About me...

Because this journey is intensely personal, there will be times when my posts will be about more than just rebuilding the physical aspects of my life. They may be random and sometimes I think they may not even make sense to some. But whatever I post here will be as honest as I can make it, no punches pulled, telling it like it it. I hope that I can share some insight with others who might be going through a similar transitory period in their own lives. With luck and perseverence I know I will eventually successful in my new life. I have very high hopes for all of this but then I had those when Dave was alive, too. I am naturally a pretty optomistic person, I think.

Heirloom Gardening Part 1

One of the things I am the most enthralled about when it comes to growing food plants is the historical significance of those plants.   I try to mostly grow heirloom varieties and love the idea that I am eating the same things that the generations that preceeded me ate.  It is living history at its purest.  The following is from a handout I created for a lecture I gave on heirlooms.  

Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods was grown for human consumption. In modern agriculture in the industrialized world, most food crops are now grown in large, monocultural plots. In order to maximize consistency, few varieties of each type of crop are grown. These varieties are often selected for their productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. Heirloom gardening is a reaction against this trend. In the Global South, heirloom plants are still widely grown, for example in the home gardens of South and Southeast Asia, although their future is uncertain.

Heirloom growers have different motivations. Some people grow heirlooms for historical interest, while others want to increase the available gene pool for a particular plant for future generations. Some select heirloom plants due to an interest in traditional organic gardening. Many simply want to taste the different varieties of vegetables, or see whether they can grow a rare variety of plant.

What Makes It An Heirloom?
The definition of the use of the word heirloom to describe plants is highly debated.
One school of thought places an age or date point on the cultivars. For instance, one school says the cultivar must be over 100 years old, others 50 years, and others prefer the date of 1945 which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies or industrial agriculture. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties. It was in the 1970s that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade. Some heirloom plants are much older, some being apparently pre-historic.
Another way of defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of the word "heirloom" in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.

Additionally, there is another category of cultivars that could be classified as "commercial heirlooms," cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and were of such merit that they have been saved, maintained and handed down - even if the seed company has gone out of business or otherwise dropped the line. Additionally, many old commercial releases have actually been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.

Regardless of a person's specific interpretation, most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated. They may also be open pollinated varieties that were bred and stabilized using classic breeding practices. While there are no genetically modified tomatoes available for commercial or home use, it is generally agreed that no genetically modified organisms can be considered heirloom cultivars. Another important point of discussion is that without the ongoing growing and storage of heirloom plants, the seed companies and the government will control all seed distribution. Most, if not all, hybrid plants, if regrown, will not be the same as the original hybrid plant, thus insuring the dependency on seed distributors for future crops.

The history of gardening extends across at least 4,000 years of human civilization. Egyptian tomb paintings of the 1500s BC are some of the earliest physical evidence of ornamental horticulture and landscape design; they depict lotus ponds surrounded by symmetrical rows of acacias and palms. Another ancient gardening tradition is of Persia: Darius the Great was said to have had a "paradise garden" and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were renowned as a Wonder of the World. Persian gardens were also organized symmetrically, along a center line known as an axis.
Monasteries carried on a tradition of garden design and intense horticultural techniques during the medieval period in Europe. Rather than any one particular horticultural technique employed, it is the variety of different purposes the monasteries had for their gardens that serves as testament to their sophistication. As for gardening practices, records are limited, and there are no extant monastic gardens that are entirely true to original form. There are, however, records and plans that indicate the types of garden a monastery might have had, such as those for St. Gall in Switzerland.

Generally, monastic garden types consisted of kitchen gardens, infirmary gardens, cemetery orchards, cloister garths and vineyards. Individual monasteries might also have had a "green court," a plot of grass and trees where horses could graze, as well as a cellarer's garden or private gardens for obedientiaries, monks who held specific posts within the monastery.

From a utilitarian standpoint, vegetable and herb gardens helped provide both alimentary and medicinal crops, which could be used to feed or treat the monks and, in some cases, the outside community. As detailed in the plans for St. Gall, these gardens were laid out in rectangular plots, with narrow paths between them to facilitate collection of yields. Often these beds were surrounded with wattle fencing to prevent animals from entry. In the kitchen gardens, fennel, cabbage, onion, garlic, leeks, radishes, and parnips might be grown, as well as peas, lentils and beans if space allowed for them. The infirmary gardens could contain savory, costmary, fenugreek, rosemary, peppermint, rue, iris, sage, bergamot, mint, lovage, fennel and cumin, amongst other herbs.

The herb and vegetable gardens served a purpose beyond that of production, and that was that their installation and maintenance allowed the monks to fulfill the manual labor component of the religious way of life prescribed by Rule of St. Benedict.

Orchards also served as sites for food production and as arenas for manual labor, and cemetery orchards, such as that detailed in the plan for St. Gall, showed yet more versatility. The cemetery orchard not only produced fruit, but manifested as a natural symbol of the garden of Paradise. This bi-fold concept of the garden as a space that met both physical and spiritual needs was carried over to the cloister garth.

The cloister garth, a claustrum consisting of the viridarium, a rectangular plot of grass surrounded by peristyle arcades, was barred to the laity, and served primarily as a place of retreat, a locus of the ‘vita contempliva’ . The viridarium was often bisected or quartered by paths, and often featured a roofed fountain at the center or side of the garth that served as a primary source for wash water and for irrigation, meeting yet more physical needs. Some cloister gardens contained small fish ponds as well, another source of food for the community. The arcades were used for teaching, sitting and meditating, or for exercise in inclement weather.

There is much conjecture as to ways in which the garth served as a spiritual aid. Umberto Eco describes the green swath as a sort of balm on which a monk might rest weary eyes, so as to return to reading with renewed vigor . Some scholars suggest that, though sparsely planted, plant materials found in the cloister grth might have inspired various religious visions [3]. This tendency to imbue the garden with symbolic values was not inherent to the religious orders alone, but was a feature of medieval culture in general. The square closter garth was meant to represent the four points of the compass, and so the universe as a whole. As Turner puts it,
"Augustine inspired medieval garden makers to abjure earthliness and look upward for divine inspiration. A perfect square with a round pool and a pentagonal fountain became a microcosm, illuminating the mathematical order and divine grace of the macrocosm (the universe)."

Walking around the cloister while meditating was a way of devoting oneself to the "path of life" ; indeed, each of the monastic gardens was imbued with symbolic as well as palpable value, testifying to the ingenuity of its creators.

(Reference taken from an article on gardening, WikiPedia, 2010.  To read more on this subject, use key words "History of Heirlooms" ;"History of Gardening")