution.”
Agricultural regulatory agencies allow an expanded use of petro-chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers if a grower specifically grows for seed production and not food production. Many large-scale seed growers take advantage of this loophole, with the unintended consequence of creating a population of seeds that have become dependent on high-input, chemically intensive agriculture that many home gardeners are moving away from.
This has been ongoing for several decades now and is just being discovered as more and more gardeners and small scale agriculturalists are growing with less chemically intensive methods and are looking for sources of seed that are in line with their vision.
The end result of using seed grown under these conditions is that they usually don’t perform as well. They don’t germinate as strongly, are slower to put on growth, develop fewer flowers and are much more pest, disease and weather susceptible. In short, they simply aren’t as strong and resilient as those seeds grown in more biologically active soil with little to no chemical inputs.
While modern chemical agriculture initially looks very promising with better growth and increased yields, it is always discovered that plants grown with amply available macro-nutrients afforded by the chemical fertilizers become lazy and lose the ability to work for their nutrition, growing ever more dependent on the applied fertilizers for food and pesticides to control the insect populations.
The solution to these issues is to find seed sources that concentrate on growing their seed in a natural and low-input manner. These are often smaller, family-owned companies that are happy to answer questions on how their seeds are grown. They know the story of the seed they offer and willingly share it. Patronizing these companies only helps to strengthen the entire system by rewarding those that are congruent with the natural order of agriculture.