It is commonly accepted that the first cooing from the cradles of civilization sounded roughly 12,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers intentionally stuck seeds into the fertile soil around the Tigris, Indus and Nile rivers, taking control of the food supply for the first time. In the millennia that followed, agriculture has afforded human beings rewards like leisure time and stability. And in the last few decades, we've harvested a host of ecological headaches as well.
There was a time when farmers coaxed abundance from the land by working in partnership with it, instead of the current, less-civilized model of drugging it, beating it senseless and stealing its wallet, resulting in polluted waterways from pesticide runoff, reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, soil erosion and land clearing. There's another problem we don't hear about as often, one that is tied to all those listed above: loss of biodiversity.
In the course of the last 12,000 years, humankind cultivated thousands of varieties of plants for food. That is, until about 100 years ago. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, since the beginning of the 20th-century, 75 percent of the world's genetic diversity has disappeared. Right now, 15 plant and eight animal species account for nearly all of our food. This fact is both unsettling and potentially disastrous for the world's food supply. Industrial food production thrives on standardization and mass production. The sterile, hybrid seeds currently used in mass agriculture guarantee a desirable size and appearance of crops, but at a high price: Fields of genetically identical plants are susceptible to pest and disease epidemics. Hybrid plants don't pollinate, and therefore don't evolve or develop resiliency to hostile bugs, and don't attract beneficial insects for the same reason.
It's still undetermined if a genetically restricted diet has any measurable adverse effects on our health (though in the Thumb's personal opinion, if we continue to get most of our nutrients from fried corn products, in a couple centuries we'll all be about as attractive and robust as Baron Harkonnen in Dune). Regardless, the lack of genetic diversity in our current agricultural system does significant harm to the health of the soil, fauna and even potentially the plants themselves.
Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and Slow Food's Ark of Taste are dedicated to preserving heirloom plants, varieties with genetic lines dating back to at least 1951, when the first hybrids were introduced. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are open-pollinated, meaning they reproduce the good old-fashioned way, with the help of the wind and the bees—and express their individuality in appearance, taste and title.
This year, I'm communing with my ancestors and continuing a genetic line of vegetables older than my grandparents. Flipping through an heirloom seed catalog, I had trouble deciding between the Brandywine and Radiator Charlie tomatoes. The description of the former—spicy and meaty—clinched my decision, but the latter was tempting by virtue of name alone.
This spring, I challenge you, in the spirit of the first farmers, to take back a little control of your own food supply and start some heritage seeds. If you feel ready to civilize your own patch of yard, patio or windowsill, here are some important tips on starting your seeds indoors.
You've probably got lots of options lying around the house. I used a cardboard egg carton, but toilet paper rolls or rolled up newspaper work well too. The potting medium should be kept moist, ideally watered from the bottom. Place your water-permeable pots into a tray. Those cheap plastic containers that hold greens or bulk items are ideal: you can use them as tiny greenhouses, poking holes in the top for ventilation.
Potting Medium: The easiest option is commercial seed starter mix. It’s the right consistency—peat moss, mostly—and, most importantly, it’s sterile. Soil from outdoors is ripe with fungus that can destroy young seedlings. If you're feeling really motivated, instructions on how to use your oven as a soil autoclave can be found here. Water the potting medium and allow it to drain before sowing your seeds, following the instructions on the packet.
Conditions: Seedlings need lots of light and just the right amount of water. Place them in a window with the most hours of sunlight each day (Southern exposure is ideal) and cover them with clear plastic to retain moisture. Put water in the bottom of the tray and check on the humidity daily. A spray bottle comes in handy to keep the surface of the soil lightly moist.
Seedlings: Turn regularly to encourage straight growth. After a few leaves have appeared, you can start to feed your seedlings a little worm tea once a week. (Everyone's started a worm bin by now, right?)
Transplanting: Take the tray outdoors and place in a partially sunny spot for the seedlings to harden off for about a week. Be sure to bring it back in on cold nights. When you're ready to plant, bury your biodegradable pots one-quarter inch under the ground and water well. Use the same process if you're planting in pots.
Find a cornucopia of heritage seeds at Seeds of Change and Seeds Trust.
The Arizona Master Gardner Manual has detailed tips on starting seeds indoors—good for any climate.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.