Dig This: Seed Saving is Smart

When I was seven, I saved my first tomato seed.  It was a big deal for me — the beginning of my “formal” gardening education.

While savoring a perfectly ripe tomato I had pilfered from the vine, I developed the notion that if I saved a seed from that particular tomato and planted it, the resulting plant would give me a whole bucket full of perfect tomatoes, just like that one.

So I saved a seed to plant in the Spring. My own secret experiment. As it turned out, there is a lot more to growing great tomatoes than I understood, even if you do have good seed. But I was on the right track.

Grandma decided then that it was time to reward my initiative by teaching me “proper.” First she taught me about soilThen she taught me about seeds. The “secrets” of gardening: Good soil and good seed.

The duty had passed to her — and one day it would be mine — to preserve the family seed heritage,  which our ancestors had brought from the “old country,” with some varieties more recently acquired through our native heritage. She instilled in me the importance of that seed as a living legacy to be passed on.  She may have even used the word sacred.

And not just passed on, but improved. Like the soil.

Until about 1930, many Americans raised their own food and saved their seed to plant again, be they farmers or home gardeners, like Grandma. By saving seed, they also contributed to the collective heritage of plant biodiversity, and at the same time improved what they grew according to their preferences.  That is why we have (or used to have) so many different varieties of tomatoes to choose from.

There are many good reasons for home gardeners to save their own seeds. However, seed-savers and natural seeds are as rare these days as ethical corporations. Very few farmers or gardeners save seed any longer, and there is a huge problem developing because of it. Why? Because, among other things, seeds are fundamental to self-determination. And self-determination is fundamental to freedom, is it not?

Our grandparents understood that. It was obvious to them, as it should be to us. Without good seed, you cannot grow your own food without dependency on whomever has control of the seed.

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It is also a well-kept secret that saving and improving your seed is among the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of gardening. For anyone seeking food self-reliance, growing your own natural seed is an essential skill, though ironically numbered among the nearly lost arts.

By natural seed, I mean “open-pollinated” (OP) heirlooms, which reproduce in the natural way; unlike hybrids, which do not produce reliable offspring, and thus are not suitable for saving. Hybrids are bred for qualities like uniformity, which is important to business, at the expense of flavor and nutrition, which is usually more important to whomever eats the food.

Unfortunately, hybrids dominate the seed market. Although they certainly have some advantages, OP varieties are often better suited to a home gardener’s needs. They usually taste better and have greater nutritional value than hybrids (depending on how they are grown). OP seeds also have the added benefit that they allow quality selection and genetic improvement according to individual preference, as well as adaptation to specific climate conditions, which you cannot do with hybrids.

Saving seeds also contributes to the preservation of genetic diversity, which is eroding at an alarming rate.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century we have lost a staggering 98% of our crop seed biodiversity.  Half of that has disappeared in the last thirty years, much of it eliminated by a handful of large corporations buying out the small ones (over a thousand since 1980)  and discontinuing their stock! Think about what that means …

We still have a small portion of our seed heritage left, thanks to amateur seed savers and the tenacity of the remaining small seed companies, while a determined effort is waged by big business to eliminate competitive varieties which cannot be controlled by patents.

Meanwhile, the integrity of our food supply is threatened by misguided industrial farming methods and the irresponsible proliferation of genetically modified crops — about which the public has yet to be told the truth, by the way. I advise checking that out for your self.

There is growing sentiment that the only way to be certain of safe and nutritious food these days is to grow as much of your own as you can, like Grandma did. If you want to retain your freedom to do that, you need good seeds.

Not so long ago — in Grandma’s day — self-determination was a fundamental aspect of the American character.  Sadly, now most of us are dependent upon large and distant corporations, having no control over what we need to live with self-determination: the freedom to choose. And is that not the essence of freedom in practical terms: the ability to choose from among meaningful alternatives? Like what we eat. Or choose not to eat.

So, while Sally sells seashells down by the seashore, her smarter sustainable sister Susan saves seeds (whew) … perhaps because she took a workshop at the Shasta College Community Teaching Garden.

Photos by Nancy de Halas, Susanna Sibilsky and Melita Bena

Upcoming workshops at the Teaching Garden:

“Saving your Seeds”: Saturday (Nov.  6), 10 a.m.-noon      
Room 812, Shasta College Main Campus, $15.                  
Presenter: Jim Collins

“Making Compost”: Saturday, Nov.  20, 10 a.m.-noon      
Room 810, Shasta College Main Campus, $15.                  
Presenter: Ken Waranius

Register on-line by going to www.shastacollege.edu/EWD and click on “Pathways.”

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Jim Collins is a local ecopsychologist, organic farmer and founder of a regional seed bank. He is currently garden manager of the Community Teaching Garden project at Shasta College. A pioneer program promoting self-reliance, sustainable practices, regional food security and ecological literacy, the Teaching Garden provides information, instruction, and practical experience in sustainable organic food gardening.

Dig This is a regular biweekly column offering ecological wisdom and garden advice. If you have questions or would like Jim and Wayne to address a particular issue, contact them at the Teaching Garden by e-mail at teachinggarden@shastacollege.edu.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Avatar albert huxley says:

    Jim,

    Excellent article!

    It's nice to see someone promoting self-determination and freedom based on growing your own food. Keep up the wholesome work! You have inspired me to finally start my home garden next spring. Thank you.

  2. Avatar Doug Bennett says:

    Jim-
    Another great contribution to our community. I have just started saving seeds, mostly because of the Teaching Gardens and your efforts. Thanks for also providing the workshops also. Nothing better than getting your hands in good soil, and seeing the fruits of your labor literally. As a historical aside, many of our founding fathers attributed the American strength to the fact we were 90% agrarian (farmers). Jefferson also warned against becoming to wrapped up in manufacture, trade and foreign alliances. Now, we can see their warnings needed to be given more attention.

    Thanks again.

  3. Avatar Robyn Williamson says:

    A great read Jim, thank you … with kind regards from the Seed Savers Network in NW Sydney, Australia http://www.seedsavers.net

  4. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyde says:

    What a rich presentation. Thank you so much. I have been propagating plants I love from (Scented geranium, Wandering Jew, old homestead roses, Creeping Charlie) plants I've had for years. My CC is over 30 years old and still going strong. You've given me a good idea about why the vegetable seeds I have saved and planted have done so poorly. Along the same line, I amazed by all the plants and trees people from the east coast, and Asia and South America carefully nurtured all the way across the country, or across the sea in the 1800s to be planted in California. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

  5. Avatar mauro says:

    Saving seed HAS BECOME one of the most vital aspects of human preparations for the future….both on a personal level and larger…community, region etc.

    The amount of aluminum and barium that is entering our biosphere via geoengineering has toppled the independence of the seed saver. RIGHT NOW heirloom seeds are "as if under attack" by these toxins in the soil and air…because the aluminum raises the pH of the soil and the heirlooms fade…..as would be expected of anything that has immediate spikes in the conditions of its environment.

    The gameplan for monsanto is to continue constructing genetic modifications of the seeds to lockstep with the toxins being added to the environment…..so the GM seeds flourish in the constricting conditions of man's future….and the heirlooms will appear to naturally fade away.

    DIABOLICAL.

    THANK YOU JIM COLLINS for holding up this FORTRESS of existence….our seeds

    LOOK UP FOLKS…..your seeds are under attack….TOO

  6. Avatar Nicholas Klacsanzky says:

    This is the advice I have been looking for. I have never heard of such an in-depth study of seeds. Thank you for providing such an amazing account of your families' gardening secrets. I am just a beginner in the gardening world, reading Gardening Made Easy only for information. I am sure your article will help.

  7. Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

    Outstanding. Hope the workshop was well attended – such an important, important topic Seed Saving – and such a great resource The Community Teaching Garden. The North State should be proud! We also have at least two independent seed producers in the North State. I have tried a few seeds from both of them and have been impressed: Redwood Farm out of Manton and Synergy Seeds out of Willow Creek. So what you can't save yourself, you might find with them. Thanks you guys for great gardening information. Jennifer

    • Avatar Pamela says:

      Yes, Jennifer is certainly correct about Redwood Organics and Synergy Seeds. Both great places to get seeds.