Many gardeners are currently pulling up plants and preparing beds for fall. They are laying parts of their garden to rest while their squash lay about, curing in the sun. Some gardeners are already turning their backs on their plots and projecting their green minds through winter and into next spring. But fall is not the time for complacency in the garden. It’s a great time to sneak in some late plantings of lettuce and greens—and it’s the ripest time of year to save some seeds.
Saving seeds sustains us. It is a cultural activity, one that connects us to 12,000 years of the most essential human tradition. Saving seeds also connects us to our familiar food plants in new ways, teaching us to appreciate each plant’s full life cycle from seed to seed. Now, more than ever, saving seeds is also a political act—a good garden practice that doubles as agricultural activism.
While many eaters have begun to connect with local farmers, seek out foods grown with no chemicals, and grow a garden of their own, the farmers who grow seed are an often overlooked part of the concept of sustainable agriculture. Just as the plants we eat have full-circle life cycles, the sustainability concept is most complete when viewed as a full circle. If we leave out one piece, such as the source of our seeds, it’s not truly sustainable. The next step for creating local food systems involves reaching beyond the farmer-consumer connection and exploring all of the people and industries that contribute to food production.
Saving seeds is a simple and enjoyable art that resists corporate monopolies, the dominance of hybrids and GMOs, the destructive power of industrial agriculture, and the patenting of life. So how do you save seeds and the world?
Choose your seed sources carefully. Start by planting open-pollinated varieties as opposed to hybrids or GMOs. You can’t save seeds from a hybrid, plant them, and expect to grow the same variety. This means that growers become entirely dependent on the company that created the hybrid and must purchase their seeds from this company every year. In terms of sustainability, hybrids create a dependence on financially and environmentally costly industrial agriculture systems—which are behind nearly all hybrid seeds. As for GMOs, which are the most hi-tech of all seeds, expensive technology and high chemical inputs are required for their creation and cultivation. It’s entirely illegal to save seeds from GMO plants and unlawful to attempt to reproduce hybrid varieties with proprietary licenses. Not all garden seed catalogs will say which of their varieties are hybrids (F1) or where and how they were grown. Make sure you are getting your original seeds from responsible sources by choosing seed companies that are upfront about offering open-pollinated or heirloom varieties.
Exercise self-control. Although harvesting food, for many plants, interrupts their life-cycle, seed saving and eating go hand in hand. It’s not an either/or choice. So harvest some for your taste buds and leave some of your plants to do their thing. It’s hard to resist picking a full bunch of Prizehead lettuce in its prime, but rein in your appetite and let several plants bolt and flower. Don’t worry— you won’t miss out on your Rose de Berne Tomato sandwich.
Be brave in your garden. Learning a new skill can be intimidating, but the rewards of becoming a seed saver are many. Don’t worry about doing everything by the books. The most successful seed savers start with an attitude of curiosity and experimentation. By carefully observing your plants through their entire life-cycle, you will learn a lot about how they create seeds. Each season try something new and repeat your successful practices from the year before. Bravery in the garden leads to a deeper understanding of our favorite plants and reveals moments of seedy beauty and bounty many gardeners have never experienced.
Cross-pollinate. Although you have lots of vegetative company in your garden, it can sometimes be an isolating experience. You are not alone. There are great gardening resources close at hand. Community gardens, neighbors, relatives, and farmer’s markets are all teaming with growing knowledge. For seed saving, books like Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carole Deppe are excellent resources. Scout around and take a local seed saving workshop or visit an open house at a seed grower’s farm. The internet is another resource for learning more, and a few seed companies are now posting seed saving info on their websites. In the long run, connecting in real time with other gardeners and farmers creates community and fosters an interdependence that strengthens local food networks.
Make your politics practical. Food politics is not just about reading articles and sharing them on Twitter or having inspired rants with friends- although these discursive acts help raise awareness. Food politics is a practice. Knowing how your food was grown and who grew it is the first big step. Being aware of the who, where, and how of the seeds behind the veggies is the next step. More than ever, making the transition from being a consumer to producing food—and seed— for yourself and your community is a political act.
Here’s how we save tomato seeds for the Hudson Valley Seed Library catalog.