Time to get into the nitty-gritty of food security: seed saving. I'm still working on a steep learning curve with this one, but each year I'm able to take another step in the right direction. I've come to believe that seed saving is the very foundation of food security. Even for those who grow their own food, myself included, dependence upon seed companies could quickly create a large hole in our food security should seed sources dry up for whatever reason. Demand outstripping supply, crop failure, bankruptcy, and worse, all could play havoc with our ability to grow food for our families. Making time now to learn seed saving techniques while the supplies and time are still available is valuable insurance against an uncertain future.
By saving seeds, you'll also be helping to preserve biodiversity, a worthy goal all its own. Seed saving is something our ancestors practiced not only because it was frugal but also because it was practical and the only real way to guarantee that they'd have the seed they needed for next year's growing season. Without these seed savers so many of our heirloom varieties would have been lost, yet this threatens to become a lost art. If younger generations do not step up, learn these techniques, and preserve the knowledge along with the seeds, we may literally find ourselves relying on single hybrids susceptible to mass die-out, not unlike the great potato famine.
How could this be, you may ask? As Monsanto and GMOs march (and drift!) on, small seed savers become more and more crucial to maintaining species diversity because many are lucky enough to live in pockets isolated from larger growers and the cross pollination that can result. More and more heirloom varieties are being lost because commercial hybrid seeds dominate growing fields, resulting in both cross pollination and decreased demand for heirlooms. While there's nothing wrong with non-gmo hybrids, most will not reproduce true—some can be stabilized over a few generations—or are completely sterile, rendering a gardener dependent upon the seed supplier. Large market growers and agribusiness turn toward hybrids that will work for their conditions of production—pest and disease resistance, travel, storage, uniformity, machine harvest, etc.—and as long as consumer demand supports these conditions, heirloom seeds will continue to be under threat. Often, too, taste and nutrient density are sacrificed for market qualities because so many heirlooms can't stand up to the demands of shipping and storage.
Besides protecting heritage and diversity, seed saving also builds a seed store adapted to a particular climate, meaning that saved seed likely has a better chance of thriving in its environment than shipped seed. This kind of adaptation takes generations of seed, but perhaps in the face of climate change such efforts will prove invaluable. Grand seed saving projects like the Seed Vault in Iceland are terrific efforts for governments to undertake, but I don't think they should be the only efforts, nor should they absolve each of us from doing what we can to help as well. At the very least, they fall prey to political whims, at worst, they could fail entirely, so they shouldn't replace individual seed savers by any means.
Seed purity can be tricky business, however, and I strongly suggest getting a good book like Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed as a reference guide. If you're anything like me, this book will become a go-to guide, as I'm inevitably forgetting things and having to look them up all over again just to be sure: which plants require pollinators, which can be left under row covers, that kind of thing. Maybe some day all this will become second nature, but for now, this is my seed saving bible. There are also several good organizations like Seed Savers Exchange that offer information and support. In my blog sidebar, I list several sources for heirloom seeds from different regions of the US. I personally order the majority of my seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a small, mid-Atlantic company based in Virginia, and I've been very pleased with them; however, I've heard lots of wonderful things about the other companies listed as well.
The many different available resources cover ways to ensure seed purity from insect and wind pollination, including isolation distances, maturation time, and day-caging, but they can make it all seem pretty daunting at first with all the information and conditions. Getting started seed saving, however, really is as simple as ordering a variety of open pollinated seeds from an heirloom seed source. (Open pollinated simply means that plants will reliably reproduce the same variety from seed, and this is essential for saving your own seed.) I try to grow at least one open pollinated variety of every vegetable I grow even if I'm growing hybrids for other reasons. I'm not saving seed from all of them each year, but ordering the seed at least ensures that demand for o. p. seeds remains steady. This way, too, I'm able to try out different varieties to see how they perform in my garden conditions. I also try to hold back a few seeds from each of the o.p. varieties, so I will have them for the following year if I can't get them.
For the first year of actually saving seeds, I'd recommend starting with something easy like beans and then branching out from there. The more you do it, the easier it will seem to take the next step. Beans are good first plants because they're perfect and self-pollinating with relatively low isolation distances, meaning that they don't need to be miles away from the nearest planting of beans to ensure purity. Choosing a distinct-looking bean, too, can be an easy visual cue. When planning to save seed, it can make good sense to plant only that variety for the season just to minimize any chances of cross pollinating. Row covers can also help reduce the chances of cross-pollination by insects with bush varieties. Because beans are self-pollinating, the row cover can be left on except to harvest, and this has the added benefit of protecting plants from bean beetles.
Moving further into my own seed saving journey, I've found that learning the different plant families for seed saving is just an extension of knowing them for good garden rotation to minimize pests and diseases. It's all part of the same whole. Because plants within the same family can often cross with others in the same family, knowing which plants are related starts to become really important, and it's not always obvious. I'm not going to go into very much detail about the hows here—it would take up too much space, and I'm no where near as knowledgeable as a good book on the subject, but there are some simple tricks that I've found helpful.
One easy way around cross pollination in the home garden is to simply save seeds from one variety one year, and another the next, being sure not to let the off year plants go to flower. This year, for instance, I was able to save seeds from over-wintered chard in the spring, pull those, and save the seed; next year, I'll save the beet seeds. It's also possible to stagger plantings chronologically within the same season, but this requires a bit more planning ahead. These methods require a close eye, and they're certainly more demanding than just throwing a few seeds into the ground willy-nilly, but they can integrate really well with an intensive planting rotation. Simply pull the plants as they start to bolt, and plant something else in their place that won't cross pollinate.
So far, I've been able to save my own beans, tomatoes, chard, endive, gourdseed corn, popcorn, spinach, sorrel, dill, cilantro, sunflowers, okra (thanks to Pam G. for the original seed), lettuce, chives, leeks, and green onions. I've also saved potatoes and garlic, but not from seed. I'm hoping to get some turnip and beet seed from over wintered plants next spring, but the turnips can be tricky, as they'll cross with any bolting Chinese cabbages and broccoli raab, meaning I'll need to be on top of things to make it work. I'm considering venturing into day-caging, depending upon how much energy I have at the time. Still, it's possible to get a decent seed store going without all the hoopla. I've had some failures along the way, too—carrots, michihli, and quinoa, for instance—because I wasn't careful enough. In the case of the carrots and quinoa, I had wild species growing too close that were impossible to eradicate, so those may be something I'll have too much trouble saving to make it worthwhile.
As you can see, used egg cartons hold a lot of my seeds. Not necessarily the most sanitary method, but it's what I often have on hand while collecting or sorting the dried seed. Other recycled containers work well, too, for large quantities of seed. For small amounts of seed, envelopes are good, and they can be easily labeled and traded. The key is to keep seed cool and dry to avoid any mold formation. Silica gel works well in sparing amounts because the seeds need a small amount (around 3-5%) of moisture for proper germination. For long-term storage the freezer works best, but be sure to allow the storage container to come to room temperature before opening so the seeds don't collect condensation. I keep back up seeds vacuum packed in my freezer as a minor insurance policy. They take up very little space and may prove quite useful down the road. Then again, maybe my kids will be cleaning out my freezers one day wondering why the heck I have all these vacuum packed seeds. Ahhh, better to be safe than sorry, especially if it's easy enough.
I'm by no means self-sustaining in terms of seed saving, but I hope to keep improving on that front. Right now, I'm too much of a variety-addict to limit myself to my own saved seeds, but if something were to happen, I'd have a pretty decent garden all on my own, and I hope to keep improving. Seed ordering the way I do is a luxury, but at $2 or $3 a packet, it's a luxury I'll continue to indulge. I've already placed my '09 seed order, not wanting to put it off too long. Even ordering before the holidays, I encountered several back orders, my onion seed among them unfortunately. Neither onion nor corn do well saving beyond a year, so they need to be ordered or saved fresh every year. Luckily, many other seeds will save for years under the right conditions.
My 2009 Seed Order: modest compared to previous years, but that's due as much to leftover seed as to my own seed saving efforts. At this point my goals are still to try different varieties as well as to have a wide variety, though not a great quantity, of seed in cold storage. The asterisk indicates hybrids.
bean, louisiana purple pole
Buckwheat (cover crop for high tunnel)
corn, super sweet*
listada di gandia
ping tung long
red giant mustard
red salad bowl
moon and stars watermelon
hale's best muskmelon
cherry belle radish
early white scallop
golden bush scallop
table queen acorn
Cornell's bush delicata
marinia di chioggia