Gardeners and seed savers rise to the challenge of safeguarding heirloom seeds before they are extinct.
Shirley Bellows is a master gardener with a mission: find extremely rare varieties of vegetables, grow them and share their seeds with other gardeners, and save enough seeds herself so that she can send a large batch to Seeds of Diversity, a Canadian organization that preserves, perpetuates, studies, and encourages the cultivation of heirloom and endangered food crop varieties. (There's a U.S. equivalent called Seed Savers.)
Now 73, Bellows has been gardening her whole life, going back to her childhood. “Wherever I’ve lived,” she says, “I’ve always had a vegetable garden.” As was traditional in her family, Bellows saves seeds from year to year and is always on the lookout for interesting heirloom varieties. Her seed saving became a more serious undertaking, she says, “when I started volunteering [with Seeds of Diversity] and started to understand that some varieties are disappearing forever.”
“If we lose genetic diversity in our seeds,” she explains, “and then our crops are hit with a catastrophe like the blight that caused the potato famine, we won’t have food to eat. Seed saving is important to the future of the human race.”
Even the United Nations has raised concerns about the world’s shrinking food diversity and the security of our food supply. A 2022 report to the UN Human Rights Council noted that global seeds systems “are dominated by four agrochemical companies, the ‘Big Four’. They control sixty per cent of the global seeds market … leading to a strangle-hold on seed varieties, distribution and price.”
But around the world, gardeners and seed savers like Bellows are rising to the challenge of safeguarding heirloom seeds before they become extinct. Heirloom seeds differ from hybrid and GMO seeds, she says, with many hybridized plants (like seedless fruits and vegetables) leading to a dead end for future seeds.
Bellows is credited with saving the Blue Jay bean from extinction. She purchased a packet of seeds from a mail order catalog to plant in her backyard garden in 1997. She was enthralled by both the Blue Jay bean’s appearance (the bean is dark purple splashed with pink, and produces beautiful lavender blue flowers) and the taste (“delicious — this is a fabulous bean!” she says). That year, Bellows saved seeds from the beans, but, wanting more, she searched seed catalogs and seed suppliers the following year … and in subsequent years … but nobody was selling them anymore. “I realized that if I didn’t save it, the Blue Jay bean might be lost, permanently.”
In 2004 Bellows gave a packet of her Blue Jay bean seeds to Bob Wildfong, Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity. Since then Wildfong has planted the beans in his home garden and passed along seeds to other gardeners in his network, asking them to send back some of the seeds they generate so Seeds of Diversity can offer them to other gardeners and spread their propagation.
Today, the Blue Jay bean is thriving in gardens across Canada, and the seeds are sold by various heirloom seed companies. Although Bellows has saved seeds from dozens of vulnerable varieties of vegetables and sent quantities to Seeds of Diversity’s Canadian Seed Library for preservation and to ensure that they do not become extinct, the Blue Jay bean remains one of her favorite success stories. “I’ve been growing them for twenty-six years now, but I know they would not exist if I had not saved them.”
Bellows is an animated speaker who appeared as a regular guest on television shows in London, Ontario, before moving west to Vancouver Island, and who, pre-COVID, gave regular presentations to gardening clubs and community groups about gardening and seed saving. She hopes to get back to doing public appearances again, because, like her, many of the gardeners who are committed seed savers are getting older, and she wants a fresh crop of gardeners to continue the work going forward. “It’s a lot of work, but people … can learn how to save their own seeds, but it has to be done properly. Seed saving is becoming a lost art.”
And it’s an art that is critical for people to learn and to practice, she says. The future of our food supply might depend on it.