Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heirloom Seed Saving - And why is it so important?

Few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Bill Thorness. He got my contact info from the Builders Book source  in Berkeley. This was some what shocking because I have not really interacted much with the guys at the book store. All I could remember was going in there in January to buy the make magazine when the Algarden Zome was published. I was excited so I showed it to the guy at the register and told him that the Algarden Zome was located only a few blocks from his store. I guess he must have looked me up and found my blog which he then recommended to Bill. Berkeley is funny like that, or maybe I should say garden's are funny like that they blossom and build communities. Even though I don't live in Berkeley I have certainly created a community around the garden and it is nice to know all the neighbors.

Back to Bill, he just published this really cool book on edible heirlooms. His publisher sent it to me and I've had a chance to look through it.  It has really nice renderings of plants and it has a good explanation on why Heirloom seeds are so important.

Bill wanted me to write about his book on my blog and since I had so many questions on seed saving I took the opportunity to turn this into somewhat of an interview. I have been trying to save seeds in the garden and reuse them but have had some troubles. If you have ever tried to do this yourself you probably know what I'm talking about and I hope this helps you out as much as it has helped me. Here are my questions to Bill.

1) Keeping track of seeds- I keep losing the labels and not knowing what is what.
2) Storing them - A bunch of mine got moist and sprouted on the containers I had them
3) Keeping the integrity of the seed - I planted some carrots last season from seeds I had gotten from BASIL (Bay Area Seed Interchange Library) and the carrots were good.  I saved the seeds but this season seems like the carrots went back to wild carrots, they are whitish and very fibery not really good to eat so they end up in the chicken coop.  Look at this photos from last year vs this year

Here’s what Bill wrote to answer my questions:
I love saving seeds of my heirloom vegetables, because I feel like I’m really closing the loop on my gardening practices. It also helps create a truly local version of my favorite plants, saves a little money, and I know I’m using the freshest possible seed.

But saving seeds can be tricky, and you identified somereally common problems. Plus, you took on one of the more challenging ones – carrots.

I put seed-saving tips in my book Edible Heirlooms, and I’m going to talk a bit about it in my talk at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show (join me! Friday, 3/26, 3:45 p.m.), so let me share a few tips.

There’s a decision-tree to climb before doing seed saving:
·        Is the plant an annual or biennial?
·        How are its flowers pollinated (is it self-pollinating, or does it rely on insects or wind)?
·        Do the seeds dry out on the plant (like beans), or are they contained in a fleshy fruit (like tomatoes)?

Annual plants go to seed in one season. Biennial plants, like carrots, will grow through two seasons or overwinter before going to seed.

Often, people transplant their biennial seed plant to the edge of the garden so it won’t interfere with the next crop.
Self-pollinating plants are the easiest to handle, because you don’t have to worry about the plant crossing with another of the same genus and producing seed that will not grow true to type. But many plants, like the brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) will cross-pollinate.

That’s probably what happened to your carrot. Carrots are in the same genus as the weedy flower Queen Anne’s lace, and often a carrot going to seed will cross with that common flower, and the resulting seed will be a freakish, weedy pseudocarrot. 

Carrots are pollinated by insects, which can flit around quite far, so that crossing can happen even if you don’t have any of those weeds in your garden.

For plants that are wind or insect pollinated, you may have to isolate them (wrap the seed head in a paper bag, or construct a mini screen house over the plant) to make sure they don’t get cross-pollinated. 

Save seed from only your best plants – the ones with the most desirable characteristics. Don’t just let the last stragglers in your garden go to seed, or next year you’ll have a straggler garden.

Easy saving:
For an example of some easy seeds to save, let’s talk tomatoes and peas. They’re both self-pollinating annuals. Peas can dry on the plant and are easily harvested. Tomato seeds need to be separated from their pulp, but that’s pretty easy with a jar and some water. Shake up the pulp in the jar, the seeds will settle to the bottom, and in a couple of days, scoop them out and dry them on a paper plate.

Storing should be done in paper bags, not plastic, because your goal is to keep the seeds dry. If they get wet, they’ll mildew and rot, or sprout. I use small paper sleeves (see my photo) and mark them with a Sharpie –
veggie variety, seed source and year. (Seeds are living things, and most need to be used within 3 years.)

I store the seed packets on a shelf in my dry basement, in a box with some desiccant gel packs. You can make your own desiccant with some powdered milk wrapped up in a paper towel. Many people recommend using glass jars and storing the seeds in the refrigerator.

Last note: Supporting the Movement Saving seeds (and sharing them) is one of the best ways to support the heirloom movement to keep our valuable seed heritage alive. Each year, thousands of people list their seeds in the Seed Savers Yearbook. 

It’s a big, thick phonebook-type list of all seeds being saved by individuals around the country. Hello, Arizona? Send me some ancient beans! 
Seed Savers Exchange which produces the yearbook, said that this year, for the first time since
1995, the number of listed members who are offering seed grew by 138 people, and the number of unique varieties of seed listed, at 13,571, has never been higher. It’s amazing. There are over 4,000 tomato varieties offered, and 1,477 varieties of beans. 

Also, if you really want to learn about seed-saving, check out the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. It’s the definitive text on the subject, and was written by a northern California gardener!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great book to have in the library.