by Stephen Scott of Chino Valley, AZ
The marriage of the concepts of heirloom seeds and seed saving is not new by any means, but rather one that has been growing and gaining ground in the past several years. For some this is a welcome return to a more traditional method of agriculture, while others use heirlooms for their flavor and diversity to improve the breadth of their production and offerings to the public.
Whether you are a home gardener, small scale grower or large farmer, whether you buy all of your seeds, save some for next season or a combination, this information can help you be better informed, make better choices and buy more wisely.
Cindy and I have been home gardeners for 18 years and involved with soil restoration and rangeland improvement projects with local ranchers for 20 years. Our interest in food, especially good food, goes back a bit further than that! The appreciation for seeds and seed saving came from both our work with soils and interest and enjoyment of good food. Tasting the flavors of our garden produce sparked the interest of how to keep those characteristics that the seed produced for the future, to be able to enjoy them and share with others. Thus our seed saving education began.
Several years after taking over, refining and expanding an established family owned heirloom seed company of 20 years, we’ve gained knowledge from the differences and similarities in seed production and seed saving from these two different perspectives. We want to share some of these with you; along with lessons we’ve learned along the way that can help improve the quality of all of our seeds. We will work from a point-to-point framework, showing the goals, concerns, differences and similarities in both types of seed production and preservation approaches.
The foundational goal is the same for both the home gardener and seed company – having a sufficient quantity of high quality seed stock of each variety needed for next year that is pure and true to type. This sounds simple enough, but in practice is not always easy to accomplish for either one.
We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.
Let’s look at the goals and concerns from both points of view:
The home gardener might state the reason for saving seeds as, “Enough seeds for next year’s planting, reduce the amount of seeds needed to buy, take advantage of selection and adaptation to achieve better production in our local climate.” These reasons are the very roots of why home scale seed production is important on a local and regional scale. A diversity of varieties are kept alive that are simply not possible on a national scale, as some regional adaptation can only happen in a small geographical area and won’t be applicable to a larger audience, but are no less important for the local people in that area.
As a seed company, our goals might be, “Produce a sufficient quantity of enough varieties and volume of seed to sell next season, introduce several new varieties, provide a wider selection for gardeners than they can produce themselves and provide a high quality standard that maintains our reputation.” This reflects how the seed industry started, by offering varieties that were new, unusual or were not available in an area and offering a professional standard of germination and production that benefited the gardener and grower.
These are similar goals, but on completely different scales and for different results. Their achievement, and success, depends on how the concerns or challenges are recognized and approached. We have economies of scale as a seed company with our network of growers, but the home gardener has some advantages that we would have a hard time taking advantage of, like keeping a locally adapted regional variety alive.
There are no one-size-fits-all best solutions to the availability of quality seed. A resilient, robust and diverse seed and food economy requires home gardeners, regional and national seed exchange programs to participate alongside independent seed companies to contribute all of their unique advantages and skills. Only in this way can the full expression of the diversity and adaptability of open pollinated seeds be realized and utilized.
An obstacle for the home gardener used to be the lack of access to solid, proven and reliable seed saving information and resources. There were lots of introductory articles, booklets and classes on seed saving, but little in the way of intermediate or advanced classes, books, forums or articles for the home gardener. Thankfully, this is not the case anymore, as the internet has given the home gardener access to more detailed and advanced information.
A few examples are Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), an excellent resource for the home gardener to learn from and exchange seed stock with. There are also online resources usually used by seed professionals but accessible by anyone such as GRIN, the Germplasm Resources Information Network of the USDA (www.ars-grin.gov) and PFAF, Plants For A Future (www.pfaf.org). There are several books available that are excellent in their education of producing seeds; one is “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth that has been one of the standards for seed production and saving for over 20 years. Another newer one is “The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds” by Robert Gough & Cheryl Moore-Gough, which covers flowers, trees and shrubs.
In addition to the above mentioned resources, as a seed company we have access to our growers and other professionals – a group of experienced food and seed producers who have learned through years of training, experience and trial- and-error how to produce the best seeds to continue the traits and characteristics of each variety they grow. These resources are closely guarded, as a highly experienced seed grower is a very valuable resource for any seed company.
When looking at the challenges of producing high-quality, viable seed in enough quantities for next year, both the home gardener and seed company face similar concerns. Seed quality should be the primary concern for both. Without high quality, true seed there would be too much variability in all aspects of agriculture, from seed germination, growth, health, pest and disease resistance, food production and the harvesting of more seed. The quality is achieved through proper management, isolation, harvesting and testing ensuring the viability, vigor and growing true to type of next year’s seed crop.
Management for the home gardener starts with the decision of how many plants to use for seed production as opposed to food production, which can be quite different. Ripe vegetables often have immature seeds, while mature seeds are normally found in inedible, overripe or almost rotting vegetables. Some varieties can produce both food and seed by simply letting chosen specimens ripen and mature their seeds on the vine or bush, while the rest are harvested for food, such as a perfect tomato tagged to let ripen for its seeds. Others will need to be kept solely for producing seed, such as a lettuce plant that needs to be allowed to bolt to set seeds.