Gardening an Heirloom Legacy

This Oregon farmer breeds and rehabilitates heirloom vegetable cultivars. Find out how he skillfully leads the evolutionary dance to help create better food for everyone through his heirloom gardening.

| Fall 2018

  • orach
    You can enjoy this brightly colored orach cultivar in salads, and can purchase seeds on Wild Garden Seed's website.
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • beets
    Wild Garden Seed carries a variety of heirloom and organic plants, including 'MacGregor's Favorite Beet.'
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • calendula
    Calendula flowers run in a range of warm, lovely colors. Seeds are available for purchase on Wild Garden Seed's website.
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • merlot-lettuce
    'Merlot' lettuce is perhaps the darkest-colored red lettuce there is, providing a high antioxidant content. Seeds are available at Wild Garden Seed's website.
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • spinach
    'Long Standing Bloomsdale' spinach has delicious leaves and firm stems. It's available for purchase on Wild Garden Seed's website.
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • onions
    This hardy storage onion comes from Italy's Parma region. Its seeds are available for purchase on Wild Garden Seed's website.
    Photo by www.RareSeeds.com
  • bean-sprout
    You can explore the latest heirloom and organic additions to Morton's seed catalog online.
    Photo by Getty Images/Opla
  • garden
    Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed stands in the midst of a bountiful lettuce garden, ready for seed harvest. These, along with many other seeds, are available online.
    Photo by Karen Morton/Wild Garden Seed
  • frank-morton
    Before Wild Garden Seed, Morton used to sell "Seasonal Salad" to restaurants.
    Photo by Shawn Linehan Photography

  • orach
  • beets
  • calendula
  • merlot-lettuce
  • spinach
  • onions
  • bean-sprout
  • garden
  • frank-morton

Some think heirloom vegetables and fruits are plants with traits frozen in time, so that the seeds you plant through your heirloom gardening endeavors produce the same plants as those grown in your grandmother’s garden. “Impossible!” says Frank Morton, co-founder with his wife, Karen Morton, of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon.

Morton works to maintain and strengthen the genetic stock of heirloom cultivars. To him, the idea of the frozen-in-time heirloom is a myth, unless you’ve been storing lettuce seeds in the basement from your great-grandmother. Even then, after the seeds have germinated, the plant population will adapt to its new locale.

Insects, plants, and pathogens are locked in an endless struggle of adaptation, Morton says. Plants create defenses to ward off threats from pathogens and insects, and insects and pathogens in turn develop ways to get around those defenses. Plants also evolve to cope with soil and weather conditions; for example, carrot seed harvested from a dry year will often show different (though sometimes subtle) characteristics than carrot seed saved from a wet year.

For more than two decades, Morton has been on a quest to strengthen the seed stock of organic vegetables, especially heirloom cultivars. He breeds heirlooms and organic vegetables to harvest the seeds of the strongest and most desirable plants. Sometimes he makes new cultivars, and other times he rehabilitates heirloom cultivars for future gardeners. Wild Garden Seed sells seeds online and directly to farmers, as well as to many of the organic seed companies.



As a farmer in the 1980s and 1990s, Morton sold “Seasonal Salad” to restaurants, a salad mix he developed containing some heirloom cultivars. Chefs always wanted variety in produce, and Morton grew heirlooms to accommodate. However, heirloom vegetables often were smaller and less vigorous than their hybrid counterparts.

Morton instantly saw a demand in the marketplace. He knew if he could find a way to make heirloom plants higher-yielding, more vigorous, and easier to grow, all while retaining their uniqueness, he’d have an edge.






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