Community Seeds Program Series

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.

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Fracking’s Dirty Little Secrets

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

Hello!  I’m Lindsay Sementelli, Priscilla’s co-blogger.  After a few months of learning from Priscilla, understanding the topics that she is so passionate about and getting more comfortable here, I’ll now be posting sometimes too, so please keep an eye out for future entries from us both.  Let’s get started with my first topic!

Fracking (also known as hydraulic fracturing) sounds more like a dirty word than a method of using water and drilling down first vertically at least one mile and then horizontally, often over thousands of feet, into rock formations to extract resources like oil and natural gas from the earth.  That is because in reality, it truly is dirty!  Proponents of fracking praise the practice for an increase in oil and natural gas production in the United States for 65 years and counting.  There are claims that fracking practices in the United States are safe and will cause a boom in energy production, but many scientists and researchers are conducting studies that prove otherwise.

As one might imagine, fracking is a highly contested practice.  Some of the possible harms associated with fracking practices are disputed because oddly enough, there aren’t many solid laws in place that hold fracking companies accountable for producing or reporting harmful waste products, as well as for disclosing what toxic substances may be used in the process itself.  However, the state of California is leading the way in creating protective laws as well as uncovering what lies within fracking wastewater.  While California alone is just a small sample of the United States, we can draw the conclusion that these findings are reflective of what is happening in and around fracking sites nationwide.

As far as we can tell, California’s aquifers for drinking water have not yet been affected.  It is hard to believe this will continue, considering that fracking wastewater in the state has been found to contain extremely harmful substances such as “petroleum chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive elements, plus high levels of dissolved solids,” substances that are known carcinogens and reproductive health hindrances, and “thousands of times more radioactive radium than the state’s public health goals consider safe, as well as elevated levels of potentially harmful ions such as nitrate and chloride.” (Source:  http://grist.org/climate-energy/thanks-to-californias-disclosure-law-were-finding-out-whats-in-fracking-wastewater-and-it-aint-pretty/ Check out this article for even more findings and many great links for further reading too!)  Keep in mind though, that this doesn’t necessarily mean drinking water isn’t already being infected elsewhere.

Supporters of fracking are quick to deny any negative environmental side effects, seemingly while focusing only on the monetary benefits of the practice or how the resources gleaned can benefit humans.  Since what we do to the environment will eventually circle back to us, it is hard to believe that the risks will outweigh the benefits in the long run.  Now that we’re becoming aware of fracking’s dirty and not-so-little after all side effects, we can’t just sweep the whole practice under the rug and only focus on the positives.  We can’t just sit back as it wreaks more havoc on the environment and act like its negative results are mistakes we had no way of predicting or preventing.  We as humans have the ability to speak out against practices that we know are harmful, but there are so many other living things we are sharing this world with that are being blindsided by their effects.  It needs to become our job to speak up for the voiceless, and research involving animals is helping us to see why.

Let’s start with an occurrence that may seem a bit obvious:  the disappearance of fish where wastewater from fracking gets dumped.  This is one of the most blatant suggestions that this water is no longer fit to support life, and this is a great call for more of our attention.  You may think this does not affect you if you aren’t directly using water from these infected sources on a daily basis, but think twice!  Whether you own or work on a farm, have pets in your family, or are just an animal lover, their consumption of this water trickles down through them to you; if you are buying and consuming meat or raising livestock for a living, you definitely need to be concerned about animals taking in these waste products.  In her article “No Fraccident:  How Animals Are Hurt By Fracking,” Kate Good describes the alarming findings of Professor Robert Oswald and veterinarian Michelle Bamberger, who took a direct and hands-on approach to studying the effects of wastewater consumption on livestock in six states where fracking occurs.  According to the article:

A farmer separated his herd of cows into two groups: 60 were in a pasture with a creek where hydrofracking wastewater was allegedly dumped; 36 were in separate fields without creek access. Of the 60 cows exposed to the creek water, 21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. None of the 36 cows in separated fields had health problems, though one cow failed to breed in the spring.

Another farmer reported that 140 of his cows were exposed to hydrofracking fluid when wastewater impoundment was allegedly slit, and the fluid drained into a pasture and a pond. “These farmers saw workers slitting the liner to decrease the amount of liquid in the impoundment in order to refill it,” said Bamberger. “We have heard it now on several occasions.” Of the 140 cows, about 70 died, and there were high incidences of stillborn and stunted calves.

These are only two of the twenty four cases studied by Oswald and Bamberger—for Kate Good’s full article, visit http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/no-fraccident-how-animals-are-hurt-by-fracking/, where you will also find a link to more information on their studies.

As you may have heard in many a science class, it’s true that correlation does not equal causation.  However, these results seem pretty damning against fracking and its waste products.  Of course, the issue of wastewater consumption by both humans and animals is just the tip of a huge iceberg of problems surrounding fracking.  That’s why it’s a relief to learn that the state of New York has banned the practice altogether.  This is a great start that is taking place closer to home for me, but we still have so far to go.  The first step for each of us is becoming informed and educated and making our voices heard!  If you seek out the truth and are alarmed by what you find, make sure to spread the word.