By: Priscilla Hayes
I love the way networks work in my life, connecting me to more of whatever I need to learn right now. I had already set up the Seed Saving Program with Jeff Quattrone, (learn more in my previous blog post: https://participatoryecology.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/seed-saving-so-old-and-so-new/) when I got an email from someone who had also been in touch with Jeff. Shanyn Siegel, who had spent nearly five years managing the seed bank maintained by Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/) was about to start teaching a “season-long” program in which she would walk program participants through seed saving, step by step. The introduction to the whole series, the first of five sessions, was scheduled for just a few days after I learned of it. The whole series (http://dukefarms.org/en/Programs/CommunityGarden/Community-Garden-Courses/Community-Seeds-Program-Series/) was to take place at Duke Farms, in Hillsborough, NJ, and would serve any of Duke’s Community Gardeners (http://dukefarms.org/en/Programs/CommunityGarden/) who chose to sign up, as well as outsiders like me.
In my earlier seed-saving post, I mentioned that I had some of my young students save seeds from radish and lettuce plants that I had asked the garden parents not to pull out when the plants “bolted.” In the fall, the seeds had dried nicely on the plants, but were still mostly inside the seed pods on the plants. I had other classes save marigold, tithonia, Echinacea, and fennel seeds.
I had planned to try saving tomato seeds with some of the older students, but the fermentation method laid out in my seed saving book was intimidating. I kept gathering tomatoes, and just leaving them places in bowls, thinking they needed to be beyond regular eating ripeness in order to save seeds. As it turned out, this wasn’t necessary. I left the bowls in various indoor locations, where they eventually became too much for my family to stand, so they all ended up spending the winter freezing on my front porch.
My tomato experience suggested I needed plenty of real hands-on instruction in order to really master seed saving. I expected that whatever I learned with Shanyn would only build on and be reinforced by the later session with Mr. Quattrone.
Before I describe the wonderful first program with Shanyn, let me tell you something about her from the interview I did with her after the program. Shanyn brought up the tomato intimidation problem without my even prompting her, confessing that her first attempt at saving tomato seeds failed miserably. She assured me that saving tomato seeds was very easy.
“It’s such an easy process when someone shows it to you,” Shanyn said. “But it seems intimidating. One of the reasons for this season-long course is to give everyone an opportunity both to watch how this and other seed saving is done, and then actually get hands-on experience with it.”
Shanyn hopes that the season-long program will be a model to other such programs.
In the first session, we were given a refresher course in some basic botany, which is essential to understanding what it takes to save seeds that are true to the parent plant. A genus contains closely related species, and closely related genera (plural of genus) comprise a family. But it is the species level, which is below both the family and genus levels, where plants really share the most characteristics and can interbreed with each other. This is most important for the process of seed saving.
As noted above, when you save seeds, you are looking to get seeds, which you can essentially think of as embryonic plants, with the same traits as the parent plant. Seed saving gives you the power to select seeds from plants that most closely show a combination of traits that you appreciate. However, you are definitely not looking to save seeds from a plant that may have accidentally interbred with another member of the species. Such interbreeding would be the result of pollen from a different species member being carried to the plant you are using for seed saving. This accidental interbreeding can happen with plants that are pollinated either by insects/animals or wind pollinated, but rarely with plants that are self-pollinated.
So, you have to keep plants that you don’t want interbreeding separated, and/or hand pollinate female flowers that are ready to receive pollen. Then, you have to enclose the flowers you have hand pollinated so no other pollen sneaks in. It isn’t even just other species members you may have planted that you have to watch out for, since many cultivated plants have “weedy” relatives that could be nearby your plants.
Shanyn also covered the important topic of knowing when to take seeds from a plant.
“Maturity for seed saving may not be the same as market maturity,” she said. She explained that a watermelon that is ready to eat also has mature seeds, while a cucumber must be left to ripen beyond the point at which you would want to eat it for the seeds to mature. As I had seen in my own lettuce and radish experience, you have to leave those plants in the garden beyond the point when they have bolted, until the seeds and the pods that enclose them are dry.
Even when a seed seems dry on the plant, it is important to allow it to dry further after harvest. When dry, seeds should be stored in a cool dry place, like an unheated closet. Completely dry seeds can be kept a sealed container in the freezer or refrigerator, but if you are not going to use all the frozen or refrigerated seeds at once, you need to let the sealed container acclimate to room temperature before opening. This helps to avoid condensation in the container that will affect the quality of any seeds you are going to put back into storage.
I have to stop here with the session content, since I think the story of why and how Shanyn got into seed saving is equally fascinating. After working on various organic farms, Shanyn went back to school to study horticulture and discovered an interest in plant pathology and why certain plants were especially suitable for disease resistance without being “genetically modified.” Appropriate varieties of plants could be bred to be particularly well adapted to a region; the genetic resources for assuring this were the seeds, which could be saved from the most well-adapted plants. Her work led her first to Seed Savers Exchange, and now to work teaching and promoting seed saving as a means of enabling more people to carry on its traditions. She has been reaching out to those with seed libraries, such as Jeff Quattrone, hoping that seeds being saved can also be more widely shared and that people in local areas can begin saving and sharing their own seeds.
If you feel like I have barely scratched the surface of seed-saving with this post, you are right, and maybe you will want to sign up for the rest of the Duke Farms series. I will promise that my next blog post will be on Jeff’s program, with its amazing two hour long animated discussion among the participants, and I will also be reviewing my favorite seed saving book at some point in the future.