Rare flora gets sexy seeding
Georgia Straight Publish Date: 23-Feb-2006
As a kid, Sandy Gray hated mopping and dusting, so it’s no surprise that she opted for gardening over housework when her mother gave her the choice of helping indoors or out. Growing up in Langley on a two-acre hobby farm, Gray learned early about putting in seed potatoes and raising your own vegetables. “Tomato plants smelled different from hot, biting radishes,” Gray recalls. Another memory was of eating “Oma’s beans”, called that because her grandmother brought them to Canada from her native Austria; they are so good, Gray adds, that they don’t need butter. To this day, only her family grows them. (For a quick and handy bean recipe from Dan Jason, founder of Canada’s Heritage Seed Program, please visit www.straight.com/.)
Here on the mainland for a couple of days, sitting over a pot of tea in her sister’s East Vancouver home, Gray talks about the heirloom vegetables she raises and whose seeds she sells through her Twining Vine Garden Store in Vancouver Island’s Fanny Bay. “Outdoors was a bit of a blank slate,” she says about the island in 1994, which is when she moved to the house that her husband, Tom, had built in the late ’70s. She set to work composting its two acres, practising crop rotation, and mulching mown grass right back into the soil to nourish the earth so that her vegetable seedlings would have the best start possible.
Now, she also grows perennials, trees, and shrubs, especially unusual and native varieties. (You can buy the seeds on-line at www .plantexplorers.com/twiningvine/ or directly from her, along with her award-winning wild-flower honey, this Saturday (February 25) when she joins 30 other growers and exhibitors at VanDusen Botanical Garden’s 17th annual Seedy Saturday.) Make no mistake: these are carefully reared seeds. “If you’re growing heirloom vegetables, you want to practise organic gardening.” Gray says it leads to more vigorous plants and better seeds for the next generation.
Seed-saving has been going on for thousands of years, ever since people stopped randomly gathering and started deliberately planting, but over time, varieties have dwindled in number. Even a century ago, there were thousands of different types of apples with evocative names like Limbertwig and Rusty Coat. Recent additions to Gray’s orchard were Golden Russet and Spitzenberg apple trees. “The Spitzenberg was one that Thomas Jefferson grew,” she says. “It was his favourite apple.”
In 1781, the third U.S. president was also the first person to grow the Persimmon tomato. Gray will be selling seeds for these at Seedy Saturday, as well as for sweet and smoky Black Russian tomatoes, and the blight-resistant Legend tomato. She also produces the Peacevine cherry tomato, an offspring of Gardener’s Delight, she says, which is also the parent of widely popular Sweet 100 and Sweet One Million tomatoes. Vegetables have family trees too. But like the great auk and the Steller’s sea cow, when plants become extinct, they’re lost forever, which is why Gray (who signs her correspondence “green thumbs and dirty fingers”) and other heirloom-seed growers passionately encourage home gardeners to use the “endangered species” of the horticultural world. “When the seeds start getting old, you plant them out to get another seed crop,” she says.
To keep breeds pure, she grows them in isolation on her Vancouver Island farm. “A patch over here, a patch over there, and beehives in the middle,” she explains, adding that “You can [also] do it through timing so they flower at different times, or you can cover up the flowers” so that alien pollen doesn’t make its way into the ovary. (And you thought gardening wasn’t sexy?) During Seedy Saturday, Gray will give a one-hour talk on “The Zen of Gardening”. Besides taking her audience through the basics of seed saving and organic growing and propagation, “plant reproductive strategies will also be discussed,” she says tongue-in-cheekily.
She’s brought along photos of her garden that show how, instead of rigidly defined rows, she installs her seedlings “here and there”, practising companion planting, mixing lettuce in with kale, basil, and purple sprouting broccoli. “Red Russian kale you can start anytime,” she says. “It’s so prolific.” (And it grows up to two metres tall.) “You can plant tomato seeds indoors immediately,” she adds, explaining how she uses fluorescent lights to produce “nice stocky little plants”. To her, it’s of utmost importance that we keep heirloom seeds going.
After all, as she says, “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Sandy Gray will be selling seeds and honey at Seedy Saturday this Saturday (February 25) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Great Hall at VanDusen Botanical Garden (5251 Oak Street).