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 soil. Then 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.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
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.