Seed Saving–So Old and So New

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have been teaching the basics of seed saving for years, without actually doing a lot of it.  Dorothy Mullen, one of the co-founders of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, introduced me to Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian scientist who developed a theory and map of eight crop centers in the world.  More specifically, Vavilov, in the course of collecting 250,000 or more types of crop seeds from around the globe, did research in each location to determine which wild precursors of each type of crop existed in that location.

I discovered that Vavilov is a great subject for lessons to students in any grade because there are so many great stories that come with the science he perfected.  One of the greatest is the value of seeds; his scientists so believed that the seeds Vavilov collected would save the world that twelve of them starved themselves to death protecting them when Hitler and starving Russians threatened to overrun the seed bank in St. Petersburg.

Ancient Native Americans in Central America, one of the eight crop centers, carefully took a wild grass, teosinte, to something like our modern crop corn, just by saving the “best” seeds over multiple generations.  Native Americans carried those seeds from Central America to New Jersey and even further without trucks, planes, trains or even horses, as I teach my fourth graders.

So now I am taking up seed saving—this art form that is at once ancient and modern.  I let radishes and lettuce in our school garden go to seed, and had the Kindergartners collect the seed this fall.  I had first graders collect spent marigolds.

So, having started, I went to an expert to get better in what I do, and what I teach the kids.  Jeff Quattrone is the founder of the organization Library Seed Bank, which has already established three community-based seed banks in South Jersey.  He is also a member of the Community Seed Resource Program for the Seed Savers Exchange, in partnership with Seed Matters.  He will be speaking at the NJ Audubon Plainsboro Preserve on April 15, 2015 at 7 p.m. about seed saving and starting the seed libraries.  I hope I will learn how to best treat those radish and lettuce seeds, how to have the kids save even more challenging seeds in the future, and to learn how we can take our own version of teosinte into vegetables suited for our local conditions.

More information on the event, meant particularly for school garden educators and community gardeners, is found at