Today is Eat Atlantic Day and a resurgence is happening across Newfoundland & Labrador to bring that message home! Inspired by our vibrant provincial food heritage, we’re planting backyard and community gardens, supporting local growers, going to farmer’s markets, restoring root cellars, preserving and canning, and even slowly welcoming chickens and other food animals back into our neighbourhoods. Hopefully it won’t be long before we’ll be able to Eat Atlantic right from many of our community green-spaces.
Root Cellars Rock! wants to congratulate you for all you’ve been doing to Eat Atlantic year-round and to also challenge you to bring it up a notch this coming year. Try things you haven’t before, talk to your neighbours, and take a few more personal steps to create a sustainable food system in this province.
One way to do that is to help preserve heritage seeds by seed saving! Below is an article written by Dan Rubin, an amateur gardener and seed saver who lives in Pouch Cove. He wants you to join him and his son Jasper in rejuvenating local perennial food crops. There is also a list of fantastic links to get you started saving your own seeds and experimenting with how you Eat Atlantic.
BASIC SEED SAVING - by Dan Rubin
WHAT IS SEED SAVING?
Seed saving is the practice of saving seeds or other reproductive material (e.g. tubers or bulbs) from open-pollinated vegetables, grain, herbs, and flowers of annual food crops, flowers, nuts, tree fruits, and berries for perennials and for trees. This is traditionally the way farms and gardens were maintained and new varieties identified and spread.
These days most gardeners buy their seed each year from commercial seed suppliers who raise hybridized or cloned plants. Hybridized plants are a cross between two different varieties; they do not produce seed that remains true to type, keeping the same characteristics from year to year. So open pollinated or true to type seed must be saved if you want to raise consistent plants from seed. Seed saving is gaining popularity among organic farmers, permaculturists and enthusiasts with cultural or environmentalist interests.
Open pollination is the key to seed saving. Plants that reproduce through natural means adapt to local conditions over time, and evolve as reliable performers in their localities. Locally adapted seeds are known as landraces or "folk varieties". They have evolved over time, tuned to a particular area and climate. The modern trend to rely on hybridized and cloned plants negates these evolutionary processes. Hybrid plants are artificially cross-pollinated, and bred to favor desirable characteristics, like higher yield and more uniform size for commercial production and control by agribusiness.
WHY IS SEED SAVING IMPORTANT?
Thousands of varieties of traditional vegetables and flowers are being lost, because of our reliance on commercial hybrid seed. Seed saving is a way to maintain older traditional varieties and this is very important because it makes it possible to raise food locally and independently.
To be successful at seed saving, certain skills are needed. The seed saving gardener needs to learn about particular plants, how to keep varieties true to type, and how to prevent their loss in bad years. To be effectively saved, seeds must be gathered each year, dried and stored at the right temperature and humidity, then re-sown the following year. This is a big commitment but it’s easy and fun, if you take it step by step.
By saving seeds from your garden you can help keep traditional food varieties going, and produce locally-grown food from plants adapted to our own unique climate.
ANNUAL VERSUS PERENNIAL PLANTS
There is an important difference between plants that are annuals and those that survive from year to year, known as perennials. Annuals go to seed each year, so saving their seed through the winter is essential. Some annuals reseed themselves. Perennial and self-seeding annuals are a good place for the seed saver to focus, as these plants tend to be resilient survivors who offer easy to grow food crops for home use.
Seeds are generally saved from annual and biennial plants. Seeds you save from your home garden are adapted to your climate and growing site and may be resistant to pests in your area. Seeds from hybrid varieties produce a mix of offspring, many of which may have different characteristics than the parent.
To save seed from your plants you will grow plants to maturity and they may get bigger and stay around longer than normal, so leave a bit more space around them. Saving and growing seed, year after year, is taking part in evolution. Saving garden seeds at the end of each growing season can be a great cost saving measure and a way to repeat last year's delectable harvest.
HOW DO PLANTS REPRODUCE?
Plants can reproduce directly by budding, through tubers and bulbs, but most plants also reproduce sexually. They are pollinated in three differing ways, by wind, insects or by what is known as self-pollination. Plants with pods, like beans, are ready to harvest for seed when the pods are brown and dry. Plants pollinated by wind (such as corn and spinach) and those pollinated by insects (such as squash and cucumbers) may cross with other varieties to create something entirely unique. So if you want to keep your variety do not grow two types close together.
Recommended minimums number of plants for seed preservation: 25 cucumbers, squash, melons; 50-100 radishes, brassicas (cabbage family plants), mustard; 200 sweet corn. Seed saved from these plants will breed true, if the plants have been properly isolated from other varieties of the same species.
RAISING HEIRLOOM SEEDS
Heirloom vegetables are established, older varieties that are grown, selected, saved, named, and shared by farmers and gardeners. You can cut down on gardening costs by growing heirloom vegetable varieties, from seeds that you save year to year. You can also save heirloom flower seeds such as: cleome, foxgloves, hollyhock, nasturtium, sweet pea, and zinnia. It is generally accepted that to be an heirloom a variety must be open pollinated and be at least fifty years old. You can save your favorite heirloom seeds for your own use, breed new varieties, swap with friends, join seed-saving organizations, or grow seed commercially at many levels of scale--the possibilities are wide open. There are established networks of people who raise and share heirloom seed – see online reference to the Seed Savers Exchange, below.
HOW TO SAVE SEEDS
Before you store any seeds, make sure that you have thoroughly dried them. Home-saved seeds will retain their vigor if thoroughly dried and saved in air proof containers or in the freezer for extended storage or in a cool dry cellar for next season. While some vegetable seed can remain viable in storage for as long as 15 years or more, and some grains may remain viable much longer under stable environmental conditions, every year in storage will decrease the amount of seed that will germinate.
Once dried, seeds can be saved in envelopes, plastic bags or other containers, for sowing next year. But they must be stored at the right humidity and temperature (cool and not damp, but not too dry).
Seeds can also be saved by freezing them, once they are thoroughly dried. When you have processed the seeds and are ready to package for the winter, it pays to buy desiccant packs for your storage containers to keep your seeds dry. Seeds should contain 3-5 percent moisture while in storage. The general rule is if you can bend seed then it still has too much moisture in it and will rupture and die if frozen. However, if you attempt to bend it and it breaks, then it’s probably at 8% moisture or less and can be safely frozen.
When you remove the seeds from the freezer, allow them to come up to room temperature before handling for planting or sowing. Saving seeds will safeguard your family's food crop in the event of world-wide catastrophes, war, pandemic outbreaks and other unforeseen disasters.
There are several ways to dry seeds:
1) Allow the seeds to dry naturally on the plant. Corn and garlic work well with this approach. When corn is fully ripened, harvest, leave in the husk and allow it to dry on racks or in paper grocery sacks indoors until they are thoroughly dried. Then you can twist them in your hands to get the kernels to fall off. Package the seeds, label with name of variety and date or year of harvest and store. For garlic, the same approach works. Garlic is dug, cleaned and soft-necked varieties can be braided and hung from nails, or stored in open weaved bags while they are drying. Hard-necked garlics can be tied in bundle, dried and hung in a cool, dry place.
2) Collecting seeds from mature plants. Lettuce, arugula and seeds of cabbage varieties such as broccoli and kale can be collected directly from the plant. When you notice the seed pods look dry and about ready to fall off, then you can strip the seeds by hand into a waiting paper bag. Same idea with peas and beans: let the plant take the seeds to full maturity, and for their pods to dry, then harvest seed, dry a bit more and store.
3) Remove the seeds from mature fruit and then allow them to air dry. This would be the most common method of vegetable seed storage. When collecting seeds from tomatoes, or cucumbers and squash plants, allow the fruits to fully ripen until the fruit starts to turn a bright yellow, red or gold so that the seeds inside will fully develop. Then cut open the vegetable and scoop out the seeds. Wash seeds in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to ten parts water) then lay out seeds in a single layer on newspaper or paper towels until the seeds have thoroughly dried. Store dried seed in tightly sealed containers of choice with appropriate labeling.
COOPERATIVE SEED SAVING
Gardening is something we tend to do on our own, in our own yards. But seed saving works better if it is shared. By exchanging information and seeds with each other, we gain in our knowledge of plants and in access to the varieties we can grow. It takes several years for varieties to acclimatize or adapt to local conditions, and once they have done this, they are worth sharing. This can be a shared project.
In a single year, you may have bad luck with a variety, because of pests, weather or the lack of shelter, while your friend or neighbour may still have seed to share. So consider becoming part of a network of growers.
One such network is Perfectly Perennial Herbs and Seeds, based in Pouch Cove. This small group of growers hopes to expand to include others on the Avalon Peninsula to expand knowledge of and sites for local perennial and reseeding annual food crops, herbs and berries. To contact them, email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some garden techniques, such as raised beds, use of cloches and cold frames to extend the gardening season as well as the use of rich compost and natural fertilizers can help you increase your yields of plants and seeds.
SOME WEBSITES FOR FURTHER LEARNING:
www.seeds.ca Seeds of Diversity is a Canadian volunteer organization that conserves the biodiversity and traditional knowledge of food crops and garden plants. You can help protect heirloom seeds and build up more knowledge about them by participating in their network’s activities.
http://www.seedsave.org/ The International Seed Save Institute. Find out what’s happening in global seed saving initiatives and look under the left-hand link called ‘Seed Saving’ to find a fantastic step-by-step guide to saving your own seeds. Very recommended!
http://www.seedsavers.org/ The grandfather of all seed saving groups, established in the early 1970s by Ken Wheatley – a treasure trove of information and great contacts. A great source for heirloom seeds and worth joining.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seedy_Sunday All over Canada groups are starting to host Seedy Sundays and Seedy Saturdays to exchange seeds before the planting season starts. FEASt (www.feastnl.ca) hosted their first on Spring Equinox this past year and with your help could make it an annual event.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy5R-8MIZu8 A video that teaches how to test your seeds to see how well they’ll germinate after being stored. From this page you’ll find lots of other links to how-to videos on saving seed.
http://www.comoxvalleygrowersandseedsavers.ca/?q=node/23 Seed Saving 101: get the details on how to save seeds from many common food plants.
http://www.thechileman.org/guide_seedsaving.php All about chile peppers! Save these seeds, but be careful, they’re deliciously hot!
http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications/ The Organic Seed Alliance’s Seed Saving Guide. This is a great resource!
http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/seedsave/2002084456024410.html A page specifically devoted to saving tomato seeds. Of the thousands of varieties available, some tomatoes are better than others or for particular uses (paste, eating raw, juice, etc.)
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/seedsave/ Sponsored by gardenweb.org, this is an online forum where people post and answer questions about seed saving.
DAN RUBIN has been gardening here and in Western Canada for the past thirty years. In this province he has presented workshops in St. John's and on the Burin Peninsula on seed saving and four season gardening. Along with his son Jasper he has developed a community-based business called Perfectly Perennial Herbs and Seeds.
Over the past several years, Perfectly Perennial has test marketed seeds for perennial onions, poppies, kale, arugula, pumpkins, corn and other crops. Some are true perennials while others are reseeding annuals. This has provided local gardeners with access to plants that are locally acclimatized and raised without chemical treatment.
Dan and Jasper continue to experiment with new plants and crops. They are particularly interested in developing perennial food crops, to expand local food production and improve food security. Their long range goal is to find others who want to help raise plants for seed, then share packaging and marketing. Contact them if you are interested in helping with this initiative. Dan's email is email@example.com