Posted by: gardenshf | January 10, 2013

January’s the time to dream about heirloom annuals

While many areas of the country are covered by snow and gardens are dormant, gardening in the Bay Area never ceases. January brings the task of pruning roses, even on days when heavy moisture chills to the bone. Deciduous trees’ branches, now leafless, stretch to the sky like arms wide open, allowing light to seep in and warm the open spaces. And even though our garden tasks continue, January is also a time to dream and plan for the seasons ahead.

In her book, “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate,” Wendy Johnson says “growing a garden, like cultivating a wide field of consciousness, is original work. Each time we plant a garden we are returning to origin, to the source of every garden ever grown. The word ‘origin’ derives from the Latin verb oriri, to rise, as the sun and moon rise in a cyclical pattern in the day and night sky.” Even in winter, there is no better place to be than in the garden.

Catalogs filled with brightly colored pictures of flowers and vegetables are quite enticing, but many of these newly hybridized beauties no longer serve some of the most important functions of the garden — preserving diversity and supplying food or nectar for our pollinating insects. Thirty percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable crops depend on bees. Since many habitats that were once home to bees are gone due to urban growth, home gardens can serve as mini-habitats by simply including the plants that are most attractive to the pollinating insects. With use of heirloom plants and seeds, the garden will support the diversity of our plant species.

“Heirloom” refers to a plant that has been cultivated for at least 50 years. These are plants with a history; some of them flourished on this continent before 1606, when John Smith sailed up what came to be known as Virginia’s James River. They are plants with stories, not just perfumes or sweet, pearl-like buds. Their stories tell us how inventive, early people made them into food, medicine and more. They also figure into the tales of discovery by intrepid plant hunters. They are the plants of our heritage — your grandmother’s flower. These are plants with wildlife values, feeding birds and insects to maintain a rich biodiversity. They are tough survivors — and under conditions like those of their native habitats, they thrive with little care.

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Many heirlooms are either self pollinating (meaning they produce seed without pollination) or open pollinated (meaning they are pollinated by insects, hummingbirds and/or the wind). What makes them different from hybridized plants is that the seeds collected from an heirloom are true to the species from which it was collected. So while heirlooms continue to provide diversity in species, the seeds of a hybridized plant are not true to the source plant, and are often patented.

There are many resources for heirlooms, whether grown from seed or plant stock, too many to list. But some of my favorite sources for seeds of heirloom annuals include: Renee’s Garden Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, Select Seeds and Baker Creek Seeds. That last source has a wonderful store in Petaluma called the Seed Bank, housed in a building that was once a bank, whose walls are now lined with colorful packets of seeds that have a rich history. A visit makes a perfect outing for a cold winter day. There are also many local non-profits that will have spring plant sales, including the Gardens at Heather Farm, featuring heirloom annuals for the summer.

— Patrice Hanlon

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