My entire winter and early spring garden has gone to seed. The whole lot: arugula, lamb’s lettuce aka mache, beets, cabbages, bok choy, russian red kale, dinosaur kale, you name it. Well, not the carrots – we ate all of the carrots. How we missed those last two beets, I am not sure. But for the most part, winter and early spring crops have gone to seed and seem to be looking at me a bit disdainfully wondering why I have not yet gotten around to removing them and seeding or planting out my early summer and warm weather crops. “Well?” they are demanding. Photo: Arugula in flower, beginning to set seed.
I generally think of seed saving as an autumnal activity – a task to prepare for the long winter ahead. Furthermore, the rush of late winter to early spring to late spring often takes on a life of its own as you seem to get behind in your garden one week after you were feeling vaguely relaxed and ahead and so bolted crops get yanked up quick as a wink (or time allows) and the next round goes in the ground. I become a reactive gardener rather than a proactive one. Photo: Saved seeds stored in a clean, dry and air-tight container. Kalan recommends that “once put into such a container, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place – such as closet on an interior wall.”
But, Kalan Redwood, owner with her husband Cam of Redwood Seeds, based in Manton, reminds us that saving seed is absolutely not just an autumnal activity, rather one to be done year-round as each season goes to seed. So my gone to seed spring peas, my winter radishes, lettuce and mache are waiting not only for me to change my garden over, but also waiting for when the time is ripe to collect seed from at least some of my winter and early spring crops in order to bank them for next year’s crops. Photo: Dinosaur kale in flower and setting seed at Redwood Organic Farm in Manton.
Saving seeds even a handful from just a handful of crops with the easiest seeds to save leaves me as a gardener feeling very noble and self-sufficient. But it is also increasing my own garden’s sustainability on many levels as Kalan pointed out when we walked Redwood Farm in mid-April. “Saving seed from your own home garden crops – particularly of organic, non-genetically-modified or heirloom crops, helps to maintain the critically-important diversity of seed available in general, helps you to select varieties of plants that are proven to do well in your garden and region, and helps to diminish the costs of home gardening.” As we watch several kinds of spring bees nectaring at the dinosaur-kale gone to flower and forming seed at Kalan, says: “Letting some of your crops go to flower and then seed each season also feeds your local pollinators, which supports their populations, and keeps them in or near your garden so that they are there when the crops you need pollinated in order to produce fruit, are ready to be pollinated…. Letting your plants set seed and saving some of that seed only makes sense.” Photo: A bumble bee harvesting pollen from, and in turn pollinating, the dinosaur kale at Redwood Organic Farm in Manton.
Of course, growing plants for seed and saving seed is exactly what Kalan and Cam do. As I wrote in an interview with them in late 2010 about seed garlic, the Redwoods “Redwood Seeds in Manton, specializes in the production of quality seed often for unusual fruit, vegetable and medicinal herb varieties. Kalan, who is a native of the Redding area, and Cam, who is a native of New Zealand, have been working their 40 acres since 2006. Only a portion of their seed farm is under cultivation so that crops can be spread out enough to insure isolation and the integrity of the seeds produced – disallowing unintended crosses. 2009 was the first year Redwood Seeds were offered for sale…” Redwood Seed offerings have increased and become ever more tailored to varieties that suit Northern California each season.” Besides growing for their own seed production, Redwood Seeds has grown for larger organic seed companies, including Seeds of Change and Fedco Seeds.” Photo: Early spring pea pods dried and beginning to open. Kalan say to “collect dried peas from vines throughout the season and store in a labeled paper bag somewhere warm and dry with good air flow. This allows the peas to continue to dry. At the end of the harvest, freeze the pea seeds for four days to kill any pea weavil eggs. Before storage, test for dryness by hitting the pea with a hammer. If it shatters it is ready for storage in a cool, dry and dark place.”
Sustainability is not just a talking point on this young couple’s seed packets, rather it is a quality of life choice that they model at many levels – from the seeds of things up, as it were. Redwood Organic Farm features off-grid energy sources, 11 acres of native reforestation and sustainable irrigation systems. “In 2007, we replanted 3000 native conifers in an effort to reforest after the fire that burned our land completely in 2005. Today, nearly half of these trees have lived through 3 years of drought. It is amazing how the land has transformed itself from charred blackness to lushness,” Kalan writes. Further, Kalan is studied in medicinal herbs and produces healing tinctures salves and teas produced from Redwood Organic Farm herbs. Photo: Kalan Redwood discussing the saving of spring seed in the seed starting greenhouse at Redwood Organic Farm.
As Wolfgang Rougle of Twining Tree Farm near Cottonwood wrote in the Spring 2009 issue of Edible Shasta Butte about Redwood Seeds: “It’s the first independent seed farm in the North Valley and as such it represents a profound gift of self-sufficiency to everyone in the North State.” Independent seed producers help to maintain and increase the genetic integrity and diversity of plant varieties being produced; local seed producers are far more likely to have seeds that are fresh, adapted and appropriate to your region, almost ensuring your success as a gardener in growing them, and perhaps even more importantly, your success in being able to save seed from the plants you have grown in order to grow them again. Many large scale seed producers, far far away from the North State, only grow limited numbers of standard varieties, they produce seeds which produce plants which produce sterile seed so that gardeners are unable to successfully save seed from generation to generation, and in many cases they sell seed that has been genetically modified with pesticides, herbicides and/or growth hormones, the long term effects to our food supply, our environment and our collective health we will only know in time. Photo: Bok Choy seeds ripening in the garden.
Actively teaching and encouraging home gardeners to save their own seeds is another way in which the Redwoods foster sustainability. Kalan has taught several seed saving workshops between the Redding and Chico communities for groups including the Chico Organic Gardening Society and the Shasta Community Teaching Garden. While some seed is more complicated to grow and collect for saving purposes, the first step is to purchase your original plant or seed stock from a reputable seller or grower. “To ensure seed that will be viable and ‘come true’ meaning that it will be just like the plant you collected it from, buy organic, non-hybrid, non-gmo seed or plants,” Kalan encourages, and if you are just starting out with seed-saving, consider starting with the easiest types of plants – vegetables that don’t easily cross pollinate with other garden-grown or wild relatives. “I would start with beans, peas, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes.” Photo: Above: Ripened red-seeded simpson lettuce seed. Below: Spring peas cozy and protected under row cover at Redwood Organic Farm.
Once you feel comfortable with the beginner level seeds to save, consider moving on to the intermediate and advanced level seed crops – these crops will need to be grown with cross-pollinating in mind and each variety within a group – such as cucurbits like cucumbers, squash and melon – and will either need to be separated from one another by up to 1/2 mile or only have one variety grown. Photos: Many flowers, including violets, poppies and nasturtiums, bear seeds that are easy to collect and save for the following year or to give away. Above: Violet seeds. Below: California poppy seeds.
In one of those wonderful the-more-you-know-the-more-you-want-to-know way, once you get interested, you might want to consider taking a class or workshop on seed saving, consider buying a book or two on the topic. “Saving seed is pretty fun, and once you get started, it seems with most people, you’ll want to learn more and try new ones – more challenging ones.”
And of course, for those crops for which you have not saved seed – you can always look for locally grown organic seeds from an independent grower in your area – like Redwood Seeds in Manton and Synergy Seeds near Weaverville.
Some good resources on the art of Seed Saving include the following books (available in-stcok or by order at Lyon Books in Chico) and websites:
“Basic Seed Saving,” by Bill McDorman and published by Seeds Trust, 1994. www.seedstrust.com
“The Seed Saver’s Handbook,” by Michel and Jude Fanton, published by Seed Savers Network in 1993. www.seedsavers.net.
To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.