August 21, 2009
Seeds can seem so commonplace. They're everywhere. We plant them, eat them and sometimes even make jewelry from them. But how often do we consider their magic? Seeds range in shape and size from smaller than the tiny parachute-like dandelion seed to the weighty bulbous Seychelles nut, the largest seed in the plant kingdom at up to 65 pounds. Yet whether winged or whorled, notched or silky, all seeds contain within them the miracle of life.
Along with produce swaps, many gardeners are rediscovering the ancient practice of saving and sharing seeds. It's not only economical to produce your own seeds for the next season and trade them with other gardeners, but through the selection and breeding process, you can nurture varieties that are well adapted to your particular garden and climate. And you help preserve plant varieties that contain within them our horticultural heritage.
Since agricultural beginnings, farmers and gardeners selected the best seeds and stored them for the coming year. Survival depended on knowledge of pollination, harvesting and storing of seeds. The development of commercial seed companies allowed farmers and gardeners to forgo seed saving and purchase new seed every year.
With modern industrialized agriculture has come the concentration of these seed companies into a few conglomerates. One-quarter of the world's entire seed supply is controlled now by three agro-chemical corporations: Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. These companies produce genetically uniform hybrids designed for mass production.
With this green revolution, global food production has increased and famines have been averted, but the diversity preserved by ancient seed-saving practices has greatly diminished. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that since 1900, 75 percent of the varieties of agricultural crops have been lost.
Growing concern about this loss has led to a grass-roots movement dedicated to seed saving. The Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) has created a library of open-pollinated seeds that it makes available free to the public. Here in Marin, the Bolinas-based, nonprofit SPROUT Seed Library also provides a collection of open-pollinated seeds free of pesticides that members may "check out," grow and return to the library. These seeds are uniquely suited to West Marin's coastal setting.
Getting started saving seeds is easy, especially if you begin with standard or heirloom varieties that are self-pollinators. These are plants that contain both male and female parts and accept their own pollen without help from insects or the wind. You don't need to isolate them from other plants to prevent them from accepting pollen from other varieties. Some common self-pollinators are tomatoes, lettuce, peas, snap beans, soybeans, lima beans, endive and escarole.
Look through your garden to select the healthiest plants and the qualities that you would like to encourage - the tastiest tomatoes, for example, or the earliest or the largest. Tag your selected plants with a stake or cord to make sure you don't mistakenly eat your prize seeds in a dinner salad.
Avoid collecting seeds from hybrid plants. These plants are created by crossing two unrelated parents. Their seeds are sometimes sterile and do not breed true. Select plants that are open-pollinated, the traditional "heirloom" varieties that have been pollinated by natural means.
Allow the seed to mature and dry as long as possible on the plant. When the flowers and pods are faded and dry, it's time to harvest. Spread your collection in a single layer on a screen for up to a week to complete the drying.
Seeds harvested from a dry plant should be threshed to separate the seed from their cases. You can gently crush your harvest between two pieces of cardboard to separate the seeds, then toss them in the air or pour them from one container to another near a fan to winnow away the chaff. The light casings will blow away leaving you with the seed. You can also use a sieve to separate the two.
The seeds of fleshy fruits, such as cucumber, tomatoes, squash and melons, should be scooped out, washed, and dried. Some gardeners ferment these seeds, especially those of tomatoes, before drying. It's not essential, but it helps sort out the bad seeds and helps kill diseases. If you decide to ferment, add the seeds to a little water in a jar and place in the sun. After a few days, carefully remove any moldy film, add more water and stir. The good seeds will sink to the bottom. Pour off any floating pulp and seeds, then repeat the process until all the pulp is gone. You can now drain and dry the seeds in a single layer on a screen or a paper plate.
Store your dried seeds in an airtight container in a cool place to avoid exposure to moisture and heat. Mark the container with the name of the plant, the date and any notes on color, location or size.
By saving seeds, you can develop plants in your garden while participating in an ancient tradition that preserves genetic and cultural diversity.
- International Seed Saving Institute, seed-saving instructions for 27 common vegetables; www.seedsave.org
- SPROUT is offering a hands-on pollination class on how to save seeds for plants that cross-pollinate on Aug. 29;www.myspace.com/sproutreach
- Bay Area Seed Interchange Library; www.ecologycenter.org/basil