Some think heirloom vegetables and fruits are plants with traits frozen in time, so that the seeds you plant through your heirloom gardening endeavors produce the same plants as those grown in your grandmother’s garden. “Impossible!” says Frank Morton, co-founder with his wife, Karen Morton, of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon.
Morton works to maintain and strengthen the genetic stock of heirloom cultivars. To him, the idea of the frozen-in-time heirloom is a myth, unless you’ve been storing lettuce seeds in the basement from your great-grandmother. Even then, after the seeds have germinated, the plant population will adapt to its new locale.
Insects, plants, and pathogens are locked in an endless struggle of adaptation, Morton says. Plants create defenses to ward off threats from pathogens and insects, and insects and pathogens in turn develop ways to get around those defenses. Plants also evolve to cope with soil and weather conditions; for example, carrot seed harvested from a dry year will often show different (though sometimes subtle) characteristics than carrot seed saved from a wet year.
For more than two decades, Morton has been on a quest to strengthen the seed stock of organic vegetables, especially heirloom cultivars. He breeds heirlooms and organic vegetables to harvest the seeds of the strongest and most desirable plants. Sometimes he makes new cultivars, and other times he rehabilitates heirloom cultivars for future gardeners. Wild Garden Seed sells seeds online and directly to farmers, as well as to many of the organic seed companies.
As a farmer in the 1980s and 1990s, Morton sold “Seasonal Salad” to restaurants, a salad mix he developed containing some heirloom cultivars. Chefs always wanted variety in produce, and Morton grew heirlooms to accommodate. However, heirloom vegetables often were smaller and less vigorous than their hybrid counterparts.
Morton instantly saw a demand in the marketplace. He knew if he could find a way to make heirloom plants higher-yielding, more vigorous, and easier to grow, all while retaining their uniqueness, he’d have an edge.
As he experimented with different cultivars, Morton began to talk to other heirloom enthusiasts about his work. Sometimes, he encountered resistance: Some gardeners argued that he was violating the principle of heirloom preservation.
“They felt an heirloom was a gift from the past, and you shouldn’t mess with it,” Morton says. However, something about those discussions made him want to explore heirloom seed breeding even more.
A Rainbow of Lettuce
It is love for the pursuit of good seed that drives Morton’s work. One day, while tending a crop of an heirloom ‘Green Salad Bowl’ lettuce, he noticed a red lettuce plant in the row. Morton realized that somewhere along the way, the heirloom was crossed. He liked the color, so he decided to save the seed of the red lettuce and plant it the following year.
“I had sort of naively expected that I would get a lot of red ‘Salad Bowl,’ but what I got was a rainbow,” he says. He knew about genetics and the breeding experiments of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, but he adds, “There’s nothing like having it apply to you. It was sort of my Mendelian experience.”
Strengthening disease resistance in lettuce has been a preoccupation for Morton in the moist atmosphere of Oregon. Northwestern lettuce farmers may routinely lose some 50 to 60 percent of their crops to mildew and mold.
In 2001, Morton was approached by John Navazio, a plant geneticist with the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Washington. Navazio encouraged Morton to apply for a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to breed disease-resistant heirloom lettuce from 40 cultivars on a half-acre of land. Morton received the grant, and he created the optimum conditions for disease by densely planting lettuce, inoculating it with disease, and watering it at the wrong time. The results were not pretty.
“Man, talk about an ugly half-acre of lettuce,” Morton says. “It was incredible. We called it ‘Hell’s Half-Acre.’” Morton found six cultivars that clearly fared better in the trials and began to breed them.
The next year, Morton began growing the offspring of those lettuces, and says they’re absolutely beautiful. Wild Garden Seed offers a lettuce mix called “Freedom Mix,” composed of the cultivars that fared well in the trials.
Heirloom Seed Rehab
Morton’s work often involves rehabilitating an heirloom cultivar reaching the end of its genetic rope. While efforts have been made to preserve heirlooms in recent years, sometimes not enough seed is collected to keep the cultivar healthy, Morton says. That can result in genetic “bottlenecking,” a loss of genetic variability in a plant variety.
Such was the case with a beet cultivar called ‘MacGregor’s Favorite,’ which Morton was asked to rehabilitate. When Morton grew the beet, it had low vigor and often wouldn’t overwinter to produce seed. By looking at the plant’s traits, Morton realized ‘MacGregor’s Favorite’ had been crossed with another cultivar at some point. So, Morton began to grow the beet out, culling any plant that wasn’t strong and didn’t have the true MacGregor characteristics. He succeeded in keeping the cultivar from disappearing, but he admits the victory may be somewhat hollow for heirloom purists.
Morton’s rehabilitated ‘MacGregor’s Favorite’ has distinctive and delicious salad leaves. The magenta-purple leaves have a metallic sheen, and tend to be longer, narrower, and tenderer than other beet or chard leaves.
Morton could put his name on it to reflect the changes (such as calling it a ‘Morton MacGregor’), but renaming a plant can be a headache. The name probably would be dropped by many seed companies, and most growers would not know whether they were growing a ‘Morton MacGregor’ or a regular ‘MacGregor’s Favorite.’ Morton’s rule of thumb is that if the new plant keeps the same appearance and taste as the original, it keeps the old name. If he has to rename a cultivar, he usually provides a clue to the cultivar it came from in the new name.
Morton also performs preventative maintenance on heirloom cultivars in order to keep them healthy. His job, he says, is to cull any plant that isn’t strong or doesn’t fit the characteristics of the cultivar. It’s a brutal but essential type of housekeeping that’s required to maintain heirlooms.
Managing Seeds for the Future
Seed management is an important part of organic agriculture that is frequently neglected, Morton says. The organic farming movement often focuses more on changing farming practices to avoid using chemicals and prevent crop loss. Tomato growers in some regions graft their heirlooms onto hybrid tomato plants to prevent soilborne diseases. The practice is effective, but takes more time and care.
Working on seed health can prevent problems before they occur, Morton says. He would rather work on the seed stock of those heirloom tomatoes until they are more disease-resistant — the same way he bred lettuce to resist mildew and mold.
“In organics, we have really undersold the potential of plant breeding,” he says.
Morton is heartened by the influx of young, professional seed growers entering the field. When he began seed breeding, Morton felt like a loner in the organic farming community. Only 40 seed farmers attended a meeting of organic seed producers in 2000. If that meeting were held now, he says, there would be hundreds of seed farmers, many of them with advanced degrees.
“The interest in seeds in organic agriculture is growing exponentially,” he says. “I get résumés every week from people who want to work for me.”
Ultimately, Morton views his work as completing the equation for maintaining heirlooms for future generations.
“Preservation is absolutely essential,” Morton says, “but you’ve also got to keep up the evolutionary dance.”
Search for Seeds
Explore the latest heirloom and organic additions to Morton’s online seed catalog at Wild Garden Seed.
Craig Idlebrook is the editor for an online community and news site for people with Type 1 diabetes. He has written for Mother Earth News and other regional and national publications.