DOWNERS GROVE – A new program will provide Downers Grove gardeners with seeds for hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables and herbs at no cost this spring, as long as they promise to grow the plants and bring back new seeds next year.
Vicki Nowicki, an award winning organic gardener and co-owner of the Land Office, has stocked the new seed library at the Downers Grove Museum with thousands of seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange and The Pepperfield Project, including several rare and endangered plants Nowicki collected herself.
“You can grow tomatoes that are striped like a zebra,” Downers Grove Park District Supervisor of Marketing and Creative Development Ian Everett said. “You can grow shapes and sizes you will never find in any super market and might not find in a farmers’ market. There are hundreds of varieties of vegetables that are easy to grow, that taste better and offer diversity. If you don’t grow them, they just disappear.”
In fact, Nowicki said more than 94 percent of garden plant varieties – both those native to the continent and those brought by immigrants – have vanished over the last 100 years. Most were handed down by families, but as children leave home, the seeds were often left as well. The rise of hybrid plants, bred to exaggerate favorable characteristics like vegetable size or disease resistance, exacerbated the decline of heirloom plants.
But in addition to the variety in taste and shape, Nowicki said the older plants are more resilient to weather shifts.
“Hybrids are brand new, they’re only 50 or 60 years old, and they have not been exposed to years and years of variations of the weather,” she said. “I’m growing heirloom tomatoes in my garden that came from Sicily. No matter what the weather is, it does beautifully. It doesn’t seem to be affected by heat, drought, extra rain. The seed itself carried, quote, unquote, memory of all these different [weather conditions].”
Nowicki added that heirloom plants make new seeds that are identical to the ones that were planted, unlike hybrids. During the orientation, participants will learn how to save the seeds, and then pick out their five varieties from a repurposed card catalogue, donated by the Downers Grove Public Library.
“It’s going to be a great and fun exploratory experience for people,” she said. “We’re going to have so any different kinds of tomatoes they wont even know which way to turn, all different colors. We’ll have all the favorites – green beans, lettuce and lots of peppers. Some are even from foreign countries. We’ll have so many different things that will be fun to try.”