seeds4-0609

Mint clones growing in vitro.

AL DIDIER and Sherry Holley have never heard of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. But several of the green growing things in their sprawling Southeast Portland backyard owe it a debt of gratitude. A motley collection of grapevines, strawberries, and fig, pear, and apple trees frames a geometric fortress of garden beds bounded by old railroad ties. Come summer, heirloom tomatoes, squash, basil, and peas will emerge in a tangle of bright colors. Many of the starts for the couple’s fruit trees started out in Corvallis and were then supplied to Portland’s Home Orchard Society, a nonprofit that teaches and encourages Portlanders to grow their own fruits and vegetables in their backyards. Last year, the Home Orchard Society sold nearly three thousand of these seedlings and root stocks to area green-thumbs.

"There is a great sense of satisfaction in growing your own food‚" says Holley, a sixty-year-old master gardener from Juneau, Alaska. When she moved to Portland sixteen years ago, she brought iris and daylily cuttings along for the trip. As she walks past her wide bed of Sequoia strawberries, she describes different plants with a fondness most people reserve for their pets. "These apples are just luscious for eating; the juice just runs down your face‚" she says. "People don’t realize what a wonderful climate this is. Things grow here."

For Didier and Holley, the garden is a source of endless pleasure. On a practical level, it also saves them about $20 a week on groceries. And, according to ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, gardens like theirs have an even more important purpose: such decentralized, small-scale efforts, he says, will be the true way to create local food security. "Half of our carbon footprint is caused by how we transport and grow food‚" he says, lauding Portland for its thriving farmers markets and restaurants that showcase local and seasonal eatables. "The average crop travels 1,500 miles from the grower to the retailer. As the price of fossil fuels increases, it’s more cost-effective to have many small gardens of locally adapted crops than to expect to get all our peaches out of Southern California and our strawberries from Mexico."

Nabhan says relying on such methods of commerce will become increasingly unwise as crops grow more susceptible to disease or unpredictable weather in the face of climate change. Small shrubs like strawberries (and in some climates, blueberries)—which, unlike pears or apples, produce fruit within a year of their first planting—could become important in staving off food shortages in developing countries struck by tragedy. For this reason, recognition of the Corvallis repository’s work pleases Kim Hummer, the strawberry expert. For more than a century, hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent collecting and preserving the big heroes of modern agriculture—such as wheat, corn, and potatoes—while the importance of berries and tree fruit has gotten less attention. Yet there is a growing acknowledgment of the need to preserve these historically less-commercial, "second-best" horticultural crops.

"You can live by bread alone, but if you have jam to go with it, the eating is a lot more fun and more healthful‚" says Hummer, rubbing the velvety leaf of one of her strawberry plants between forefinger and thumb. "More important, planting berries and nuts in developing countries is a foundation of the bootstrap effort to bring people out of poverty. It’s what we do: preserve plants for all people for all time."

Rebecca Clarren is a 2009 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow who frequently writes about agriculture and the environment. Her last story for Portland Monthly ("Fathom This‚" July 2008) was about wave energy machines.