By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener
February is an ideal time to begin planning your garden. If you have been reading my column for a while, you know that I often refer readers to Colorado State University Extension Service — a valuable horticultural resource for farmers, gardeners and landscape businesses. However, you may not be aware of another valuable resource at our land grant university: the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.
More than 20 years ago, Cary Fowler spearheaded a project to protect agricultural materials in the event of natural disaster, disease or war by building the Svalbard seed vault. The vault was completed in 2015 with design assistance from Greeley civil engineer William George. More than 500 million original seeds from 900,000 crop varieties are stored deep within the mountainside vault located 810 miles from the North Pole where temperatures are kept at minus 18 degrees Celsius. The seeds are organized on movable shelves with bar code identifiers so they will be readily available in case of an emergency.
It’s reassuring to know that experts are working to protect the future of agriculture, but, as spring approaches, most of us are more focused on planting gardens to enjoy this year. If you decide to grow your plants from seed, you will notice that sellers often identify their seeds as hybrid, open-pollinated and/or heirloom varieties. Hybrids, which came to our markets after World War II, were bred for useful qualities, such as disease resistance, higher yields and uniformity. They can only be produced commercially so you have to purchase new seeds every year. On the other hand, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds have been passed down within families and communities from one generation to the next. Since they are not patented, they can be grown and shared freely and their seeds will produce plants with similar characteristics from year to year.
You can find open-pollinated and heirloom seeds at local garden shops and even in some stores, but for greater variety, you could join a seed exchange. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, started as a small, local exchange. Now it is a large, nonprofit organization with 13,000 members sharing more than 25,000 varieties of seed. Whether you choose to plant heirloom or hybrid is a personal choice. Some people want to grow heirlooms to preserve diversity while others prefer hybrids for their predictability.
If you want to plant seeds native to Colorado, Western Native Seed in Coaldale has collected and sold native seeds adapted to our terrain and climate since 1990. Its seeds come from a variety of sources. The current owners do their own harvesting in the wild, but also accept seeds from commercial vendors and independent collectors. Their seed mixes include wildflowers, grasses and “meadow mixes” packaged for landscapes ranging from wet meadows to Xeriscape gardens, and high-alpine elevations to lower prairies. You won’t have to wait for a future disaster for access to these seeds. Just go to westernnativeseed.com to see the different options available this gardening season.
Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.