Save seeds to prevent food shortages
If you grow vegetables, then you are aware that many seed companies had trouble filling orders the past two seasons. A number had to shut down their on-line order pages for as much as a week at a time just to take care of the massive pile of seed requests. We have endured shortages of everyday items like toilet paper and sanitizer, so it is understandable that many are concerned about the food situation. Seed saving is once again popular. It isn’t anything new for me though. I’ve been saving seeds for decades. It isn’t so much about food availability for me, it’s preserving history and genetic diversity that got me started. You need some basic knowledge about pollination and cross pollination and an understanding of the difference between hybrids and open pollinated plants, however it isn’t all that hard.
Learn what seeds are best to save
First of all, if you want to save seeds, know your vegetables. You want open-pollinated varieties. This means that the seeds will reliably produce the same fruits from saved seed. These are the seeds that our grandparents and great grandparents planted year after year. Hybrids only arrived on the scene in the mid 20th Century, however since they generally produce more and tend to be somewhat disease-resistant, they have gained a huge foothold in the market. Hybrids, for the most part are not GMO (genetically modified) and the home gardener doesn’t really have access to GMO seeds. A regular hybrid is simply the cross between similar plants to produce an offspring with the best qualities of both. This is just like the Labradoodle dog is the result of the cross between a Labrador and a poodle. A GMO seed would be like the result of a cross between a dog and an apple tree. It can’t happen without gene manipulation in a lab. So, there really isn’t anything wrong with a hybrid, the seeds simply can’t be depended on to produce offspring exactly like the parent. Open-pollinated plants do. Many seed companies like to offer hybrids because the customer has to return to them each year to purchase fresh seed. However there are a few places where the vendor encourages seed saving and offers only open-pollinated varieties.
There are seed saving groups all over the world
Here in the U.S., Seed Savers Exchange is a group of gardeners dedicated to locating and preserving old open-pollinated varieties. They offer a retail catalog for home gardeners, however this is just the tip of the iceberg. Members to the Exchange have access to a massive Yearbook where over 20,000 rare or endangered fruits and vegetables are offered. They are dedicated to bio-diversity and encourage seed-saving and re-offering seeds you have grown out from requested seeds. Seed Guardians is a similar organization in the United Kingdom and Diggers Club in Australia also works to preserve old indigenous varieties. Baker Creek Heirlooms and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are both seed companies that also offer open-pollinated varieties. Some of which are quite rare and unique. They are also enthusiastic about helping people save their seeds. Tom Brown, of North Carolina is on a mission to search and recover old apple varieties long forgotten on homesteads and abandoned farms. He grafts scion wood from the ancient trees and grows new trees to help keep these old apples alive for future generations. He's had so many requests that he's at least a year behind on orders. These are not exactly seed vaults, like Svalbard, where seeds are stored for years in case of a global catastrophe. They want the seeds and plants shared, grown and loved by gardeners around the globe.
Save seeds by starting with something easy
If you are wanting to try your hand at seed-saving, start small with only one or two varieties. Squash are easy and my favorite Yellow Summer Crookneck, is a great first-timer choice. Since squash are insect-pollinated and bees visit any open flower, make this your only squash for the season. There are ways around this, however we're starting with the very basics. Insects can carry pollen from any other variety of squash nearby and cross-pollinate what you are trying to save, so keep that in mind. Plan on about six plants to ensure good genetic diversity and yes, you’ll have a ton of squash to eat, so be prepared for that. Squash freezes beautifully, so be sure to put some by for the winter. Choose one fruit from each plant to let mature and ripen. They will turn more orange than yellow and develop bumpy and tough skins as they mature. In the image above, you'll see a mature crookneck squash. The squash you harvest for your table are immature and won’t produce viable seeds. You have to let them get more pumpkin-like, since after all, a squash is simply a variety of pumpkin. When you have trouble denting the skin with your fingernail and the stem is dry, the squash are ready to harvest for their seeds. Bring your harvested squash indoors and let them sit for about 10 days to further ripen out of the elements. Cut the ripened squash open and scoop out the seeds. I like to rinse mine on a screen to get rid of the excess pulp and then sit them to dry undisturbed for a couple of weeks. You can then store your saved seeds in jars or envelopes somewhere dark and at a constant room temperature. Squash seed are generally viable for 5 or 6 years. Once you save seed from all 6 of your squash, mix them up to keep the genetic material diverse. You’ll have a ton of squash seeds, so why not share?
Bean seeds are easy to save too
Beans are also very easy seeds to save. The flowers are self-fertile, so even though bees like to visit them, they aren't necessary for pollination. Separate your open-pollinated bean varieties by at least 20 feet and plant at least 10 plants. Let a handful of bean pods mature and dry on each plant, pick them and shell the beans into a container. Let them dry another week and after that, I pop mine in the freezer for a few days to kill any insects or bug eggs that may have hitched a ride. After that, package up and save for the next year. If you let the last of your bean harvest dry, you can always use the dry beans as soup beans. They're wonderful that way.
Share your extra seed with others
Sharing your seeds with other gardeners is fun. We have a great Plant and Seed Exchange right here at DG. You can also just share with friends and family or donate to your local Seed Library if you have one. Seed libraries are springing up all over the world right now. This is a designated spot where gardeners can donate their extra seeds to help other gardeners or share rare seeds with others. Many book libraries offer a spot for a seed library and Master Gardener groups often manage the seeds. The seeds are packaged in envelopes and people are welcome to come in and choose a few, hopefully returning saved seeds at the end of the season for others to use. There’s no charge, just the verbal agreement to return some of the harvest at year’s end. If you can’t, that’s ok too, however sharing is encouraged. Return your seeds in clearly labeled containers and the people managing the Seed Library will divide them into their own envelopes with printed growing instructions. It is as easy as that to contribute.
Add to global food diversity by searching for heirlooms yourself
There is another way you can contribute. Why not search for heirlooms yourself? Start by asking older folks in your family what vegetable or fruit they remember most fondly that isn't available anymore. Who grew it last? Start digging for answers and enjoy the mystery. Ask older folks at your house of worship and track down leads. You'll probably talk to a lot of strangers who end up blossoming into friends (yes, pun intended.) Once people learn that you are interested, chances are, they will search you out on their own. I know that has happened to me. You'll help save old varieties from extinction and that is so important as there are thousands of food crops that have gone extinct over the last century. You can help by finding and growing these rare seeds. Even if you are an apartment dweller in an urban area, you can do your part. If you find any old heirlooms and can't grow them yourself, let us know and we'll find someone who would love to help. There's always a way to keep the heritage alive and growing strong.