The way I discovered heirloom plants and gardens seems like a coincidence, just a fluke. But I know there is no such thing as coincidence, that it was meant to be.
I was initiated into the mystery, romance and significance of heritage gardens in 1993, when I had been gardening in my own yard for around 10 years. It was fate, apparently—I rarely read our regional newspaper, let alone drilled down to the Volunteers Wanted section. But there it was, a call for garden volunteers to research, create and maintain heritage gardens at a nearby local living history museum, to extend the interpretation of local rural life from 1890 to 1910. The site was the Historic Stewart Farm, a restored century-old heritage site in my city of Surrey, British Columbia.
At that time I was fighting a battle with anxiety, and discovering that gardening centred and calmed me like nothing else. So I set aside my anxious thoughts about beginning something new and answered the call. It was an act of big courage, and it changed my life.
A Heritage Garden is Sown
On a bright fall day I showed up at the Stewart Farm with 25 other prospective garden volunteers to learn more about the project. Project organizer and Heritage Services manager Bev Sommer told us we weren’t just going to build a garden. The plants and layout we chose, even the tools we would wield and gardening methods used, should as much as possible reflect how and what the Stewart family grew during the period 1890–1910, when they lived on this site. I was intrigued, because heritage sites aren’t always this meticulous in their interpretation.
We spent that fall and winter researching and planning in teams. We combed the Surrey Archives for descriptions of local gardens of the time period (very interesting work!), and recommended reference books to be acquired. Many of these books on heritage gardens, fruit, flowers, vegetables and seeds are listed on my Resources page.
We discovered how challenging it would be to find the old seed varieties as many are now extinct, with many more vanishing even now as you read this. We sent away to the US and England for catalogues of rare seeds, and obtained copies of local seed and plant catalogues from 100 years ago.
A New Passion Sprouts
When I read the names and descriptions of the seeds listed in these books and catalogues, I was hooked. These seeds have been passed down through multiple family generations; travelled across continents and oceans with pioneers on the move; and sometimes tell heartbreaking stories, like ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ bean, carried by indigenous peoples on forced marches to reservation lands. Romance and heartbreak, self-sufficiency and hardship—all these are contained in tiny seeds.
As I volunteered, then became employed to manage these special gardens, I realized it was about far more than just gardening. There are important reasons to save these quickly vanishing old varieties, at a time when many of us are worried about genetic modification of the food we eat, food security, preserving biodiversity, and seed patenting by multinational corporations.
I am alarmed when I learn there are initiatives being considered in some places in the world making it illegal to save your own seeds. A farmer’s rights to save seed for replanting has been under threat right here in Canada. This serves those big corporations by making farmers and gardeners dependent on them for seeds, which of course equals bigger profits for them. Our food system is broken.
“Non-participation in a broken system makes our broken system irrelevant.”Anonymous
Knowing these facts creates urgency in me to grow heirlooms (especially seeds) wherever and whenever I can. It’s my tiny way of sending a message to the small farmers and seed companies that I appreciate their efforts to preserve old varieties; that I want to grow these seeds and plants; that I love the variety of colours, forms, and flavours of heirlooms. I’m also giving notice to those that would control seeds and our access to them that I can’t be controlled. There are many who feel the same way.
The Historic Stewart Farm’s heritage gardens thrived and grew to tell the stories of local pioneers to visitors, but I grew and thrived as well. My passion for heritage gardening became a solid part of my gardening life, adding a dimension of romance, mystery, and history that enriches my life to this day, long after I departed the position and moved away.
Think my small efforts won’t matter? That one person can’t effect change? Watch me, and join me! I’ll explore all this in greater detail, but that, my friends, is a story for another day.