Heirloom seeds – the debate continues

The definition and use of the word heirloom to describe plants is fiercely 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. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant could 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 varieties are much older; some are 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 ensuring the dependency on seed distributors for future crops.

21st May 2017

Mini propagation tunnel

Some pics of a mini greenhouse made from electrical conduit pipe and fittings – 20mm. Light weight and can be used to house seed trays until they germinate or simply positioned over a seed bed if you are sowing directly. Approximate floor size is 2 meters x 1.2 meters.

The finished product

The finished product. Can be used to house germination trays with seeds or placed over a seedbed if you are sowing directly. It is advisable that you secure to the ground as the wind can lift it.

Frame with 'irrigation' pipe at the top. Simple mist spray system keeps seed trays damp in no time

The frame prior to covering it with PVC sheeting. The plastic sheeting can be obtained from suppliers of commercial growing equipment. Note the irrigation pipe (15 mm) attached to the top support with cable ties

 example of fittings used and we join the whole thing together  PVC bends and t pieces
 supports to keep the structure in place  irrigation pipe attached to top of frame - simple garden mist spray system.



We use standard ridged garden PVC risers attached to the bottom of the irrigation pipe with mist sprayers. This method reduces condensation on the roof of the tunnel which in turn drips on the trays.

We use standard ridged garden PVC risers attached to the bottom of the irrigation pipe with mist sprayers. This method reduces condensation on the roof of the tunnel which in turn drips on the trays.

Farmer John chicken tractor examples

These are some of the ‘chicken tractor’ examples that we used at various projects.

Chicken tractors next to a swale in an Urban Jozi food garden. This was and exciting project in the heart of industrial Jhb.

Keyhole garden – once the chicken tractor moved on to its next location we planted these mandala style garden beds.

Urban food farm in Industrial Johannesburg. Keyhole (Mandala) gardens created by using chicken tractors. The floor of each chicken tractor is layered with raw organic material such as manure or vegetable off cuts. Chickens do what they do – eat, scratch and poo and in no time prepared the round shaped garden beds ready for planting. The chicken tractor is then moved on to the next area where the process is repeated.








Staff at Newton House School constructing the school Chicken Tractor to be used in their nursery and food garden.

Getting ready for Autumn

Autumn is a very busy time for the gardener.  Get your hands dirty and enjoy the sunshine before the cold comes!To ensure colour through winter, plant and sow now and make sure that you have the right herbs/veggies in before it is too cold.  Certain winter flowering bulbs and some spring flowering bulbs can be planted. Harvest your herbs early in the morning for drying. Lemon verbena and lemon balm and tarragon, especially as they will lose their precious leaves in winter. Try to get rid of  weeds before they set seed. Compost making is never ending and those wormeries need to be taken out and “divided” every now and then. Talking about dividing, this is the best time to divide lots of plants like strawberries, irises, and many perennial herbs and bulbous plants. Feed those guys which are going to flower or bear fruit soon, like the citrus trees. In Autumn a lot of cuttings can be taken, especially of the more mature wood. It is easier than you think! A lot of your flowers have finished flowering, this is the time to gather those dried flower heads full of seeds. Keep some of the interesting shapes for pot pourri making.

This is a good time to add a new bed to your garden.  You have time to weed, compost and mulch the soil in preparation for the new plants (some which are best to plant in winter, like trees and deciduous species). As the days get shorter and colder, a lot of animals are preparing for winter too. Be careful not to remove too many leaves or old branches etc from your garden. They provide food and shelter for a lot of animals who would like to overwinter in your garden. As the leaves fall, gently rake them into the beds where they will provide much needed mulching for your plants and homes for little creatures. Mulching saves water too!

If you have moved to a new garden, take note of how the sun moves over the next few months, which plants and trees are deciduous and make notes in a little gardening book, so that you will know what to plant amongst those shrubs and under those trees and against trellises and walls next year this time. Also take the time to read through old gardening books of the same month to get a good idea of what to do or not to do this time of the year. Have a look at neighbour’s gardens to get ideas of what to plant in yours.  Get to know the soil in your garden. You will get a good idea about what soil it is by looking at what is growing there already.

When you consider planting more plants and trees, try to plant indigenous. Indigenous trees,plants and grasses attract our butterflies and birds and secondly, try to plant what grows in your climate. These species are well adapted to the area and will save you money by not dying on you and reward you with special guests like birds, little reptiles and insects.

Lawn dressing

Lawn top dressing is when you apply a thin layer of material onto the lawn. It is often done with sand and that’s where the problem is.

Sand is used because people think it will improve air space and water infiltration and drainage. These are important organic gardening goals, but sand does not help achieve them. No matter what your soil is composed of, putting sand on top can cause drainage problems and dry pockets in the soil. And there’s more.

If you’re lawn top dressing with sand onto your clay soil, it can form a soil that is like concrete. And since sand doesn’t have any nutritional benefit or any ability to hold onto nutrients, you are decreasing the fertility of your organic soil.

It is not as bad to use sand on golf course greens because they are already made of sand, but even then, it is not very helpful. Regardless, in a residential lawn, it is harmful.

But there is something else commonly used in organic gardening that you should absolutely use for lawn top dressing and that is 10cm to 18cm of good quality, well-screened (finer textured than normal compost mixed with good quality soil) composted lawn dressing! Well-made composted lawn dressing brings many benefits to the lawn and organic garden, including:

  • a broad range of nutrients
  • a huge number and diversity of beneficial microorganisms
  • reduced thatch due to specific microorganisms
  • reduced disease
  • improved water-holding capacity
  • improved soil structure and reduced compaction

This method of lawn top dressing is what should be done after aerating a lawn. An organic gardening tip for if you want to do a really good job, after aerating and before adding the compost, you can add other soil-enhancing products such as mycorrhizal fungi, liquid kelp and any minerals that you need based on a soil test, such as calcitic lime and soft rock phosphate.

Doing all of these things is organic gardening heaven for your lawn.

Lawn top dressing with normal compost as an alternative produces a thick, green lawn

It is best to do all of this after aerating because the amendments and compost get down into the root zone where they belong. While you shouldn’t need to aerate every year once your lawn is healthy, topdressing with compost is always a good idea. Spring or late winter (August/September) is the recommended time for lawn top dressing.

Apply with a shovel and rake.