Someone asked recently if we'd started planning our growing space and crops for next year. I had to smile--in some ways our crop planning is never-ending. Even in the earliest spring plantings there's the dialog of next year. As in next year, we'll order the larger pack of carrots seeds, or next year we don't need to plant nearly so many cabbage starts. It continues through the growing season, each year's garden a working draft full of editing and revision. And so we make notes: delete the "calliope mix" of carrots (beautiful multicolored carrot bunches don't outweigh the fact that they are less flavorful than the orange, and those white ones are ghostly anemic little vegetables, with a tendency to bolt and go to seed rather than making a root); add some melons started indoors; move the clover seeded under the squash to a week later in the season. The summer and the fall harvest seasons are full of notes in the margins, ideas for improving. We never really stop planning.
At this point in the season we are still processing many of those notes--both mental and recorded--about what to do next year. At the same time, we are revisioning at a larger scale as we shift from growing just for ourselves to growing for sale as well. And right in the middle of that process, the seed catalogs are starting to arrive. I have spent a few of our sub-zero mornings lately with a cup of coffee and a seed catalog (or several) in front of the full-spectrum light (the seedlings and chickens aren't the only ones who benefit from a little supplemental lighting here).
Those seed catalogs, with their color photos, illustrations, and descriptions, are quite seductive. I've always been one to fall for heirloom varietites with a good story or an interesting name. And here's where I confess to having recklessly planted four different kinds of dry corn this year. Two did spectacularly well (the Seneca Red Stalker and Mandan Bride), they all did a little bit of crossing with the sweet corn (just a few kernels here and there), but the Oaxacan Green Dent corn failed rather miserably. I have been to Oaxaca, and I know full well the climate is quite different than Montana, but....I couldn't resist the image of green corn tamales.
That's the beauty and danger of heirloom seed catalogs like the Seed Saver's Exchange: you can get caught up in the story and forget one of the key values of heirloom seeds: finding one that is right for your area. While an emphasis of the land grant universities in each state used to include development of regionally adapted seeds, much of that specific local adaptation has been lost, and many seed varieties are sold across the country with little specificity. Many are widely adapated enough to work most places, with a bit of care and protection. Some are specifically touted for a feature like maturing quickly, that can provide advatages in any short-season location, whether it's Vermont or Wyoming. But there's more to local conditions than just what USDA zone you are growing in.
I have worked on research projects examining how much local adapatation there can be in species of wild plants that have a large geographic range. I know there is a keen value in using seeds that come from plants surviving for generations in the region. And so this year, in my garden planning, I'm making a renewed effort to chose varieties with a story special to here.
So I find myself looking through the dry bean descriptions and underlining those that were originally found or defined in the nearby states, and deciding to perhaps pass up the ones from Alabama even if their flavor and colors sound delightful. I am hoping we can get back to visit someone in the Bitterroot again who fed us a wonderful soup from homegrown beans (and wishing I'd been bold enough to ask for some seeds at that lunch).
Luckily, trying to find locally adapted seeds doesn't need to mean any sort of compromise on having a plant with a good story. In fact, it can just get better. In the corn patch for example, as much as I loved the purple husks of the Seneca Red Stalker, I think I know what next year's dry corn will be: the Painted Mountain Corn whose development specifically for our cold dry region has been a work of passion of Dave Christensen. Over the summer we've spoken with more and more neighbors who grow it sucessfully here. And the garden romantic in me can pass up the temptation of the "Black Aztec" a little easier knowing that this variety has stories from indigenous corns throughout the west, but also from right here, next door.
I'm beginning to understand that the best story isn't in the 80-word description in the catalog mailed from Vermont or Maine or Oregon, but the ones you watch unfold, attach to the plant, and keep on telling. This is the variety of corn that was developed for our area's climate. But more than that, it's the corn in the final beautiful pages of our friend Cedar's first book of poetry, a poem dedicated to her husband Mark. It's the corn that was scattered in the cottonwood grove this summer as a part of their wedding ceremony, and the corn they arranged in sunset-colored mandalas and photographed last fall. It's the corn that encompasses their own story of courtship and gardens and growth, like the Delicata squash are for us.
Of course, not everyone has a household of poetic gardeners next door, but there are ways to seek out seeds developed in, grown in, or originating from your region, ready to take on some of your own story too.