Saturday, January 16, 2010

How Your Botanical Interests Seed Order Can Help Chicago Area Community Garden

For most hardcore gardeners, winter time means time for browsing seed catalogs, agonizing over what to grow in the garden come spring and finally making that seed order from your favorite vendor(s). It is fun, stressful and exhilarating all balled up into one.

This year, the Forest Park Community Garden has teamed up with Botanical Interests for a fundraiser. Order seeds from Botanical Interests using this link and 25% of your purchase helps provide an on-sight water collection system for the Forest Park Community Garden. Our plot renters hauled jugs of water to their gardens all season last year. This year we are committed to providing water at the garden. With your help, I know we can do it.

Botanical Interests is one of my favorite seed companies. I appreciate what they stand for, and I've had great success with every pack of seeds I've bought from them. For 2010, Botanical Interests has a seed catalog available. I'm glad they finally made this move. Half the fun of ordering seeds is browsing through and marking up your catalog. If you'd like to order one, go here.

Note when you click the link you will see Forest Park Community Garden in the upper right hand corner after you have started searching for seeds.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Spinach Correnta: How Monsanto Can Improve Their Reputation with Home Gardeners

The other day, I had a great conversation with Botanical Interest's seed buyer, Janis Kieft about the seed buying business. I found Janis to be very knowledgeable and transparent about the company she works for and the seed buying/selling industry in general and I appreciated that.

When I asked Janis if Botanical Interests still sells Seminis/Monsanto seeds, she flipped through a few papers then told me without hesitation that they still get the Celebrity Tomato seeds from them. "Celebrity is a very popular tomato for home gardeners." Then Janis went on to explain why Botanical Interests has ended up buying fewer and fewer seeds from Seminis/Monsanto over the years.

"I've been in the seed buying business for over 15 years. Years ago, Seminis had a division devoted to home gardens. They looked for varieties with great flavor and production rather than their shipability." As time goes on, Seminis, under Monsanto, has stopped producing some of these. Like Spinach Correnta, which Botanical Interests found out would no longer be produced when Janis called to place an order last year. Seminis/Monsanto owns the parent plants used to make the F1 hybrid Spinach Correnta. Spinach Correnta is favored by home gardeners because of it's heat resistance and great production.

As Janis explains one possible reason for Monsanto's decision to not continuing producing this particular variety, "Spinach Correnta may have only been one of ten spinach varieties that Seminis carried, but under Monsanto, maybe it was one of fifty." We both agreed that Monsanto probably just thinks that we should pick another variety of spinach. Maybe they've even produced a way better one! But I know that one of the strongest traits of home gardeners is our individuality. We grow things that we love. Things that work for us in our gardens. Besides scale, I think that's the biggest difference between us and big time farmers. Seven years ago Botanical Interests was buying 8-10 varieties from Seminis. They now only buy one because the others have been dropped from their product line and are no longer for sale.

Where I get on a soap box then make Monsanto an offer they can't refuse:
I completely understand and appreciate Monsanto's decision to stop looking for and producing seeds favored by home gardeners in order to focus on their target market. It's probably an excellent business move on their part. After all, us home gardeners are never going to make them rich. I get it - it's not their deal. But what I don't understand is why they decide to stop producing the variety and at the same time refuse to allow other growers to produce it. If we (home gardeners) are not their target market, seed companies we buy from can't possibly be considered their competition. It seems rather mean spirited to me. In fact, this bothers me more than anything else I've read about Monsanto. Because it reeks of bad intentions.

We may not be Monsanto's target market, but we home gardeners are working professionals, writers, business owners and much more. The CEO at the large metropolitan hospital where I work is an avid gardener. I imagine that any Monsanto rants he might go on would be in the presence of some pretty important people. See, Botanical Interests won me over with a short phone conversation and here I am writing a blog post about it that will reach any person who reads this blog. In short, we probably end up significantly contributing to their bad public persona and they don't get that. It's time for Monsanto to do some damage control and I think we home gardeners are the perfect place to start.

The offer:
Dear Monsanto - give us back Spinach Correnta and I'll wear an "I Heart Monsanto" shirt for a day. Look at it this way, it won't cost you anything to allow another grower to produce this popular home garden seed, and I'll be out the cost of the t-shirt. I'll even make a promise to rebut any bad Monsanto talk with the story about how you so kindly gave up the rights to this popular seed for no other reason than, you're nice. That kind of crap goes a long way with people. Before you know it, folks will be saying all sorts of nice stuff about you. Maybe you could even make this into a big marketing campaign to show people just how nice you really are by offering up these popular seeds. Like every year you'll give us another popular home garden variety that you don't want to produce anymore. I'd be glad to help with that. Call me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dwarf Zebra Grass in the Snow

According to the time stamps on my most recent photos, I haven't had my camera out since late August when I took pictures at the tomato contest. Wow. Over four months have slipped by me.

My motivation today came while I was catching up with some of my favorite garden blogs. Over at Gardening Gone Wild, they're hosting a monthly photo contest called Picture This, just for us bloggers.

I sure wish I'd taken some photos a few weeks ago when all the trees were covered and glistening with ice. It was really beautiful. Still, I found this Dwarf Zebra Grass looked kind of cool against the snowy backdrop today.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Where Do Hybrid Seeds Come From?

After reading mrbrownthumb's post about the trendy boycotting of Monsanto/Seminis seeds by us homegardeners, I decided to take his suggestion and call a couple of the seed companies I'd planned to order seeds from. (all the companies I order from are on the "safe seed list.") If you haven't read MBT's post, do check it out. The gist of it was, if you want to boycott something, don't be so quick to trust some random list of companies that supposedly don't buy seeds from big evil Monsanto. I'll be honest, I made the call to prove him wrong because I'm one of those chumps that just assumes people don't put untrue stuff on the Internet, especially people like gardeners.

So, I called one of the companies and sure enough, they are not Monsanto-free. The conversation was quite interesting but not as much about Monsanto as it was about hybrid seeds.

There's something that has always bothered me about hybrids but the fact is that I knew very little about them. Several times, my friend J and I have had conversations like "are hybrids are inherently bad? If so, why?" Here's the extent of what I knew about hybrids.
  1. They are a cross between two different varieties
  2. They can be more prolific producers and more disease resistant than open-pollinated varieties
  3. If you save seeds from a hybrid, God knows what you'll get the next year you plant it. Probably nothing close to the fruit you saved the seed from and maybe no fruit at all.
As it turns out, most hybrid seed is produced in other countries where labor is cheap.

Many hybrids require hand pollination which means that developing them is very labor intensive. Each year, the male and female plants are grown in a very controlled environment, taking care to prevent cross-pollination which could destroy an entire crop. Pollen is manually collected from male plants and then the female plants are hand pollinated. During a tomato growing season, for example, the pollination period is usually between 1-1.5 months and requires 40-60 workers.

Most hybrid seeds are produced in Taiwan, China and India and then sold to seed companies all over the world. Yes, to many of the same seed companies listed on the "safe seed list." So, if the seeds you plant in your vegetable garden don't come from Monsanto, but they come from countries who pay very low wages for very hard work, is that OK? At the end of the day, we're growing our own food thinking we're saving the world when in reality, every time we buy a pack of hybrid seeds, it's like buying a t-shirt from WalMart that was made by some child in a third world country. There really isn't much difference.

It also occurred to me that marketing hybrids as "more prolific producers" with "better disease resistance" is all fine and dandy but I suspect that the seed sellers are not as concerned with our per-plant tomato yield as they are convincing us to buy seeds that we'll love and need to buy from them year after year (remember, you can't save hybrid seeds). It's sort of like a crack addiction. Because of the way hybrids are produced, you're forced to go back to the seed companies to buy over and over again.

This new knowledge about hybrid seeds has catapulted me into yet another moral crises about my lifestyle and the choices I make.

I'm not particularly against the idea of hybrids. To me, it's sort of like interracial relationships. And I'm OK with those, too. The problem I have is with the outsourcing of yet another product to countries who don't pay fair wages for work. I'm having a hard time seeing how this is much less bad than what Monsanto is doing.

I guess it comes down to what your core values and core pet peeves are.

I plan to continue to buy seeds from companies whose seed stock does not primarily come from Monsanto. After all I've heard and read about Monsanto, I don't want any of my money in their pockets. It's like going over those huge metal blades when you return your rental car. I can't go backward now that I know. As I understand it, this will become less and less a problem in the coming years because Monsanto has made it clear they are uninterested in producing seeds us home gardeners like.

My rationale for continuing to buy seeds from the few companies who I normally do business with this this. They are small businesses doing the best they can. And while I wish there was a lot more morality in business, I also get that making a profit isn't that easy, especially if you're in the business of selling seeds to the home gardener.

How can we be as pure as possible given all the politics of seed buying? Probably turn more to Seed Savers Exchange and other groups for our seeds. Or, at least start purchasing heirloom seeds then saving our own seeds each year so that we are not required to support Monsanto, or the outsourcing of seed production. But beware, I suspect the heirloom seeds are not produced by some little old lady on a big ole farm. How and where commercially sold heirloom seeds are produced would probably make us wince, too.

Wherever you decide to buy your seeds from, at least be sure to know what you're getting and where they came from. I found this paper describing hybrid seed production very interesting. Check it out.