Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pure Seeds

I had a very exciting weekend!
On Friday, I had a job! (I substitute teach.) On Saturday, I went with my Mom and my sister's family to the Erie Zoo and did Zoo Boo. It is really a nice thing to do and a major fund raiser for the zoo. And I got kisses from my favorite zoo animals: the llamas!

Sunday was the best, though, and my mother and I went to hear one of our longtime heroes Dr. Vandana Shiva speak at Mercyhurst College in Erie. We are both very inspired by her. My mother loves reading her inspirational words about the importance of reserving natural resources like water and plants for the free use of all peoples. I'm inspired by her political activism and her efforts to save the seeds of native species of food and spices in India, often raising the ire of international corporations who are trying to commodify the seeds and make the farmers dependent on purchased seed instead of saved seed. There have been countless thousands of farmer suicides in India because the farmers are being driven further and further into debt to buy seed and there are actually laws passed to keep people from practicing traditional farming and make them dependent on modern seed varieties which cannot be grown without expensive pesticides and equipment.

I'm an entirely nonmechanized gardener, getting into hopefully large enough growing to sell next year or the year after at local farmer's markets. In a way it is a choice, but there is no way that I could afford to buy gas powered equipment. I have a shovel and some hoes and rakes and cultivators that I got used from my grandmother and that's what I use. As I get larger scale, I'd like to stay committed to not using powered machines in my gardens, but my point is the cost of tools is the most prohibitive aspect of my current scale of gardening.

In honor of Dr. Shiva, I decided to write today about seed saving.

I'm a bit on my own here, so I've only done a little of this, but I read a lot and I have the internet, so a lot of this information came from many sources. The most important part of any project I start is the initial trip to the library, however. I was a public librarian for a few years, and just by having that job, I learned a lot about the resources available through the library. Please, use any opportunity and any project to stop by the library. Get to know the reference librarian and definitely explore the stacks. You can get tons of free or almost free information and give yourself a good background in almost everything you try before you start actually spending money on books, plans, materials, or equipment. Dr. Shiva advocates a traditional planting system where seven, nine, or twelve varieties of traditional seeds are planted mixed and co-supporting each other in the field. Because of different structures and plant maturation times, there is actually no way to do this mechanically. The plant varieties represent a complete diet which is also the traditional diet which has supported humankind up to this point.

In seed saving, you have to know that there are certain kinds of seeds you can save and others that you cannot. Don't try to save seeds from your fruit at the grocery store. Most grocery store produce is from hybrid plants which means that two varieties have been cross bred. The seeds probably won't grow, and if they do they will not grow "true". Hybrid plants are really useful for a number of reasons. They take on the hardier characteristics of their parent species and are often resistant to diseases and blights. Also, hybrid plants are often bred with shelf life in mind. They will not bruise as easily and they will keep a long time in storage, so they will still be fresh when you find them in the produce department.

There are drawbacks to hybrid plants, however. The first is, that you can't save the seeds. If you grow hybrid plants in your garden, you are dependent on the seed company every year for new seed. That's fine for hobbyist, but if you are economically dependent on the seed, it allows the seed companies to control the market. Secondly, hybrid plants may be tougher and the fruits and vegetables may last longer than the old varieties, but they are often not as tasty. Hybrid plants and storebought things become the normal thing that people expect, and the old varieties which were often tailored to a specific growing area might be lost. Loss of diversity is very bad in the plant community, even in the domestic plant community. Essentially, when you deal in "monoculture" -- planting lots and lots of the same thing all in one place -- you are actually jeopardizing the food supply. One disaster or one disease can wipe out everything. Planting many vareities of the same plant is better. If something like a drough happens, you won't lose everything.

I have saved flower seeds just about my entire life. That's a pretty easy one. You see flowers you like. if they develop seed heads, pop them off and scatter them somewhere else you want them to grow. There are more involved forms of seed saving, but that is basically the idea for anything that has exposed seeds.

Saving seeds from the garden for food plants is a little different. First, you need some source for the seeds. I order from a lot of different places: Pinetree Garden Seeds, Johnny's, Jung's, and Burpee are my main sources. Johnny's and Jung's are very strict about not allowing genetically engineered seed into their inventory. (Another day, my friends!) They have lots of varieties and also their testing facilities are in the northern US, so I know they grow their seeds under similar conditions compared to where I am growing. I'd like to get into seed exchanges and that sort of thing, but I just haven't yet. Mainly, because I've not had seed to exchange up until this point.

If you plan on saving seeds, make an effort to choose what they call "open pollinated" seeds. Also look for things like "non-hybrid" or "heirloom" seeds. These are all things that can be saved for seed. Dr,. Shiva referrs to these things as "pure seed", meaning a distinct breed of plant that has not been crossed with another variety.

Last year, I planted three varieties of green beans. I took a lot of grief for it from my uncle who has a very nice, well established garden with tons of different things growing in it. I grew a bunch of beans. I grew a bush bean and green and yellow varieites of skinny french beans. Saving peas and beans is bascially the same. After you get what you want from the plants, leave a certain amount of the pods on the bush and let them grow, grow, grow until they start getting yellow. Ideally, the seeds should be loose and dry inside the pods and rattle when you shake them. This year, I pulled my selected plants a little before that because we had a rainy patch and they were starting to rot in the field. Pull the plants up and sort them. Save really healthy, really loaded plants. The healthier the seed the healtheir next year's plants. Let them hang up under some kind of cover in a garage barn or shed until they dry the rest of the way. Last year, I shelled them out by hand after they were dry, but I've also read that you can put just the dried pods into a feed sack and stomp on them to break them up and sift out the chaff. That's what I'm trying this year

My slacker cats did not do their job, and little mouse got into the cupboard where I kept my seeds, and took, oddly enough only the bush bean seeds, so I had to rebuy some of those. They left the French beans alone, and quite interestingly, the Japanese beetles also do not like my French beans. So, other than my lost bush beans, I was able to replant the Frenchies without buying new seed. They were a little droughty, and the yellow ones didn't get enough sun, but really it did work.

Today, I went out into the garden and picked up some of the heirloom style tomatoes I had set aside for seed. I tried for really ripe or even overripe tomatoes for seed. I planted many varieties this year. Of hybrids, I had some grape tomatoes, new girl, wayahead, San Marzano (a big paste tomato), and a salsa tomato from Burpee that I used for a couple of batches of salsa and sauced the rest. My heirlooms were Amish paste and Olpaka, a Polish variety, and Radiator Charlie/Mortgage Lifter. These last are a bit of a disappointment to me, but a few of them my ripen enough to save fore seed and try again next year. They basically turned into mutant blobs. The Amish and the Olpaka's are little paste tomatoes. The Olpaka's aare really bright red and the Amish pastes are a little bigger and oranger. They both made really nice sauce, I mixed them about half and half with the round salad tomatoes. I used directions from the Ball canning jar company's canning cookbook, but any public library is going to carry a million and a half books on preserving food, and I'll save sauce for a different day.

To save seed from tomatoes, you need a knife, a spoon, a cup and a little water. Since I was saving two different kinds of seed, I also took a piece of tape and wrote on each cup what I was saving. Cut the tomatoes in half and use a spoon to scoop out the middle parts with the seeds. Add water to the cup and set it aside. Let the seeds soak for three to five days, Every day, you need to pour the water with the pulp off the top of the cups and add fresh water. Eventually, the pulp will be gone and the seeds will be clean. Viable seeds sink to the bottom! Pour away the seeds that don't sink!

Let the clean seeds dry on a piece of news paper or paper towel for a few days and pack them up.

This seems like a lot of work, but really, think how much work it takes to earn the three or four dollars it costs for a packet of seeds. Also, you are participating in the active preservation of a seed variety which may be hundreds of years old. There is also the idea that if you save seed from your garden and grow from the same line of seeds year after year, eventually those seeds will be tailored to take advantage of the conditions and soil composition which is local to your garden. It's an interesting notion, and I would like to see if thing do tend to get healthier in years to come.

Before you try and plant seed that you save, you really need to test for germination. I'll get to seed testing a different day. i like to do it in the middle of winter, a litle before the seed catalogs start arriving.

Also, I have quite a few other plants I want to save seed from this year including flowers, melons, and some non hybrid green peppers which will hopefully ripen up before the frost. look for further posts on saving these seeds and also on more advanced techniques like stratifying and scarifying. Planting season starts the end of March! That's just five short months away.

That's all for now!

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