Our ancestors understood that seeds contain much more than the next year’s food. Seeds hold a particular wisdom. Throughout history, each generation kept the very best of their harvest to use as seed the next year, maximizing desired traits such as disease resistance and better yields. They also knew which varieties flourished in different areas and in varying conditions. Seeds hold the traditions of the people who plant, tend, and harvest those crops. The nutrients and flavor of those foods say something about us and the ways we are connected to place, culture, and each other.
If we ask, we can still learn about seed saving from the oldest generation. Sometimes their families suffered terrible deprivations but they didn’t let themselves eat the seeds they’d saved, a testament to hope. Sometimes they smuggled precious seeds when emigrating to a new country, sewn into hems or pockets to evade inspection. The seeds they saved, if still grown, are a vital legacy of biodiversity. According to the United Nations, approximately 75% of the world’s genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost in the last 100 years, threatening food security. These heritage seeds, grown in good soil and without and chemicals, can equal the yields of today’s hybrids and offer superior nutritional quality.
Perhaps even more threatening, more and more of today’s farmers rely on genetically modified seed. These crops are designed to be used with heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and herbicides which have been found to promote the growth of unstoppable super weeds. Although they’re touted as producing greater yield, studies show that GM crops cost more to grow and yield less. Such practices make no sense when research continues to show that organic farming practices are more profitable and maintain soil health much better than conventional farming.
Sometimes I picture our forbears shaking their heads while we ignore the knowledge they passed down to us. Even those of us who are enthusiastic organic gardeners often buy seeds in bright packets from big box stores, seeds hydridized to grow in cool Maine, humid Louisiana, or dry Arizona. We can’t save the seeds from these plants and expect them to grow true the next year, confounding the basic tradition of gardeners. Over the last century we’ve lost more than three-quarters of the genetic diversity in our crops, making our food supply more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
In our day-to-day lives it may seem impossible to turn the tide, but every choice matters. Around here I use heritage seeds from Turtle Tree Seeds, Seeds of Change, or Sustainable Seed Company. I have no hope of attaining sainthood, so you won’t find me trying to save nearly invisible seeds like beet or radish. But gradually I’m learning to save seeds from some of the plants we grow.
The learning curve is steep. I’m horrible about keeping basic records let alone tracking what plant came from which seed. And there are so many different requirements for seed saving that I’m often tempted to give up. So I start small. This year I’m saving seeds from squash, purple bean, and edamame. The guide I use is Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners.
Here’s the last of the purple beans I’ve let stay on the plants to mature into useful seeds, along with some other last-to-ripen veggies. (It’s also possible to pull entire plants and hang them upside down until the seeds are dry.)
I split the pods, sort out the best seeds, and let them dry on the counter until they’re so hard they can shatter at the tap of a hammer.
Then they must be frozen to kill any lurking bean weevils, which are common in home-saved seeds. Unchecked, these creatures will destroy stored seeds. Weevils eggs are eliminated after the seeds, kept in an airtight container, are stored in a freezer for five days. When the container is removed from the freezer, it must remain closed until the seeds have completely thawed. If opened too soon condensation forming on the cold seeds can damage them. Even after freezing, the seeds cannot be in contact with any products where bean weevils may be present or they can be recontaminated. Prepared this way, bean seeds maintain high germination rates over long periods of time.
Already I’m vowing to be a better gardener next year. (Right now that means correctly labeling and storing seeds.) I guess gardening practices are a year-to-year gamble. We try new things, hope we’re up to any challenges we face, and keep refining our skills. Around here, every step we take toward greater self-reliance gives us a greater respect for those who came before us.