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Heirloom plants and ecological diversity

By Jaye Sudar

    Seeking diversity in a world vying for conformity is frustrating.  Agriculturally, conformity is a recipe for disaster.  Take the potato for example.  In our local stores we see four or five varieties.  However, there are six species and over 3000 varieties of potatoes.  Granted, many of them grow only in the Andes, but most locals remember the taste and color of the Andean Purple Potatoes that a local restaurant served years ago.  Those potatoes were grown in the San Luis Valley.  Other varieties will grow in Colorado as well.  Quinoa, another high altitude Andean grain used to have over 200 varieties.  Now only fifty are grown.  Why?

    As with many crops worldwide, the quest for bigger, better, faster and most disease resistant has lead us down a genetic blind alley.  Instead of working with all the genetic possibilities and preserving varieties adapted to particular growing conditions, science and the markets have encouraged us to neglect or discard genetic varieties of basic foods that built empires.  Rice, potatoes, wheat and tomatoes have all been dealt this genetic blow.  Conformity leads to bland tastes as well as the loss of vital genetic diversity.

    Now more than ever, we need to look back to the heirloom varieties.  We all know a homegrown tomato tastes better than a store bought one.  For those who have dabbled in growing a garden, we discover the tastes of our childhood memories.  Just as a handmade item is better than a mass produced one, homegrown produce has more variety and tastes better. Heirloom seeds are one way to recapture some of that lost flavor.  Heirloom seeds can be found locally from at and Golden Harvest Organics at

    The challenge is to deal with our local ecological diversity.  High altitude gardening is an art form.  Those of us who move to Colorado learn that compost will mummify at this dry altitude.  We learn to live with snow in May and frosts by September.  Ninety days is the average growing cycle here if we are lucky.  For the totally clueless, gardening information can be found at the CSU website at

    On Sat. Feb. 14, the CSU Extension office is sponsoring the first in a series of workshops on gardening.  Penn and Cord Parmenter will be speaking on High Altitude Vegetable Gardening.  They will share seventeen years of experience during this workshop.  It is being held at the Walsenburg Community Center at 1 pm.  Donations are welcome.  Bring your notebooks!