Tag Archives: open-pollinated

It All Started With Seeds

Saving various types of lima beans and their names and stories

I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.

The Importance of Seeds

Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.

Sharing saved seeds at a seed swap

On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.

However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.

Seed Saving Initiatives

Grandpa Ott’s morning glory

Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.

Seed Savers Exchange

German Pink tomato

Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its mission is to “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.”

The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.

To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”

The Seed Exchange

Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.

Field crew harvesting beans

Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”

There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”

SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.

Trial beds at Heritage Farm

Seed Savers Exchange Projects

Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.

Heritage Farm

The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.

All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

How to Save Seeds from the Home Garden

Blackberry lily seeds are easy to find and save

As your plants flower and set seed and your fruit ripens on the vine, think of what you would like to save for next year. Saving seed can be easy and cost effective. In addition to saving seed to plant in your garden next year, you can give away seed packets as gifts or participate in seed swaps.

In order to save seeds, you have to separate the seeds from the fruit and dry them completely. If you strike a seed with a hammer and it shatters or if it snaps cleanly when bent, the seed is dry enough. When they are this dry, store in a cool, dark place in jars or put in envelopes. Always label with a plant name and date.

There are two methods for separating and cleaning the seed depending on the plant. Use the dry method for seeds that are in dried flowers, dried husks, or dried pods like beans, peas, grains, okra, marigolds, cone flowers, calendula, dianthus, basil, mustards, lettuce, kale, dill, fennel (any member of the carrot/dill family and the brassica/broccoli family). Use the wet method when the seeds are imbedded in the fleshy fruit, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, and eggplant.

Dry Method of Saving Seeds

Usually the plant has more than one flower head, each with their own timeline of flowering and setting seeds. During the summer, when the individual flower head has dried or when most of the seeds appear to be dried, cut the seed head and put in a paper bag. Cut when the stalks are brown at least an inch down from the seed head. Label the bag with the plant name and date. Continue to cut and save this way until you are ready to separate seed from fruit.

with nasturtiums, the flowers drop off and the seed will grow and become prominent months later

Some flowers, such as nasturtiums and four o’clocks, have a single flower that blooms and drops revealing a seemingly empty calyx. Soon though a seed will grow and become more prominent, making it easy to separate and save.

Beans and peas are fleshy so you can cut when the pod has become leathery or yellow and not completely dry. Let it continue to dry off the vine on a cookie sheet until the seeds rattle in the pods. For peppers, it is important to let the fruit ripen to the last color stage (many progress from green to red). For the cool season lovers such as greens (lettuce) and brassica family members such as kale, mustard, pak choi, cabbage, and broccoli, let the plant bolt (flower). Then cut and put in a bag.

Many seeds are also beautiful such as these Tiger beans

In the winter, when I can’t go outside and garden, I gather all my bags and sit down at the dining room table. I put the seed heads on a white dinner plate or a cookie sheet to make it easier to see the seeds and prevent them from rolling off the table. By this time, the seeds and husks are completely dry and I simply pull apart the seed from the husk on the plate. If it is easy to remove, like marigolds, I put the seeds in a glass jar. If it is a fine seed with a lot of husks, like pak choi, I thrash it around in a large paper bag so that the seed falls to the bottom. I pull out and throw away the stems and pods and dump out the seeds on a cookie sheet. I separate further on the plate or I use a sieve. If the seed has a lot of chaff, I continue to separate seed by screening with a sieve. Eventually I work my way down from large grocery bags to small jars.

Wet Method of Saving Seeds

For this method the fruit has to be very ripe. For pumpkins, squash, and melon, simply remove the seeds and rinse the stringy fruit parts off with water, straining with a colander. For eggplant, cut into cubes and cover with water for a day, stirring once. Squish the seeds out and clean off with water in a colander. If there are remaining seeds, repeat the process the next day to get the rest out. Put clean seeds on a cookie sheet and let dry.

Pumpkin seeds can be saved or eaten

For cucumbers, scoop seeds out and put in a jar. Add water and stir every day for 2 days. Strain to remove seeds and let dry on a cookie sheet.

For tomatoes, squeeze or cut up the flesh and put into a jar. Add enough water to be able to stir the mixture and to create volume for the pulp to separate from the seeds. I keep my jars in the kitchen out of direct light and stir daily for a few days. The tomatoes will ferment and will look gross but this process separates the seeds.

After a few days, the heavy seeds will sink to the bottom and the lighter seeds and pulp will float to the top. Skim off and throw away the top layer. Keep the heavy seeds, they are the ones that are viable. Keep adding water, swishing until the good drops down and the bad surfaces, and skim again. Keep doing this until the water is clear with good seeds at the bottom. Pour the mixture into a sieve and put the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry area, out of direct light. Every few hours, stir around until dry. You want them to dry quickly at this point in time because the moisture left on them may induce them to germinate. Once they seem dry, let them sit for several weeks until completely dry and then store in a glass jar.

Open Pollinated versus Heirloom Plants

When saving seeds, it is important to know if your plant is open-pollinated or a hybrid. If they are open pollinated, then the next generation will be the same. You will get the same plant with the same characteristics such as flower color or flavor. Heirlooms are open pollinated so you can save seeds of heirloom tomatoes and grow the same tomatoes each year.

If the plant is a hybrid, it was produced by crossing two genetically distinct parents. The hybrid was bred to have desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or better flavor. In seed catalogs, hybrids are often referred to as “F1”s – filial 1 hybrid. If you save the seed of this plant, the next generation may not retain the same desirable characteristics. You will get the same type of plant, but the plant may not be as tasty or not be resistant to a disease.

Try these simple methods to save seed for your own home garden or to give as gifts. Consider saving seeds for seed swaps with friends or local seed swap events.

Epic Tomatoes, Epic Stories: Learning How to Grow Tomatoes in Virginia

Epic_TomatoesLast Sunday I had the good fortune to hear Craig LeHoullier speak about tomatoes at Green Spring Gardens, Alexandria, VA; part of the annual Harry Allen Winter Lecture Series. Armed with a PhD in chemistry, Craig used to work for a pharmaceutical company and always grew vegetables as a hobby. In 1986, bored with nursery-bought tomato plants, he tried starting heirloom tomatoes from seed and developed a passion for growing them.

That same year he joined the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. SSE members receive the annual SSE Yearbook, akin to the toy-filled Sears Wish Book that used to come out every Christmas. The Yearbook has over 13,000 types of seeds, 4,000 of which are tomatoes. Craig started growing these obscure types and corresponding with other gardeners who also shared “hand me down” tomato seeds.

Currently, Craig resides in Raleigh, NC, with his wife Susan who also was at Green Spring Gardens. In addition to growing heirlooms, Craig researches old types, collects old nursery catalogs, and exchanges seeds with other gardeners. For 10 years, he organized the Tomatopalooza, an annual tomato tasting event.

In his talk, Craig explained the history of tomatoes and how there were very few varieties up until the mid-1800s when the process for selecting desirable traits changed. Since then more types have become available so that now there are so many types, it’s hard to choose. He suggested considering two criteria:  first, hybrid, heirloom, or open pollinated; and second, indeterminate, determinate, or dwarf.Craig

Hybrids, he explained, are “a cross between two parents” and are bred for a particular characteristic. “Hybrids are good if you want maximum yield or you want to avoid a disease or if there is one that is so good, you can’t live without like ‘Sun Gold.’” Saving seed from a hybrid may not give you the same desired characteristics. With open pollinated types, the saved seed will produce successive generations with the same characteristics. Heirlooms are a type of open pollinated where the plants “have stood the test of time or have a story associated with them.” For him, an heirloom pre dates 1950 which is when Burpee produced the hybrid Big Boy. Thereafter, seed companies focused on selling hybrids. Open pollinated may or may not be heirlooms depending on how long people have grown them.

The second criterion depends on space. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow so tall they need staking but they produce wonderful fruit all season long.  The vast majority of heirlooms are indeterminate because the gene for short growth occurred around 1920. Determinate plants are “tomato machines,” they produce crop quickly, can be grown in pots, and may need short stakes or cages. Harvesting time is condensed but yields are great enough for canning or sauces. Dwarfs, his new project, provide the best of both, since they grow at half the rate of an indeterminate but bear fruits gradually with great flavor. Dwarfs are open pollinated but not heirlooms yet, they have not been grown for generations yet. He has been growing his dwarf plants in 5-gallon containers in a soil-less mix and they get as tall as 3 to 4 feet.

Craig described his dwarf tomato breeding project where he wanted to grow a container size plant that produced good tasting fruit. He started to work with Patrina Nuske Small in Australia and between the two hemispheres were able to combine two growing seasons in one calendar year. In 2006, they created a collaboration of more than 100 amateur gardeners across the world to produce new but stable dwarf varieties. To date, about 60 varieties have been produced and are sold through a few, small seed companies.

Craig illustrated how he grows many different types of tomatoes from seed at his home, using only fluorescent lights – he does not have a greenhouse. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, he recommends planting deep into the soil, “any part of the plant that is underground will root,” and mulching to prevent disease. Plant about 3 feet apart: “Spacing is important to increase sun and air circulation to prevent disease.” Watering from the bottom also is important to prevent diseases. He has many containers on his driveway full of fresh, soil-less mix every year – he does not re-use the mix in the containers in order to prevent diseases. He concluded his talk by briefly describing straw bale gardening, common tomato diseases, and saving seeds from fresh tomatoes.

I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Craig genuinely wants to help people learn how to grow great tasting tomatoes. Afterwards, he spent time answering questions and signing his two books, Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (both published by Storey Publishing). Check his website, http://www.nctomatoman.com or http://www.epictomatoes.com, for his lecture schedule and information on growing tomatoes.

 

Seed: To Save or Not To Save, That Is the Question

In my garden, I save seeds from certain plants every year and for others, I leave the seed for the birds. Seed saving is a great idea but whether or not you should save the seed depends on the plant.

dried seed pods on Hibiscus 'Lil' Kim'

dried seed pods on Hibiscus ‘Lil’ Kim’

If you are interested in saving the seed, ask yourself this: will you get the same plant as before? The first thing you need to find out is whether or not your plant is a hybrid or an open-pollinated plant. A hybrid is a plant that comes from the controlled cross breeding of two distinct species or cultivars. This is done intentionally to capture a desired trait such as flower color or disease resistance. If you saved the seed from this hybrid, the next generation will not look like your original plant. It will exhibit some of its parents’ (or even previous generations’) characteristics so you won’t retain the desired traits. For example, in September my Hibiscus syriacus ‘Lil’ Kim’ has interesting seed pods that look really easy to cut off, dry, and save. But this plant was deliberately created as a dwarf form of the species Hibiscus syriacus, commonly known as Rose of Sharon, a shrubby plant about 5 feet tall. If I planted the seeds next year, I would get a Hibiscus plant, that is one with hibiscus-like characteristics, but it may be small, medium, or large, with white, pink or lavender flowers.

If you have an open pollinated plant, the seed will produce the same plant as before with most flowers and herbs. There are exceptions in the vegetable world. There are some vegetables that self-pollinate such as tomatoes and beans so the seed retains the original characteristics. However, there are some vegetables that are pollinated by insects willing to travel to your neighbor’s garden to cross pollinate your neighbor’s vegetables with your vegetables. Peas, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, and squash are examples of vegetables that are cross-pollinated so the resulting seed may produce plants that do not have the same or desired traits as before. After you have decided whether saving the seed will result in the plant you want, consider these criteria:

1. Do you have enough of the plant or want more?

This spring I planted love-in-a-mist seeds (Nigella damascena), which I bought from the Green Spring Gardens gift shop in Alexandria, VA. Green Spring Gardens has stands of these small lavender-blue flowers that produce very interesting seed pods, perfect for dried flower arrangements. My seed only produced a few plants but fortunately, they flowered and produced seed. I want the seeds to disperse and germinate in the garden next year in the same place to get more plants (hopefully a stand of them just like at Green Spring Gardens). I could do this manually by saving seeds and planting next year or I could just let nature do it for me. I left the seed pods in the garden.

love-in-a-mist at Green Spring Gardens

love-in-a-mist at Green Spring Gardens

On the other hand, I have a few columbine plants, Aquilegia columbine, growing in one place.  I would like for them to grow in other places on the property so I cut the seed pods and put them in a paper bag. Later, when they were bone dry, I pulled the pods apart and put the tiny, glossy black seeds in a glass jar.

dried seed pods and seed from columbine

dried seed pods and seed from columbine

2. Is the seed useful in the kitchen?

I always grow plenty of dill and cilantro, some of which I harvest the leaves for cooking, some of which I leave alone and let the plants flower and “go to seed.” When the seed heads are brown, I cut them and let them drop into a paper bag and let dry some more. The dill seed is great for breads and rolls, the cilantro seed, which is known as coriander, is great for cookies and fruit salads. Sometimes, I use the seed for the garden the next year, just depends on how much baking is done in the winter.

dried dill seed head, in vase on napkin

dried dill seed head, in vase on napkin

3. Do you find it easier to save seed or just buy again next year?

The corollary being, how much time do you have? There are two basic methods for saving seed: dry and wet. With most of my herbs and flowers, I use the dry method because the seed themselves are in a dried pod so it is simple to cut the pods and put it in a paper bag. After a few weeks, when very dry, I put them on a plate, separate seed from the pod, and put the seed in a glass jar with a label. With pulpy, fleshy vegetables, I use the wet method. Parts of the fruit, such as tomatoes, are cut up or mashed and put in a jar with water. After days, depending on the plant, you eventually extract the seeds from the pulp and lay on a paper towel to dry.  The exact process depends on the vegetable. For detailed information on how to save seed (and for buying open pollinated seed), check out the Seed Savers Exchange (under the “Education” tab) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (under the “Growing Guides” tab).

4. Do you want to attract birds or create winter interest?

If you want to feed the birds or try to achieve some architectural interest in the garden in the winter, you have to leave the seeds on the plants. I grow a lot of lemon basil because I use some plants for cooking while leaving others in the garden to flower and set seed. In late summer through fall, the yellow finches land on the swaying seed stalks and peck at the seeds. I also leave the coneflower (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) plants alone. After they flower, they have stiff seed stalks and prominent seed heads that add interest in the winter and provide food for birds.

lemon basil plants gone to seed

lemon basil plants gone to seed

This September, my rue plant (Ruta graveolens) produced interesting seed heads far above the foliage. Rue is a well known herb but I use it as a landscape plant. Its gray, green foliage provides a lot of color and texture, it is drought resistant and seems to repel deer and critters, and it provides yellow flowers in the summer for me to cut and place in vases for the office. I was torn between harvesting the seed for more rue plants next year or leaving the seed heads for winter interest when I read that rue is a great companion plant for alpine strawberries (which I just grew this year) and for raspberries (which I also planted in my garden). Off with her head!

rue seed heads

rue seed heads