Winter got you down? It’s cold outside, you can’t keep your feet dry, and finding appealing produce at the grocery store is is harder than finding Waldo at the beach. Even if it feels like Spring will never come, it will, and now is the time to prepare if you are planning to grow your own food this year. Because our growing season is so short, a little foresight will go a long way – and getting your seeds is the first step.

Canada has a few major producers of seeds, from whom you may request a catalogue and order seeds online. These include Veseys Seeds and West Coast Seeds. A more comprehensive list may be found here.

Benefits of going local

If you would prefer to go local, however, you still have a choice of suppliers. On top of supporting local agriculture and commerce, buying locally comes with the added advantage of acquiring stock already found to be successful in Newfoundland’s climate and soil. Eastport Organics is selling their own seed stock this year, carrying with it a guaranteed viability. Gaze Seeds in downtown St. John’s specializes in flowers and vegetables suited to Newfoundland’s conditions. And as a bonus for those in St. John’s, Food Education Action St. John’s (FEASt) will be hosting a seed exchange at FEASt Fest (an annual celebration of urban gardening, seeds and soil) in the spring.

The importance of biodiversity

There is more to consider in selecting your seeds than their province of origin. While some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be more likely to produce larger fruit and more plentiful yields, much is sacrificed for those gains. Not to be underestimated is the loss – potential and actual – of biodiversity.

As succinctly illustrated in a recent article by Root Cellars Rock!, the number of vegetable varieties offered by seed companies has been decimated in the past century.

The loss of agricultural biodiversity has been propelled by a number of factors. Among them we can count the fact that the mechanization of planting and harvesting demands uniformity of the crop at all stages. As a result, not only have most farms made the shift to monoculture, but fewer strains of the crops are being produced across the board.

Reducing the number of plant strains used in agriculture is detrimental to biodiversity on two fronts: by encouraging pesticide use and by introducing foreign species into an ecosystem where they out-compete the native species.

If these newer, modified crops are producing higher yields of quality food (global grain production increased two-fold in the 40 years following World War II), it is understandable to wonder if there they carry any consequences. Indeed, if we take Darwin at his word, we could perceive this as the natural outcome of evolution, with the bigger, stronger crops coming out on top. The consequences of this process, though, are serious and well-documented.

We can picture biodiversity as the foundation upon which we build our society. We don’t want our whole world to be supported by a few pillars – we want the strongest foundation possible! The fewer species that exist, the more vulnerable we are in the event of a pest or disease that targets a particular crop. The fewer species that exist, the less capable we are of adapting to a changing climate and landscape. This is because the more specialized we make a crop for a particular climate or requirement, the less able it will be to survive any major shift in that environment. By placing ourselves in the selector-seat, we have cancelled out Darwin; there may not be a fittest to survive.

Plants from the past

The majority of the loss in agricultural strains has occurred since the 1940s. Heirloom, or heritage, seeds are those that were grown prior to 1940, and which have been open-pollinated or propagated since then, but which are not used in large-scale commercial agriculture. Most major seed suppliers and smaller organic farms and seed stores have heirloom strains of plants for purchase. Buying an heirloom or heritage strain in lieu of a commercial strain increases biodiversity. The cherry on top? You’ll get to taste fruits and vegetables you won’t be able to find in the grocery store, and you’ll become part of a wonderful tradition.

Information on saving your seeds after the season may be found in the Root Cellars Rock! article cited above, and on the web site of the International Seed Saving Institute.