An ancient way of life finds its way into modern society
Reprint: Country Wisdom News October 2011
Each year a garden or farm produces many more seeds than vegetables. These seeds have the potential to become a new plant, bursting with thousands of its own seeds, and so on. This is precisely how plants carry forth their genetics. Those juicy, sweet Cherokee purple tomatoes that you enjoyed popping in your mouth on summer afternoons can be yours all over again next year—if you save the seeds.
In the Hudson Valley, we are fortunate to have access to many heirloom plants to use in our flower and vegetable gardens. Heirloom plants are a good place to start if you are intending to seed save. An heirloom plant is an open pollinator (Mother Nature does the pollination with the help of bees, wind, birds, rain, and other natural sources) that has roots (pun intended) in the region for generations. Some heirlooms go back hundreds of years, being passed down from generation to generation of farmers. There are crops that have been traced to pre-colonial Native American ancestry, and some European heirlooms have been dated back to 400 years. Asian and African heirlooms have been traced even further back.
Heirlooms have many advantages over hybrid commercial plants. Hybrid plants don’t retain the characteristics of the mother plant. They are unpredictable and result in a new plant that is the combination of parent plants. Hybrid plants are artificially cross-pollinated to create specific characteristics, like higher yield or uniform size. These practices aid in the ease of large-scale manufacturing. The hybrid seeds, however, create second-generation hybrids that lack the strong genetic history of heirloom plants, and therefore haven’t built up the same survival skills as heirlooms. They are more prone to insect damage, disease, and just plain old genetic flaws.
Additionally, multinational corporations like Monsanto are purchasing and turning farms around the world into hybrid monocultures that not only don’t produce viable seeds, but also can cross-pollinate and hybridize neighboring heirloom crops. This trend threatens our ability to access true heirloom seeds.
Gardeners and farmers are able to reverse this trend by saving local heirloom seeds and spreading them through the community. Before there were seed companies, seeds were in the hands of the communities rather than institutions. We have the resources in our community to protect our rich history of heirloom varieties.
Not only will returning to our seed saving heritage ensure sustainability of our food supply, it will improve the quality of our local foods! With a little self education, seed savers can begin to hone in on the strongest seeds to save—seeds that have insect and disease resistance, climate hardiness, and amazing flavor. Picking the most beautiful plant of each species will carry forth that plant’s strong genetics for the next generation.
The very best motivation to seed save, however, is not politics or even ethics, it’s a positive motivation. The number one reason to seed save is because you found the perfect plant variety and you love it so much that you just must have it again next year (and the year after that and the year after that!). It could be that zingy hot pepper or abundant and bright calendula, or the perfectly round, bright orange pumpkin that you want for next Halloween. Whatever the calling, you can have that plant again and again by seed preservation. If you got that plant from a seed company, preserving its seed is really the only way to ensure the product is not discontinued, literally.
So where to begin?
You can begin your seed-saving journey with either heirloom seeds from a reputable source (check out Hudson Valley Seed Company at hudsonvalleyseed.com for an amazing selection…and join the local seed saving community too), or you can begin with starter plants of the heirloom varieties that you’d like to propagate. Many of our local farms and shops sell heirloom varieties, but you should inquire to be certain.
The easiest plants to save are self-pollinated plants. This reduces the chance that plants are cross-pollinated by wind or insects, thus ensuring they stay true to their parent plant characteristics. Some self-pollinating varieties include beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and peas.
There are basically two methods of seed saving: wet and dry. Many seeds can be saved simply by collecting the dry seeds. The dry method of seed saving can be used for plants like beans, broccoli, peas, carrots, onion, and corn. When seeds are ripe they usually turn from white to cream colored or light to dark brown. Allow the seeds in pods to mature and dry on the plant, but don’t wait so long that other animals or birds get to them before you. There are several ways of collecting the seeds. You can pull the plant before it is totally dried and put it in a paper bag to finish its drying process, or pull the seeds from their plants or pods and dry in a single layer, well ventilated.
The wet method of seed saving works for tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, and squashes and is just a bit more involved. Pull the vegetables from your nicest plants when they are over-ripe and cut open to scrape out the seeds. These seeds have a gelatinous covering that makes it difficult to properly separate and dry them. To remove this clear, mucus-like substance, soak the seeds and their pulp in water and let ferment for two to four days. A layer of mold may form at the top, or if the fermentation starts bubbling, it’s time to stop the process or your seeds may germinate. At the end of the fermentation, strain the seeds and rinse them well to get rid of the pulp. You can then lay the seeds out on a plate to dry, shaking them daily to make sure they are drying well and aren’t clumping.
Make certain the seeds are completely dry before you store them, or they risk molding or rotting in storage. You can store seeds in a paper envelope. Mark each envelope with the seed variety and year. The longer the seeds are in storage the less vital the resulting plants become, so use your seeds abundantly! Place the envelopes into an airtight container (like a canning jar) to help elongate the life of the seed. Store the seeds in a dark, dry, and cool location for the following year (although some varieties last several years). Then, get to planting your seeds in the spring!
Despite all of the politics, economics, and biotechnology controversies around seeds and seed companies, seed saving is just plain old fun! It is so rewarding to actually witness a plant becoming stronger and more acclimated to its unique ecosystem each year. Seed saving can quickly become a hobby that leads to the sustainability efforts of our community in ways we may not even recognize yet. And to think it also saves you money. Remember, spread your good seed!