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Know, Sow, Grow! Heirlooms, Organics, and GE’s
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Digging Deep with Cynthia Brian 

By Cynthia Brian



“As is the garden such is the gardener.” Francis Bacon


During my freshman and sophomore year at UCLA, one of my jobs was managing a popular health food store, Nature’s Health Cove, at the time a brand new concept in healthy eating. I vividly remember customers paying as much as ten times the price for small, worm-eaten apples, and limp, shriveled greens that had traveled hundreds of miles to be ingested by wealthy Beverly Hills residents on their new “organic” kick.  I’m not sure anyone understood what ‘organic’ really meant as I repeated my script of “grown without synthetic pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, colorants, or sewage sludge”.  Genetically engineered had not yet been invented. But one thing was for sure…these early adapters had climbed onto the bandwagon to nutritious sowing and growing.


It wasn’t until the 1960’s that agriculture turned into agri-business with large corporations buying farms and science genetically modifying the seeds we plant. Before that time, farmers saved, exchanged, traded, and sold seeds that had been in their families for generations. (I still plant, harvest, save, gift, and sell heirloom Hollyhock seeds that are over 100 years old brought over on “the boat” by my grandparents from Italy.) Varieties that have been cultivated and passed down through the ages via human and natural selection are termed “heirlooms”.  Most people believe that tomatoes are the only heirlooms when actually there are thousands of varieties of produce that are heirlooms including beets, cauliflower, squash, melons, beans, eggplants, peppers, lettuces, and flower specimens.  (You’ve heard of heirloom roses, right?)


As a gardener, if you want to save seed from year to year, you need a glossary of understandable terms.  To help you sow and grow, I have created a simple guide help you make informed decisions for buying, planting, and consuming.


Organic: “Certified organic” is a legal term that may be used only by growers who are in strict compliance with all the detailed rules and regulations of the USDA’s National Organic Program.  In the United States, this means that the soil in which the crops are grown must not have had any prohibited substances in it for the three years prior to harvest.  The operation must be managed according to an approved Organic System Plan and the parcel must be inspected by a USDA accredited certifier. The words I used in my college script to describe the meaning of “organic” while working at the health food store are still true today for anything deemed to be organic with the addition of “not genetically engineered.”


GMO: Genetically modified organisms are any plants produced through genetic modification either by engineering or long time plant breeding methods that could happen naturally. Even an organically grown plant that has been manipulated to improve production, quality, color, or performance, may be considered genetically modified because these changes could occur in nature. A great example of a popular GMO is the seedless watermelon.


GE: Although the terms GE and GMO are frequently used interchangeably in the media, their meanings are very different. GE refers to genetic engineering using high-tech methods that change the DNA of the plant in a way that would never occur without human intervention. GE plants are not found growing naturally. Big agri-business farms use corn, cotton, soybeans, and other crops that have been genetically engineered. The issues of GE food sources are controversial as the benefits or harm to our health have not been accurately quantified.


Cultivar: This is a variety of a plant that has been selected through cultivation. It maintains its characteristics through propagation. A cultivar can be either a hybrid or open-pollinated variety. In catalogs, when you see the genus and species listed with a Latin name and a common name, the cultivar is usually the common name. For example, Alstroemeria’s common name is Peruvian Lily.


Open-Pollinated: An open-pollinated plant breeds true from seed from the parent plant with the offspring having the exact characteristics. By allowing the natural flow of pollen between the same variety of different plants production happens. If your desire is to save pure seed, plant only one variety to prevent cross-pollination between different varieties.


Hybrids: Like a car that uses both gas and electricity, when you cross different varieties of plants, you get a hybrid.  Because of population density, it is more difficult than ever to grow a garden with seed purity. Wind, insects, neighbors, dogs all contribute to occasional contamination.  If you want heirlooms, buy seeds from a reputable source and grow them in a greenhouse.

Heirlooms: Generally defined, heirlooms are the result of natural selection in open-pollinated varieties. Depending on the source, an arbitrary age marker for an heirloom is fifty years or developed prior to the 1950’s. Before the population explosion, heirlooms did pass down from family to family, farmer to farmer. Today, the majority of heirloom seeds and plants are propagated by commercial companies who are dedicated to preservation of plant purity.


Personally, I am nervous about GE experimentation. My land is a sacred temple for my family and it’s my responsibility to protect and nurture it. A non-profit organization, The Council for Responsible Genetics, has a mission to educate the general public about advocating for socially responsible use of new genetic technologies. Growers who wish to not indulge in GE sowing sign a Safe Seed Pledge to not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds. 


With all the seed choices in the marketplace, it behooves every gardener to take a few minutes to understand the terminology of modern growing practices. If we are what we eat, we definitely want to make sure that we cultivate the healthiest choices for our human homes. Know, sow, grow!


Let your creativity blossom this spring while you indulge in strolling in secret gardens and sampling exotic specimens.  It’s May, the season of play. 


Happy Gardening to You!



Cynthia Brian

The Goddess Gardener




I am available as a speaker, designer, and consultant.  



Read Cynthia's Digging Deep Column: https://www.lamorindaweekly.com/archive/issue0604/Know-Sow-Grow-Heirlooms-Organics-and-GEs-Digging-Deep-with-Cynthia-Brian.html