McGill University’s seed library

by Tom Dinardo

Italian heirloom seeds for amateur gardeners

There is no one single accepted definition of an heirloom seed. “That’s a word that has a lot of different meanings to different people,” explains Dan Brisebois, a farmer at Ferme Tournesol, a cooperative based in Les Cèdres, Quebec, outside of Montreal.

Generally, though, they tend to be older varieties of seeds that existed before the mid-20th century, when commercial seeds took off, and are associated with a specific community, culture or country, and sometimes have been passed down within a certain family for generations.The Jimmy Nardello pepper, for example, is a sweet frying pepper that is said to have been brought to the United States in the 1880s by the Nardello family when they emigrated from southern Italy. “There’s a lot of romance around the term,” says Brisebois.

Ferme Tournesol, which Brisebois founded with fellow McGill University alumni in 2005, produces weekly vegetable baskets for customers and sells its products at the farmer’s market in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue in Montreal’s West Island. They also produce seeds, a number of which are Italian heirlooms.

So when Dana Ingalls, liaison librarian at McGill’s MacDonald campus, reached out to the farm in 2017 and asked if they wanted to donate to a new seed library she was starting, they were happy to oblige. “Had we been students and this existed, we would have benefited from it. So we would love to see current students do that,” says Brisebois.

Ferme Tournesol and the other seed companies Ingalls has approached for donations have now provided seeds to over 500 registered users through the MacDonald Campus Seed Library. The campus is located in Sainte-Anne and is home to McGill’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, where there is a lot of focus on biodiversity in food, sustainable food systems and food security, says Ingalls. “This is one of the ways to promote biodiversity and sustainable food.”

The seeds are free to McGill students and alumni who want to grow their own food.They simply have to register and then they’re free to take whichever seeds they like to grow at home. The library also offers resources on the basics of gardening as well as books on composting, improving soil and seed-saving techniques. Ingalls says that most people that order seeds are current students, but a handful of alumni, faculty and staff members have also registered.

Among the seeds available this season are a variety of Italian heirloom seeds, including San Marzano tomatoes, Cocozelle de Napoli zucchini and Chioggia beets.

According to Brisebois, the spherical Chioggia beet is similar to a normal red beet but has more of a pink tone. “What’s really particular about it is that when you cut it across the center, you’ll see it’s all concentric circles of pink and white, kind of like a candy cane going through,” he says. “It’s also very sweet tasting. It has a little bit less of the earthy aftertaste than some of the normal beets would have, but it still tastes like a beet. It grows very well in our climate.”

According to Brisebois, what really distinguishes Italian heirloom seeds is the flavour of the vegetables produced and their use in the Italian culinary tradition. “Some people swear by the San Marzano tomatoes . . . as the only way to have a really delicious tomato for sauce,” he says.

Brisebois explains that even though they historically come from a country with a very different climate, Italian heirloom seeds are genetically very diverse, which helps when adapting the seed to a Canadian context. “[Italy] is a warmer climate than Quebec but it is a climate that, especially with the higher elevation, has more of a chance of cold conditions, so [the seeds] have the potential to really thrive in our area if they’re selected well.”

So far, the seed library has been a hit on campus. “We have a lot of positive reactions from students. They really enjoy using it,” says Ingalls. “It’s been a really great project.”