Guest post by David King ~
Seed saving marks the beginning of our modern civilizations. Science can tell when grains like wheat and barley were domesticated because as soon as humans began to plant them for food, reserving some of the seed for next year’s planting, the seeds changed to make that job easier. Suddenly, grains begin to ripen all at once (rather than ripening over a longer period of time, which, minus human intervention, is a better evolutionary strategy). The food we eat today is genetically formed from that DNA.
Human civilization begins to blossom (sorry) from the domestication of grains, characterized by saving seeds. Until very recently, saving seeds year to year was a normal part of gardening. People are returning to seed saving these days. The taste and dependability of old fashioned seeds, heirlooms, has sparked a movement away from hybrids which have been bred more for shipping and mechanical picking. Genetically modified seeds (GMO – for “genetically modified organism”) caused a more people to question the direction of our modern food system, including the seeds.
Saving seeds from the plants you eat is not that difficult. Many plants self-pollinate. In beans, all legumes in fact, and tomatoes the flowers “self-pollinate.” In agricultural experiment stations, research shows they “always” self-pollinate; in your organic garden, it won’t be so perfect. Organic gardens have more insects because we don’t spray pesticidal poisons and with more insects you might have a few plants that bees have opened up the flowers and crossed them with other plants.
Fortunately, we can observe the plants we grow next year and remove any that don’t look like their compatriots. Delightfully, the resulting plants should look alike and when they don’t, you can assume that the odd looking duck really is an odd duck and choose to remove it or simply not save seed from it. Other plants have will not thrive unless additional members of that variety are a part of the pollination process. To properly grow squashes, cucumbers and pumpkins to seed, we control the pollination by bees.
The different varieties must be kept separate – nothing like coming up with an Acorzini or a Zuchineck! We isolate varieties that might cross. This can be by distance; planting varieties far enough apart to prevent cross-pollination – hard to do in the average kitchen garden – or by time, planting one variety to bloom and produce early in the year and another later in the season if you have a long growing season. Wind pollinated plants like corn require larger populations that aren’t usually possible in the average garden.
More than a passing fad, seed saving offers a more satisfying, holistic gardening experience. Following the plants from seed to seed duplicates our ancestors and provides resources for more wildlife in our gardens. Many seed savers feel that their saved seeds are their best way to fight companies foisting unproven technology literally, down our throats.
A transplant to Southern California from the mid-west, David King writes and teaches on food gardening in Los Angeles. Focused on food justice issues, he is the founder and inaugural chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles.
Dragon Tongue bean pod by TinyTall
Pumpkin seeds by Jim Trottier
Squash blossoms by Benjamen Chun