Sunday, November 25, 2012

Around the Garden

 Reading a fascinating article about heritage fruit trees growing near Tucson, I began to wonder what might be growing in Middletown.  To a gardener or a farmer,' heritage' denotes old varieties of plants, ones that were part of the regional vernacular for decades or perhaps centuries before hybridizing took over, to be followed by genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The greater Middletown area was rich in farms well into the second half of the 20th century. Gradually, most of them were sold for development, but there are still farming families around, many with remnant gardens. Lots of ethnicities are represented: Swedes, Poles, Germans, Italians and Sicilians all grew the foods they brought with them from the “old country.”

When I moved to Middletown in the 70s, neighbors grew grapes and figs in their backyards. The old men didn't need to wheel their fig trees in and out of the garage in huge tubs – they grew fig trees in the ground, wrapped them in quilts and plastic, and somehow got them to survive those cold winters we used to have.

Now I wonder whether those were common Brown Turkey figs, or were they some hardier variety that can’t be bought at the nursery or via mail order?

Many fruit trees, of course, are commonly grown from cuttings, or scions, since few grow true from seed. Centuries of natural hybridizing has left the seeds likely to produce throwbacks that aren't worth eating. Johnny Appleseed, for example, is a misnomer – the actual 19th century itinerant apple vendor provided saplings, not seed, to his customers.

Grapes are another frequent crop in the North End, and it would be interesting to inventory what is growing in those backyards. Rumor has it that there are garages there with cellars, so that wine-making could go on in private during the years of Prohibition.

Chestnuts would be another exciting plant to inventory, especially if we had less expensive DNA testing. The native American chestnut was wiped out in most of our area by the 1920s, but individual trees often hung on for decades longer. At the same time, Chinese and Japanese chestnuts were imported as orchard trees, since they usually were more manageable in size. With all the travel back and forth to Europe, it’s easy to imagine that some European chestnuts were added to the mix.

While I have to admit to rarely growing any great crops of heritage tomatoes, I know many gardeners and farmers who do. Kathy Caruso, owner of the Community-Supported Agriculture farm called Upper Forty Farm, has been known to set out over a hundred heritage tomatoes at her wonderful Slow Food tomato tasting event.

But the point of heritage seeds isn’t all about showing reverence for the old plants, or just appreciation for the better taste – both perfectly valid concepts – but about keeping alive something that may someday keep us alive.

The horrible potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1840s could have been lessened if there had been more crop diversity: as is so often the case with a monoculture, the Irish farmers had no defense against a virulent fungus. But resistant potatoes existed – the original source of potatoes, South America, offered a bounty of potato varieties. If one variety fell victim to a disease or an insect, a different one could be grown the next year.

For this reason, seed banks exist around the planet, with the old seeds carefully preserved against whatever slings and arrows present themselves in the form of climate change, viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, or human stupidity. Some of them are in the business of swapping: if you have something unique that you think should be saved, or wish you had some seeds from a fruit or vegetable you haven’t seen on the market in years, check out this web site:

If you – or your grandparents – grow something really special, drop me a line.

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