Q & A with Owen Bridge of Annapolis Seeds

Q & A with Owen Bridge of Annapolis Seeds

In celebration of Earth Day and the fast-approaching gardening season, The Grapevine asked Owen Bridge of Annapolis Seeds to tell us a bit about himself, and share some of his knowledge about heirloom vegetables and seed saving.

The Grapevine (GV): What are heirloom seeds? What does ‘open-pollinated’ mean?

Owen Bridge (OB): I like to think of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as ‘the people’s seeds,’ in that they are public domain and you can save seed from your own plants. If you have a favourite heirloom tomato variety, you can carry it on and share.

A little bit of seed definition! Open-pollinated seeds are varieties that are genetically stable, and consistent from generation to generation. I’ve seen different definitions of what makes an heirloom variety, but essentially they are older open-pollinated varieties (pre-1940s is a common definition). This is contrasted with a hybrid variety, which is usually a cross of two open-pollinated varieties. Hybrid varieties are consistent for the first generation (f1), but usually not the second. So if you save seed from a hybrid tomato, you’ll probably still get delicious tomatoes the following year, but they’re unlikely to be quite the same as the variety you started with. Most hybrid varieties are proprietary, and you have to go back to the seed company each year. That said, I certainly don’t think hybrid varieties are bad, I just find working with open-pollinated seeds to be much more interesting.

GV: How did you get into seed-saving?

OB: I got into seed saving at a pretty young age. I grew up on Vancouver Island, and my family had always gardened when I was a kid. When I was about 12 I met Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds at our local Seedy Saturday (a community seed exchange). Dan gave me a bunch of cool and unusual bean varieties, each one with an interesting story behind it and some of them rare and at risk of extinction. As a nerdy homeschooled 12 year old who wanted to save the world, learning that I could safeguard biodiversity in my backyard garden was pretty powerful.

GV: How and why did you start Annapolis Seeds?

OB: In 2006, when I was 14, my parents moved from the west coast to the Annapolis Valley. We moved into our old farmhouse in Nictaux, where I still farm today. At that point I didn’t have any specific plans to start a seed business, I was just excited to create some awesome gardens and grow my seed collection. Within a few years I was harvesting buckets of seed, way more than I knew what to do with. When I was 16 I realized I might as well put out a seed catalogue. For the 2009 season I made a home-printed catalogue and a very primitive website. Annapolis Seeds was born! I offered about 100 varieties that year, and the response from people was so supportive I kept at it.

GV: Where are your seeds grown?

OB: I started by offering only my own seeds, but quickly realized that collaborating with other growers and seed savers would make the catalogue much more diverse and interesting. As of 2019, we still grow about 70% of our seeds here on our farm, but also source seeds from six other farms in the Maritimes. Each growing season we seem to add a few new varieties to the collection, which has grown to about 600 varieties today.

It was a conscious decision pretty early on to limit our seeds to those grown locally. When you grow and save seed year after year, that seed becomes better adapted to your climate and your place. It’s simple natural selection, except in this case humans take on a guiding role. I’m convinced that seed grown here in our region will usually do better than seed grown in Oregon, China, or the Mediterranean (most commercial seed is grown in semi-arid regions). People often assume that seed companies produce their own seed. But the reality is that production is much more centralized. A given variety might be offered in 50 different seed catalogues in North America, but it’s very likely that all of those companies source their seed from the same large-scale grower. What we’re doing is unfortunately pretty rare. I can count on one hand the number of 100% regional seed companies in Canada.

GV: How do you acquire the varieties that you are collecting?

OB: Some varieties I’ll seek out from other seed companies. I often get asked about certain varieties while I’m at the market, and I keep a scrap of paper with me to jot down interesting-sounding ones to try. But some of my favourite varieties are the ones that have been gifted to me by local families and gardeners. We have a long tradition of growing your own food here in rural Nova Scotia, and some families still carry on seeds passed down through multiple generations.The Wentzell tomato is a good example; grown by the Wentzell family of New Germany since possibly the 1800s. It was passed on to the Dreschers of Windhorse Farm, and then on to me. And it’s such a good tomato! 100+ years of regional adaptation makes a difference.

GV: Why is seed-saving important?

OB: There are a lot of reasons to be into seed saving, but I’d say maintaining biodiversity is the big one for me. There’s such a vast array of shapes, colours, and flavours that our seeds can possess, far more than the narrow vision offered by the industrial food system. There are said to be 15,000+ varieties of tomato in the world. Although most of those aren’t suited to efficient commercial production, they possess traits and flavours that it would be a tragedy to lose. There’s also the cultural aspect of seeds. Each seed carries a story, having co-evolved for centuries or millennia alongside people. Sometimes travelling long distances with those people and sometimes staying in one place. Food and storytelling are pretty much the basis of culture, and seeds encompass both. So to lose our seeds means more than simply losing biodiversity. I think Nova Scotia would be a much poorer place if it didn’t have the Wentzell Tomato.

I’d encourage every gardener to also be a seed saver. It’s a simple skill to collect your own seed, and to have control over the full cycle of your garden is an awesome feeling. The more people’s hands the seeds are in, the more diverse and resilient we’ll collectively be.