Instead of turning to big seed companies, learn about all the benefits that come with saving your own seeds.
In Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of People (New Society Publishers, 2014), author Cindy Conner reveals to readers how seed companies have monopolized the seed market and thus harmed small businesses and the abundance of plant varieties. Conner calls on gardeners to move away from the big businesses and save their own seeds in order to expand the available stock of heritage and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables through community-based projects. Here, she explains more in-depth about why saving seeds is not just beneficial for the market but also beneficial for the garden.
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Seed Libraries.
Protection from corporate domination is the driving force of most seed saving initiatives today. In Chapter 1, you learned how much control a few companies have over our seed supply. From the seeds comes our food. Whoever owns the seeds controls the food supply. If you remember one thing, remember that. Rather than falling into a black hole of depression over the thought of being controlled by Monsanto or companies like it, we can empower ourselves and save seeds of what we grow and share them with others, keeping them in the public domain and available to everyone. We can opt out of corporate control and build a new system. Say “No thanks, I know there’s a better way.” There are many more reasons for saving seeds besides avoiding corporate domination, although many of these reasons stem from the corporate takeover of seeds.
A broad genetic base is necessary to keep plant populations strong.
When problems occur or growing conditions change, it is good to have a wide variety of genes in the mix to come to the rescue. It’s dangerous to depend on only a few varieties of a crop. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. A variety known for its huge yields won’t produce them every single year. Growing different varieties evens out the yield, with some doing best in one year and some doing best in another.
History has shown us what happens when we ignore genetic diversity in our plantings. The most well-known example is the Great Irish Famine that occurred when blight attacked the potatoes in 1845, continuing to affect the harvest into 1849. Genetic diversity was certainly lacking in Irish potatoes, with the harvest coming from mainly one variety, making it easy for the fungus to spread. Problems in Ireland began long before the potatoes died. The land system that had developed as a result of wars and politics left Irish laborers and their families in poverty, often existing solely on potatoes. Other food was grown in Ireland and even exported during this time; politics, such as they were, preventing it from being shared with the hungry. Some of you reading this are probably descendants of the 1.5 million Irish who left their homeland to escape the famine. The blight affected potatoes in other European countries, but it was the Irish peasants who were the most dependent on potatoes for their nourishment. You can find out more about the Great Irish Famine in the book Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
In 1970, the US corn crop was hit hard by blight, reducing the total harvest across the country by 15 percent. In the Southern states, the harvest was reduced by 50 percent. This was caused by a fungus that affected hybrid corn. At the time, hybrid corn seed contained T-cytoplasm, which carried a gene that opened the door to the fungus. “T-cytoplasm was a man-made change in corn plants used to foster the quick and profitable production of high-yielding, hybrid corn seed.” Originating in Florida, in just four months Southern corn leaf blight spread west to Kansas and Oklahoma and north to Minnesota and Wisconsin; it later entered Canada. In a more holistic approach to corn growing, varieties chosen to plant in these diverse areas would be different. In a perfect world, the varieties planted would be open pollinated varieties unique to each area. The plant breeders did not know about the potential consequences at the time, but we know now and need to prevent things like that from happening again. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes about our dependence on corn in our diet, whether eaten directly or indirectly. Besides genetics, we need to have diversity in so much more of our lives. It is not healthy to limit our diets to only a few crops.
Much has been said about the loss of seed varieties, and the resulting loss of genetic diversity. Sadly, 57 percent of the nearly 5,000 non-hybrid vegetables varieties offered by mail-order seed companies in 1984 had been dropped by 2004. Consolidation within the mail-order seed industry and a move to more profitable hybrid varieties are among the reasons for that loss. But an astonishing 2,559 new varieties were introduced during the period 1998–2006 alone. You will find these figures and more in the 6th edition of the Garden Seed Inventory published by Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). Compiling that book is a huge effort. Thanks to SSE, we have a snapshot of the open pollinated varieties offered commercially since 1981. Records beginning in 1987 show more varieties are added each year than are dropped. That’s promising! Small specialty companies and individuals are keeping the varieties alive and developing new ones. Also contributing to the increase are the varieties from other countries that have been made available in the US and Canada. The genetic diversity, so necessary to maintain, lies in the hands of individuals and small seed companies.
Plants are such wonderful things to work with. Keeping them in production is the best way to preserve varieties and to have genetic material available to work with during changing times. The expression “use it or lose it” definitely applies to seeds. The varieties recorded in the Garden Seed Inventory are the ones available commercially. But there are so many more seed varieties being grown in the world, and Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Diversity Canada are places to look to for them. If you want a peek into what is possible, check out their member directories. I visited the Summers County Public Library Seed Lending Library in Hinton, West Virginia, when it was just getting established, and the librarian there expressed a desire to acquire varieties of seed from area residents whose families may have been saving them for generations. Seed libraries are excellent places to accept and disperse these heirloom seeds.
Genetic diversity naturally leads to diversity of so many other things. Most people are familiar with tomatoes, so I’ll use that as my example. Tomatoes grown for sale through grocery stores need to be the all the same size to fit nicely in boxes and to withstand the rigors of going through the picking-washing-packing-shipping-holding process. Flavor and nutrition are not high on the list of criteria for choosing grocery-store varieties. But flavor and nutrition are very high on the list for many home gardeners. For maximum flavor and nutrition, it is important to leave tomatoes on the vine as long as possible to ripen. As soon as you pick anything, it begins to lose nutrients. If you pluck tomatoes off before they are ripe, they never get a chance to gain their full nutrition. By growing them yourself, you can ensure the best flavor and nutrition. By saving seeds, you can make sure to have a particular variety in the future. Tomatoes selected for flavor and nutrition may not be the “prettiest,” and they just might be easily bruised if you keep them on the vine until fully ripe. That’s okay if you are bringing them into your kitchen to use, but not okay in the industrial food chain. Tomatoes destined for supermarket shelves are picked while they are still green so they can withstand the trip.
Vegetables come in many different colors and shapes that you never see in the grocery store. You can try them all in your garden and save the seeds of the ones you like best to make sure you have them to grow again. Have you ever seen purple carrots and red okra in the grocery store? The different colors offer a slightly different mix of nutrients. I love it when my food has extra visual interest, but for me it ultimately all comes down to taste. I grow a variety of large cherry tomato that has a real tomato flavor that I like. There are some sweet-tasting cherry tomatoes in the marketplace that I don’t care for, but some people love them. If seed companies decided to discontinue all the cherry tomatoes except for the sweet ones, I would be out of luck if I didn’t save my own seeds. An interesting culinary challenge would be to find as many different varieties of a crop as you can to use in your cooking and discover the nuances of each. When it comes to saving seed, however, you would need to limit the varieties grown or take precautions so the varieties don’t cross pollinate.
In recent years, I heard a news report on TV that said our food had less nutrition than it did 20 years ago. I took notice because I remembered reading in a book published in 1983 that the nutritional quality of our food was declining. While doing research for my book Grow a Sustainable Diet, I found further evidence of declining nutritional value of the food that is available through commercial sources. This decline has been going on for some time now, and nothing has been done to stop it. One reason this is happening is the declining quality of the soil that crops are grown in. Building your soil is a whole other discussion, so I will limit myself to seeds here. Another reason for declining nutrition is that nutrition is not necessarily one of the characteristics selected for with seeds that go into commercial production. Your choice of seeds makes a difference.
In your garden, you might want varieties that will ripen over a longer period of time for an extended harvest. On the other hand, if you are preserving in quantity, you might choose varieties that ripen all at once. “Grows well in dry times” or “grows well in wet times” might be considerations. When I was choosing a pole lima bean to grow, I chose one that was an heirloom variety and was listed as the hardiest of the choices. The description also said the pods of this variety might pop open when they are dry, dispensing the seeds. Since I let the pods dry on the vine, I watch for this. Each variety has its own special characteristics.
Sometimes seed companies can’t find a grower every year for certain varieties or the seed produced was inferior for some reason. The next year, that variety might not be listed. Taking a look at a seed catalog now, I see that 5 varieties out of 11 pole limas listed are unavailable for the coming year. I tried St. Valery carrots for the first time two years ago and liked them. I didn’t save the seeds and was disappointed they didn’t make it in the catalog last year. I see that St. Valery is offered this year. Don’t take it for granted that the varieties you want will always be there.
Years ago, my friend Kevin wanted an open pollinated variety of pepper that ripened to orange. Not being able to find one, he bought some hybrid pepper plants and saved the seeds. He had to carefully select each year for the characteristics he was looking for, but eventually he stabilized the seed and gave me some. That is the orange pepper that I grow. One winter, I received a call from the woman who wrote a weekly gardening column for the newspaper. She wanted to know the varieties of different vegetables that I grew. All I could think of was that she was going to publish this and people were going to take that list as gospel, even though I might choose to grow something else in later years. (Sure enough, people stopped me in the grocery store more than once to tell me they were growing the varieties I named.) When she got to peppers, I told her my current favorite was Kevin’s orange pepper, but that she wouldn’t find it in the seed catalogs. I related the story of how I came to grow it, and she asked how others could get it. I said to go the farmers market in August, buy orange peppers from Kevin, and save the seeds. Well, she loved the story and printed it. She had written about Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) in the same article. About the time the article was published, I was at a conference, and my friend Ira from SESE said she would like to get some seeds for the orange pepper. I introduced her to Kevin at the conference. Soon after, he gave me seeds that I passed on to Ira. SESE grew them out and liked them well enough to add Kevin’s Early Orange pepper to their catalog.
That’s how things happen in my world. It doesn’t take large corporations with huge research facilities and budgets to make the world go around. People following their hearts and passion can make a world of difference.
Seeds and plants connect us to our heritage and place. Some folks begin to save seeds when they are passed on to them by family, particularly when that family member has kept them alive over generations. Saving seeds from one year to the next was once a way of life. That meant that gardens were planned with seed saving in mind. Growing to save seeds was just as important as growing for food for the table.
Have you ever taken a bite of something and been transported back to a time and place that held fond memories? Maybe it’s a memory of visits with your grandparents when you were a young child. Food can do that to us. The immigrants that come to this country bring their culinary tastes with them. Living in a strange land, they find comfort in foods from home. That is evident from the ethnic grocery stores and restaurants that proliferate in neighborhoods with a large immigrant population. I imagine the seed libraries that are established in those neighborhoods will have seeds of the foods that the residents know from their homeland.
You don’t have to be from another place to enjoy the cultural heritage of someone else. The more we get to know one another, the better we understand each other. Food is a good starting place. Besides the restaurants and grocery stores, some communities have annual food festivals that are open to all to enjoy. There were no seed savers in my family, so it will start with me. It has already extended to the next generation, with my daughter giving me seeds of Turkey Craw beans she had grown, a variety that I had never tried. They did so well in my garden last year that they will be in there again this year. Best of all, I think of her when I work with the seeds, just as I think of Kevin when I grow orange peppers. My work is mostly with vegetables, but flowers and herbs can affect us the same way. With seed libraries, the seed saver’s name is on the seeds they bring back to share. You can think of the seed savers when you grow them out.
Getting just what you want to survive in the microclimate of your garden is what you are after. If you save seeds from the plants that do the best in your garden, you will be developing a strain of that variety that is particularly suited to your conditions. When immigrants brought seeds from their homeland to plant here, most likely the growing conditions were different from where they came from. The seeds and plants that survived would have gradually become acclimated to the new land. I’ve heard of people moving from one part of the country to another, taking saved seed with them. Over time, the plants became acclimated to the new area and had slightly different characteristics than where they grew before.
I gave up starting seeds indoors under grow lights years ago in favor of starting everything in coldframes. The only challenge I had was with peppers. Pepper seeds like the soil to be a little warmer than what the coldframe provides when I’m planting them. I figure that, even if I have poor germination, the plants that grow will be the ones better adjusted to those conditions and worth saving seeds from to breed my own strain of coldframe-tolerant peppers. My favorite pepper for starting in the cold frame is Ruffled Hungarian. In 2008, I happened to buy a few plants at a health food store that had been grown by a local nonprofit. I had never seen this variety before, so I thought I would give it a try.
Ruffled Hungarian is a thick-walled, sweet pepper that ripens to red. I saved the seed and discovered that it performed better in the coldframe than the other pepper varieties I was working with.
Another favorite of mine to save seeds from is butternut squash. I store my winter squash in the house and use it as I need it over the course of the winter. I save seeds from the squash that have held up the best in storage all winter.
The guideline I always mention for garden management is “feed the soil and build the ecosystem.” Seed saving is part of that, bringing the system full circle. On the way to producing seeds, the plants produce flowers which attract pollinators and other insects that will keep the harmful garden insects under control.
As a beginning gardener, I learned to harvest plants, such as basil, before they flowered for the best culinary flavor. It was only later that I learned about all the beneficial insects I could attract to my garden if I let the basil plants flower. Leave them just a little longer, and those flowers turn to seeds. Now I harvest some of my basil regularly as leaves, and let some of it flower. Try it for yourself this year and watch what happens. You may have noticed this already with broccoli. If your broccoli plants produced flowers before you had a chance to harvest it, step back and watch the show. The best time to observe the insects is from 10am to 2pm on a sunny day.
Some crops, such as carrots, beets, parsley, celery, and cabbage, need to overwinter in the garden, or be stored appropriately and planted out in early spring, because they produce their seeds in their second year. You need to plan ahead for this when making your garden plan so you have space reserved for the seed crop in the spring. The best thing is that when these plants perk back up early the next year, they will produce flowers that attract beneficials, and you won’t have had to do anything but let them grow! I like to grow celery to use the leaves in cooking all summer and to dry them in my solar dryers. I make sure the plant has enough foliage to go into the fall. It will die back, but when it pops back up in the spring, besides attracting the good bugs, it produces celery seed that I can save for cooking with, in addition to save for planting.
No doubt about it, the cost of seeds and shipping them to your home continues to climb. Saving money is as a good a reason as any to save seeds. A few packets of seeds when you are starting out doesn’t put too much of a dent in your pocketbook, but as you begin to grow more of your food, you will need more variety and a larger quantity of seed.
I have always been surprised at the number of market growers who don’t save their own seeds. When I sold lettuce, I let it mature and cut it as whole heads of leaf lettuce. I certainly received my money’s worth from each seed. The trend now is to sell lettuce mixes that are harvested as baby leaves. Even though the plants provide several cuttings, it takes quite a bit of seed to produce that. Setting aside a growing area to let some lettuce go to seed could save you money while providing habitat for beneficials.
If you have been gardening for a while, maybe it is time to expand your gardening expertise and learn new skills. When you save seeds, you have to be aware of which varieties will cross, the timing of the seed harvest, how to get the seeds from the plant to your seed-saving container, and how to store them so they will be viable for as long as possible. Learning new things keeps life interesting.
I always encourage people to plan their garden carefully in the winter and order all the seed they need then, so there are no delays when it is time to plant. We are lulled into a false sense of security when we can pick up the phone and place an order, or order online, and within a week, the seeds show up in our mailbox. However, things can happen. When I was a market grower, I was looking to expand my fall offerings to the restaurants I sold to and decided bok choy would be good, although I had never grown it before. I checked the calendar and I had just enough time to get a crop for fall sales if I planted it in the next week. For some reason, the seed companies I dealt with on the East coast were out of bok choy, which was surprising. So, I ordered the seed from Territorial Seed Company in Oregon. Remember, I live in Virginia. Territorial Seed had always been prompt, so things would work out — or so I thought. That was the year that the UPS workers went on strike. My seed order was sent out, but it then sat in a UPS warehouse somewhere between here and there. It arrived three weeks later, too late for my plans. I don’t grow to sell anymore, and I don’t grow bok choy, but I do grow kale, collards, and Swiss chard. I save seed from those and never have to worry about not having them when I need them. Saving seeds adds a new level of awareness, skill, and empowerment to your gardening activities.
Indigenous crops and the seeds to grow them, once a part of life for all Native Americans, have been lost in many regions. The White Earth Anishinaabe Seed Library at the White Earth Indian Reservation in Callaway, Minnesota, is working to remedy that. Established in 2012, the goal of this seed library is to promote restoration of Indigenous cultural and agricultural knowledge in the region by saving seeds. This seed library program was started and stewarded by Zachary Paige, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the White Earth Land Recovery Project and a graduate of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College Sustainable Food Production program. The White Earth Land Recovery Project was founded by Winona LaDuke in 1989. LaDuke is co-founder and executive director of Honor the Earth, where she actively campaigns for a land-based economy among Native American people.
The White Earth Anishinaabe Seed Library has seeds of a unique winter squash named Gete-okosomin which they are excited to be able to share. Gete-okosomin is the Ojibwe name for “Really Cool Old Squash.” It is an orange, banana-type winter squash that grows over two feet long. Seeds came to the library through LaDuke, donated by folks who had been keeping this heirloom squash in production. The seeds for this variety were originally grown by members of the Miami tribe in Indiana. Many native families in White Earth have made it a part of their diet and love the rich, buttery flavor. We should think of all seeds as a gift from our ancestors, and honor them by keeping the seeds safe and growing them each year, making use of everything they have to offer.
White Earth Indian Reservation
Began in 2012 by the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP)
Mission and About: The goal of the White Earth Anishinaabe Seed Library is to promote restoration of Indigenous cultural and agricultural knowledge in the region through saving seeds. The best way to preserve traditional varieties of seeds is to grow them out, enjoy the harvest, and spread the seeds. More hands planting and caring for these seeds gives more diversity and health to the soil and our bodies.
Currently there are three library locations, and the mission is to keep adding libraries until people simply keep seeds in their homes. For many years, Winona LaDuke, and seed keepers working for WELRP, collected seeds from all over the country; the seed library program at the WELRP is currently stewarded by Zachary Paige, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. The seeds are given freely to dedicated seed savers who are expected to return double the amount they received and document their location, growth, and story. Education and training opportunities in seed saving are given twice a year at the White Earth Tribal and Community College. These seeds, not only of cultural interest, need to meet the climate conditions of a cold, short growing season in the region. Therefore, many of the seeds in the collection were originally grown by tribes of the region, particularly the Ojibwe and nearby Mandan and Hidatsa tribes.
Anishinaabe Seed Library. Here you will find information about the seeds available and links to radio broadcasts of their “Seed of the Week” radio program about seeds in the library.
This seed project is part of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Alliance (ISKA), an active, participatory, regional seed network that includes the organizations Dream of Wild Health, the Science Museum of Minnesota, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, Shakopee Farm, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and passionate, knowledgeable seed saver individuals.
A USDA Tribal Colleges Research Grant was secured by the White Earth Tribal and Community College for preserving at-risk Indigenous crops through sound breeding practices. Also a Clif Bar grant through WELRP helped bring Native Seed/SEARCH’s five-day seed school “train the trainers” to Shakopee, MN, in May 2014, where three new people from White Earth/Leech Lake were trained in seed saving basics.
Reprinted with permission from Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of People by Cindy Conner and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Seed Libraries.