Seed saving began 10,000 years ago. Mankind discovered that sowing seeds of useful plants in small areas resulted in a reliable, concentrated source of materials without having to search the country side for the same quantity. Early agriculture ended the boom and bust of food availability provided through a hunter gather lifestyle. Population archeologists estimate mankind's population at 1,000,000 people worldwide. They also have found that agriculture started around the same time worldwide. With systematic tending of local plants, varieties improved through the saving the seeds of the most desirable plants. Over the generations, harvests became dependable and abundant capable of supporting more people. After plants, animals were domesticated. By not having to scavenge for food, people had time to invest in other undertakings. A boom in metalworking, writing, the building permanent communities, and the rise of stable governing bodies occurred. Trade links with other communities allowed people to barter items that otherwise would not be available. Man's deliberate selection over time resulted in a wide range of crops and crop varieties world wide. With agriculture so successful today the worlds population has exceeded 6 billion. In the United States, three percent of the population feeds the remaining 97. Seed saving to the average city dweller, is an idea hardly thought of especially when seeds are readily available through many companies. We should be concerned with seed saving and the consequences of loosing our heritage every time a variety becomes extinct. Tonight I hope to increase your knowledge about the art and importance of seed saving.
Know Your Quarry: The Vital Steps in the Art of Seed Saving Classification of Plants
Hybrids: are the first generation offspring of mixed heritage. Generally the product of crossing one kind with another. The subsequent generations will not be true to type.
Standard (open pollinated): offspring possess the same traits as parents. Purebred.
Heirlooms: are varieties possessing at least 50 years of outstanding production.
GMO (Gene-Modified Organism): an unfortunate new category to the list. When genes or segments of DNA are introduced from one species to an unrelated organism, breaking through the species barrier, creating a genetically altered organism not found in nature.
During the growing season you will notice some plants outperforming others given the same soil and environmental conditions. The desirable traits are dependent upon the plant for:
|early bearing||flavour in veggies and herbs|
|ability to germinate under adverse local conditions||insect resistance|
|slowness to bolt||resistance to adverse local weather conditions|
|size (of blooms, fruit or plant)||special qualities|
|storage life ||practical uses for food, crafting, fragrance|
|eating quality||plant vigour|
Select the healthiest, most desirable, best bearing plants (at least two) to keep genetic diversity within that variety. The reason why at least two are selected is due to:1) Self incompatibility where the plant will not recognize its own pollen so subsequent fertilization will not occur. Apples are a classic example, and 2) Inbreeding suppression which is the decreased vigour resulting from self-pollination of normally open-pollinated plants In serious seed saving circles, as many as 200 corn plants are planted in block shaped plots to maximize pollination where the seed collected is from plants within the innermost square. This is due to the nature of corn other plant types may only have 100 plants sown such as brassicas, but with tomatoes and lettuce flowers self pollinate without difficulty.
There are 4 basic flower strategies that plants use for reproduction. Most use true flowers which both male and female parts are within the same flower. Some of which do not have the stigma exposed outside the petals but have enclosed flowers allowing for limited cross pollination. Such plants include tomatoes, peppers, legumes, and lettuce. The third is where male and female parts are segregated into different flowers located on different areas of the plant. The final is where the plant is either male or female. Life would be wonderful if this was all we have to know but the mysteries of the plant world abound. Some plants have dense pollen where insects must do the work, other plants have pollen light as dust and can travel virtually miles. These include corn, spinach, beets, and chard.
Care of Selected Plants for the Best Seeds
Once you've selected the parents to future generations, it is important to providing perhaps a little more attention such as diligent insect disease patrols and mulching. Seed formation is one or is the most expensive energy output a plant can take on. Within the seed is everything the embryo needs so large viable seeds in quantity is the ultimate goal. The goal is keeping the variety pure, special pains must be taken to prevent cross pollination. To do this you may want to grow one variety and eliminating all possible wild plants that could cross with your parent plants. Other ways is by growing via separation, isolation, or hand pollination. Of course all preparations must be done prior to flowering. Changing sowing times of early and late varieties changes the flowering times allows one to save seed from varieties of the same species such as Russian Red Kale and Purple Sprouting Broccoli within the same garden. Sowing alternate years is also a proven strategy. Mechanical means of separation by means of mesh, cheese cloth, muslin, spun polyester cages or paper caps. Cages are effective for plants requiring insects for pollination (sunflowers, brassicas, carrots, etc.) but pollinating insects must be added to each cage. Not any insect cannot be used. Bees seek the hive, once they have loaded up on nectar, with a single mindedness proving to be very inefficient. Hover flies and other nonsocial pollinators may be a better choice. If worse comes to worse, hand pollination using a Q-tip, artists' brush, the anthers itself, or a good old fashioned shaking must be done. Paper caps are mainly used for corn where the pollen filled tassels and silk covered ears are both covered. Pollen from the same variety is collected from tassel bags, mixed to prevent inbreeding depression, and then sprinkled over the briefly exposed silks. The ears are then recovered. Many seed savers pollinate corn this way. Larger blossoms of squash, melons, and cukes are kept closed with tape, opened for pollination, and resealed until fruit forms. Pollen must be fresh as once dry or frozen it is rendered ineffective. The life span can extend a day or two in the fridge. Biennials, such as carrots, rutabaga, celeriac, salsifry, and chard, require special care as plants flower in it's second year. Seed stalks form in the root stock or the leafy crown so dig up the best of the large plants as small plants and those old and woody make poor stalks If it isn't possible to keep the plants in the garden over winter due to severe weather or the risk of animal damage too great. Dig up plants before the killing frost and store in root cellar (pack roots in sand or sawdust) or a cool greenhouse (for plants pot up, keep moderately watered and keep ventilated to reduce rot inducing moisture). Then it is necessary to chill for at least 60-90 days at temperatures no greater than 40-50 F (5-10 C). Replant in spring.
The process of seed harvesting is as varied as the way the seed is carried by the plant. All follow the same rule: harvest when seeds are ripe. For dry papery seeds or those in capsules, place a labeled paper bag over seed bearing structures, gather and securely tie bag opening around stalk, grip firmly, and bend until it parallels the ground, and sever the stem. Hang the bag so seed head is upside down in a dry, shady, warm, well-ventilated area until dry. Shake bag or reach within the bag and manually release seeds from dry heads or pods. Some dry tree seeds may be collected simply cutting off the seed clusters with a sharp pair of pruners before placing them in a bag for further cleaning. Seeds from fleshy fruited plants such as roses, tomatoes, apples, squash, cukes, and berries must be overripe and free from rot. Cut open and/or rubbing pulp from removed seeds. Wash away all pulp and drain. Dry on layers of paper towel for at least a week. Some plants (tomato and cuke) benefit from special treatment such as three days of fermentation. This removes germination restricting substances in the gel surrounding the seed. Strain, wash and dry as usual. Remember the larger the seed, the longer the drying time. Improperly dried seed will rot, destroying all of your efforts and most importantly, the loss of the genetic heritage of unique or hard to get plants. Once dry, separate the chaff from your treasured seed by sieves, screens or by winnowing where the viable seeds are dense by virtue of a viable embryo. Some savers recommend a dip of either a 10 to 1 mix of water to bleach, hot water, salt water, or dilute peroxide bath to kill disease on the seed coat. Hot water is the mode of choice where 50 C (120 F) water baths of 20 minutes helps control or prevent the possible spread of disease such as black leg and black leaf spot in brassicas, bacterial canker in tomatoes, and downy mildew in spinach. The choice is up to you, but remember seeds must be bone dry before storing. This is an important rule. Refer to Table 1. With every rule there are exceptions. Many deciduous trees, forest and aquatic plants cannot be dried as this will seriously reduce germination rates or straight out kill the seeds. For these types store cleaned, washed seed in plastic bags in equal mix of moistened peat/sand/vermiculite and store in a cool rodent free area such as your refrigerator. If fridge space is at a premium, fill nursery pot with the above mix, place seeds, and cover twice seed depth with same the mix. Mulch prevents seed dehydration and abrupt temperature extremes. Place in a sheltered spot on the porch, behind the greenhouse or any other suitable spot. Keep moist, water occasionally, and watch. Remember some seeds germinate in 2 to 36 months (apples and hawthorn respectively) so it is important to keep vigil.
Once seed is thoroughly dry, remove debris then place in appropriate LABELED containers for your conditions. Labels include name of cultivars, type of fruit or general common name, date of collection, germination rates and requirements. One must label biennial roots and plants with the same information. Any container will do but silica gel, powdered milk or other desiccant should be used. Glass is great keeping out insects or rodents but not good for heavy kid traffic areas. Plastic is good for its freezer friendly and shatterproof qualities but not great keeping out vermin. Paper offers protection from light but little else as packets break open and provides no protection from environmental changes (humidity and temperature), vermin or mold. In any case, it is highly recommended to have equal amount of desiccant (powdered milk, silica gel, etc.) in a muslin bag to keep the seeds dry and viable.
Seed life is dependent upon the species and storage facilities. The typical home environment can provide seed viability (see Table 2). Special seed facilities located throughout the world store each crop type and under scientific conditions are able to extend seed viability beyond that of the typical household. Germination tests are a good idea. Take 10, 20, 25, 50 or 100 seeds (if you can spare 100) and spout under the appropriate conditions for that species. Poor results mean that you must plant another seed crop before the stored ones go AWOL. Test every or alternate year.
Keeping heirlooms alive goes beyond the flower. Some plants cannot set reliable seed so must propagated by cuttings, tubers, root divisions or runners. Any increase in the number of plants is through vegetative means. The best rhubarb can only be increased by cutting apart the root clump. Potatoes via tubers. Plants such as mint, French tarragon, raspberries, and strawberries readily root themselves via cuttings or spread via runners. Increasing the numbers of proven fruit and nut trees can only be done through grafting. Whip grafting is the most effective means where a cutting is grafted onto compatible root stock. I have a 'Johnathan' Apple in the orchard. This tree bears perfect fruit and has incredible disease resistance. Being from the 1700's, I'm sure the original tree is long dead, but it lives on through grafts done, over the centuries, by people who cared.
The Benefits From Saving Seeds
Economics- cheap. We've seen the decrease in seed count, increased prices and inconsistent costs for seed even though many seed catalogues get seed from the same supplier. A packet of 40 'red' bee balm seeds from Richters cost me $5. 12 seeds from Island Seed cost $2.50. The cost of self reliance and satisfaction has no price. Disease- few diseases use seeds as a vector to re infect plant species. Most diseases are on the surface coat so use the appropriate disinfecting technique. Locally adapted seeds- finally something that grows in your garden from seeds saved over time by yourself or by a generous individual. No more pain in searching for a particular variety that does well in your climate. Experimentation- see the results of cross pollination or mutations as a learning experience or to obtain some interesting new varieties. Once stabilized over generations, hybrids are classed as standards. Name a hybrid after a relative and prove they were wrong about you all along. Keeping heirlooms alive- unique, time proven varieties earn this distinction. As hybrids become popular, heirlooms are dropped by seed companies. Seed saving has kept some of these varieties alive. Satisfaction- there is no price one can place on this nor the feeling of self reliance. In some cultures, women believe prosperity is directly linked to their saving and sharing seed with other members of their community.
Pit Falls of Providing Rare Heirlooms and Plant Seeds
The main complaint of many seed saving organizations is that people order seeds from rare heritage cultivars and fail to re-offer any seed the following year. This selfish abuse diminishes the overall supply of these rare plants and diversity within that gene pool. It may create ill-will among people offering these rarities seeing others treating the Exchange yearbook like a seed catalogue. There is nothing more depressing than learning that your hard work and dedication in keeping something special alive rots in the recipient's garden because he or she couldn't be bothered.
Consequences of Not Saving Seeds
Unfortunately heirlooms are becoming extinct. Every time a dying gardener cannot pass seeds onto someone else or a Mom and Pop operation is bought out, we loose. This loss of our genetic heritage is receiving increasing media attention through the protests of others. New varieties replace old standbys in our trusted seed catalogues. We all can fondly remember a favorite variety that can't be found in any seed catalogue and regret not having some seed. One variety of potato was offered to the people of Britannia. This concern is historically valid as the 1846-1848 potato blight left over 1 million dead and lead to the mass exodus to the Americas. Ireland's population today has not recovered as there are fewer people in Ireland today as there were 150 years ago. This is a local consequence of not saving seed. The global consequence can be severe. Unfortunately politics come into play as big seed companies, such as Monsanto, AgrEvo, Norvaris, Dow, DuPont, and Zeneca have eroded the genetic pool with limited parent stock for their hybrids. Disease resistance is compromised in these new and improved hybrids. Farmers cast off their generations old varieties and bought hybrids with promise of economic gains. The farmers saw initial gains and some were convinced that buying hybrid seed was the way to go. Heirlooms saved over the years were set aside. In 1970, the corn growing regions of North America suffered blight. Crop failure as high as 50% in some regions. In both events the potato and corn varieties were either identical or so similar that disease marched through the fields unhindered. Hybrids may have initial benefits over heirlooms as exaggerated desirable traits but seed cannot be saved. Many of today's farmers are dependent on seed suppliers but again the seed companies are holding the carrot out promising higher yields with the newest carrot in the form of GM crops. Gene-modified crops have genes from totally unrelated species incorporated breaks all species barriers. The technology itself is sound but the random way DNA is incorporated have many people concerned about their food supply. This concern is valid. Pollen from Bt corn poisons Monarch butterfly larvae. To add insult to injury, farmers must sign a contract with the supplier in order to grow its seed. Farmers cannot save, sell any surplus, nor sow any left over seed the following year and sell the crop back to the supplier at the prices set by the supplier. Fines and litigation threats that would bankrupt farmers keep them on the straight and narrow. Currently there are lawsuits between farmers and suppliers. Enter the terminator gene. The plants fail to set seeds that will sprout. Genetically a dead end. In Brewster Kneens book 'Farmageddon: food and the culture of biotechnology', Mr. Kneen says that the 'Control of seeds...thus the control of the foundation of the global food supply for humanity...with end the ability of the majority of the world's people to feed themselves and will make them dependent on corporate seed suppliers.' One can only speculate what impact these GM foods will have on our food supply as well as our health and environment. This may be all the reason why seed saving and the associated exchanges are very important. I don't like leaving people feeling troubled. Knowledge enables a person the power of choice. So on a lighter note, there are many books on the subject, seed exchanges and world wide organizations ready to help anyone interested. If you want to find that variety you thought long lost, since it is no longer available by your supplier, these people can help your quest.
Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology. Brewster Kneene. New Society Publishers. ISBN 086571-394-4 ~a very current overview of the biotech world and the lobbying power they have with governments.
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener. Suzanne Ashworth. Seed Saver Publications. ISBN 0-9613977-7-2 ~everything you wanted to know about saving vegetable seeds.
Propagation Handbook: Basic Technique for Gardeners. Geoff Bryant. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-3065-4 ~my personal bible. Saving seed means nothing if you can't make 'em sprout. Provides information to increase success when making divisions, cuttings, and grafts.
The Heirloom Gardener. Carolyn Jabs. Sierra Club Books. ISBN 0-87156-803-9 ~all about heirloom plants (vegetables & fruits) and how gardeners can help save our living legacy. Describes heirlooms in tantalizing mouth watering detail. Great informational listings in the back.
The New Seed Starters Handbook. Nancy Bell. Rodale Press. ISBN 0-87857-752-1. -in my library. Great listing of sources, suppliers and exchanges. Covers many plants (annuals to trees) in detail from seed saving, germination, when and how to plant, growing conditions.
Societies and Suppliers
Abundant Life Foundation PO Box 772, Port Townsend WA. 98368. (206) 823-5376. Membership $5-$15. -open pollinated, untreated seeds for the Pacific Northwest. Accepts seeds instead of cash.
Seed Savers Exchange RR #3, Box 239, Decorah, IA 52101 (319) 382-3949 vegetables are the primary concern. Rules established to maintain the integrity, purpose, and founding principles of SSE allow the widest distribution of seeds. Publishes articles often. Send a SASE for more info (as with all things).
Lawson Bag Company PO Box 8577, Northfield, IL. 60093. makes tough weather resistant paper bags of different sizes for pollination.
National Farmers Union2717 Wentz Ave., Saskatoon, SK. S7K 4B6 email: email@example.comHelp support the folks who are preserving our rights to save, re-use, select, exchange and sell non GMO seeds. Yes, there is a possibility of ordinary citizens to loose their right to save seeds.