“The reason for alarm and concern about the loss of native strains is the irreplaceable nature of the genetic wealth. The only place genes can be stored is in living systems; either living branches such as the budwood of apple trees or in the living embryos of grain and vegetable seeds. The native varieties become extinct once they are dropped in favor of introduced seed. That extinction can take place in a single year if the seeds are cooked and eaten instead of saved for seed stock. Quite literally, the genetic heritage of a millennium in a particular valley can disappear in a single bowl of porridge.”
—Dr. Garrison Wilkes, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts(2)
A Heritage Lost
Organic food might seem like a new fad, but many of the agricultural practices go back thousands of years. For millennia humans have been eating roots and berries, returning to their favorite harvesting spots every year.
People weeded, mulched, built compost, and saved seeds, selecting the varieties that grew best in their fields. This was the beginning of traditional plant breeding, and today people all over the world still practice careful planning and selection to develop the crops that work for them.
Until just a few generations ago saving seeds was something almost everyone knew how to do. It was as much a part of life as eating and raising children. A vast diversity of agricultural seeds were grown and saved again and again, passed from mother to daughter and all around the community, carried in the pockets of travelers and traded for other species, different varieties, new kinds of food for next year’s table.
In the past two centuries seeds have become another form of capital to be owned, manipulated, and profited from, rather than stewarded and shared for the benefit of all. Now most farmers and gardeners get their seeds from seed companies and government agencies.
Many traditional varieties have been patented by corporations and profit-minded individual growers. This rush to the plate for the ownership of living heritage is an insult to the right of all living things to be free, and it is a fallacy at best when it comes to seeds. Most organic seed growers agree that the best varieties are always those bred locally, recently, and with specific bioregional conditions in mind. Each bioregion, each farm, each small garden plot will have its own unique circumstances and will produce the seeds that do the best in that microclimate.
The privatization of life on any scale should and must be resisted, and at this point one of the best ways to protect seeds from patent is to grow them, publish detailed descriptions online and in catalogs, and give them away or sell them to other growers. Once they are in the public domain they are still at risk of colonization by the corporate culture, but at least the good traits have been spread around for individual growers to use and develop.
In addition to privatization, many more species and varieties go extinct each year because of contamination from genetically modified organisms, the industrialization of agriculture, and widespread habitat destruction. We have lost most of the garden seed diversity it took ten thousand years to develop. For example, fewer than 6 percent of the garden bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) varieties listed by the USDA as commercially available in 1903 still exist today in the germplasm collection of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory.(3)
This is typical of all vegetables. In the past hundred years, with the advent of large scale industrial agriculture, we have lost about 95 percent of the garden seed diversity that was available in the early 1900s.(4) Even less is actually accessible to the public via seed catalogs and other commercial sources.
Hundreds of plant and insect species go extinct every day, and we can assume that the same trend is happening below the surface in the soil communities. Extinction is real, based on the disappearance of genetic material, and human life depends upon a deep diversity of non- human species to survive. In short, what we have is all we have as far as genetics is concerned. Barring any miraculous discovery of new genes flowing out of a magic spring somewhere, when it’s gone, it’s gone forever, and if much more of it goes then so do we.
Saving Seeds, Saving Ourselves
The National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), a project of the USDA, holds seeds and other propagative material (vegetative cuttings and tissue cultures) for plants from around the world. Samples are made available to any qualified researcher, even backyard breeders and con- servationists. The folks at the NPGS strongly encourage collaboration: They want you to characterize, evaluate, and otherwise document what you get, and to send them back some seeds after the harvest.
Sadly, many of these seeds are lost every year due to inadequate funding and irresponsible stewardship. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, most of the seed samples brought into the United States before 1950 were lost “due to inadequate knowledge and lack of suitable storage facilities.”(5) And now, because of poor finances, bad politics, and paranoia about “invasive” species, plant expeditions for the purpose of conservation and discovery are fewer, farther between, and more strictly regulated than ever.
Not that current large scale conservation efforts should be overlooked. Indeed, because the future of public access seed conservation projects seems surely doomed in the face of budget cuts, gene patents, and irrational politics, it is essential that we get as many of those seeds into the public domain as possible.
We must also acknowledge that such important work needs to be shared. It cannot be left up to a small fraction of humankind to safeguard the genetic diversity for all. Stewardship must occur on all scales, from neighborhood seed swaps to bioregional associations to international collaborations.
The seeds we have today are the foundation of tomorrow’s world, and by saving them we save ourselves. If we embrace the need for conservation and integrate seed saving into our garden cycles, then we still have a fighting chance. Through saving seeds and sharing plants and information, we can begin to honor and perpetuate, rather than marginalize and endanger, nonhuman species and create a thriving natural culture.
All responsibility aside, I can honestly say that seed saving is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. More than most things, saving seeds feels like it is worth doing. The finer arts of seed saving seem to be worth knowing, and the seeds themselves are cer- tainly worth having, storing, and sharing. Seed saving is possibly the most important piece of the human ecology puzzle. Seed savers reap a natural education and a deep spiritual empowerment unavailable any- where else. Homegrown seeds are free and tend to be more vigorous and naturally adapted to your garden site. So why not give them a try?
Conservation at the Grassroots Level
Luckily seed saving has managed to keep a few strongholds in the hearts and gardens of the people. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is an Iowa-based organization boasting eight thousand members who work together to keep traditional heirloom varieties from extinction and to develop new strains for the future. SSE lists more than eleven thousand varieties of garden vegetables in its annual yearbook, hosts an annual gathering, and offers a public online catalog.
Several nonprofit organizations access and distribute seeds with the express intent of protecting and perpetuating public domain varieties, such as Native Seeds/SEARCH in Arizona, the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) in Berkeley, the Organic Seed Alliance, and Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Each of these organizations has its own angle, such as conserving native food plants, developing agricultural seeds, or perpetuating local food security.
Through facilitating the exchange of seeds and information, these projects mediate a flow of genetic resources into the hands of organic gardeners like you and me, enabling us to participate in conservation while growing lush, diverse gardens at home.
Unfortunately, just saving the seeds of our favorite vegetable varieties is not enough. We must seek out and preserve as many different types of plants as possible, regardless of their perceived economic value to humans, and we must also preserve and renew the varied habitats they came from. This is where kinship gardening comes in.
In the mid-1700s Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus classified the world’s known plants. He did so based on what their flowers looked like. For the next 250 years all new plants were categorized according to their floral structure, but in the late twentieth century scientists were able to unlock many of the doors to the genetic mysteries in plants and animals. Using this new information, a team of the world’s top ten botanists, called the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG), began reevaluating the taxonomy of the plants based on their genetic structure rather than just their physical appearance.
Using the data from the APG, molecular biologist Alan Kapuler developed a series of detailed layouts that he calls kinship maps. These maps enable us to see which plants are botanical kin to one another and, when applied to garden design, provide a strategic plan for preserving plant diversity.
My first visit to Dr. Kapuler, aka Mushroom, in the early spring of 2000, changed my life forever. At the time he was research director for Seeds of Change, an all organic seed company that he cofounded in 1989. I remember following him around the field; he had several different seed crops in full bloom at the time, and the field was alight with color and chaos.
As we walked through the two acre field known as Brown’s Garden, Mushroom waved his arms around, dropping names of obscure plant species and ranting about world politics. Inside a three thousand square foot greenhouse along the edge of the field he had planted a kinship conservation garden representing five hundred species of rare and interesting plants. The kinship garden was a world in itself, where agave and banana, olive and jasmine grew among their botanical relations, and where a novice like myself could begin to see the relationships among kin.
Mushroom believes this concept of kinship is at the core of understanding how to conserve and perpetuate diversity. He says, “The destruction of habitats continues worldwide at an inconceivably rapid pace. The more we explore, the more we destroy. The result is the loss of whole communities of organisms. Our gardens can become alternative environments for the refugees from the struggle for the earth. . . . The idea is to explore the fabric of life by planting gardens that have as many different kinds of plants as possible. Thus we achieve several things simultaneously: conservation, diversification, education, exploration, and discovery.”(6)
Kinship gardening helps us learn the relationships of the plants to one another, which in turn helps us realize the relationships of the plant communities to ourselves. By taking the time to examine the kinships in our gardens we can better understand what we are stewarding and can see what’s missing. If we see each garden not just as a resource for our own needs but also as a storehouse for genetic diversity, then we integrate our work with the larger ecological community. The resulting gardens are not only diverse and essential but multifunctional and extraordinarily beautiful as well.
In addition to the kinship garden, Mushroom and his partner, Linda, maintain more than two acres of seed gardens in Corvallis, Oregon, and save and distribute hundreds of varieties annually. The Kapulers have a small seed company, Peace Seeds, which offers samples of new varieties and forgotten crops. They publish the Peace Seeds Resource Journal, packed with stories, reflections, and data from their many garden trials. At home they have a large room filled to the ceiling with about ten thousand species of seeds from all around the globe.
These are but a few of the many seed conservation projects world wide, and an Internet search under “organic seed” will yield many fruitful leads toward excellent sources and contacts for your steward- ship. Because conserving diversity means perpetuating it, each of these projects always has a huge cache of seeds that need to be grown out: I even have one myself, more than I can handle. Thus, even if it seems like enough people are dedicating their lives to conserving and perpetuating biodiversity, there will always be more to do.
Not everyone can grow and save seeds from several thousand species of plants—nor do they need to. There are 250,000 documented species of plants on Earth. If every gardener in the United States were to steward just one species, saving seeds every year and sharing them with her neighbors and children, then the world flora would be preserved three hundred times over. Once you start to diversify your garden, you may be surprised at how many species fit into each small area.
Seed Stewardship for the Home Gardener
Seed stewardship can take on many forms, from actually growing and saving seeds to making important connections between community members and the seeds they keep. Again, we’ll start in the garden.
Seed saving can be as simple as pie or as complex as pi. There are many levels of expertise, from the casual gardener who saves her own lettuce seeds to the serious plant breeder who keeps meticulous records, hand pollinates everything, and produces new varieties every year.
It is impossible to learn the finer aspects of this ancient art from just this short chapter or even a whole book, and I cannot overstate the importance of both intentional study and experiential education in this arena. You will need to engage in much more study and practice than this chapter!
In the meantime, here are some basic tips on selection, collection, processing, and storage.
Tools of the Trade
Before you start saving seeds you will need to add some new tools to your garden shed. Some people dedicate a room or even a whole building to processing and storing seeds and seed-saving equipment; others keep everything in a closet and take it out when they need it. Whatever scale you work on, here is a list of things you will need to start saving seeds. Most of these items can be found at a thrift store or yard sale, or perhaps in your own kitchen.
- Strips of fabric to mark selected plants
- Pencils and some cut-up old mini blinds for labeling seed trays, pots, and garden plants
- Scissors for a variety of uses
- Garden clippers for cutting seed heads
- Bowls in assorted sizes for winnowingJars for storage and/or fermenting
- Buckets, clean and dry, for storage, fermenting, and fan winnowing
- Screens in assorted grades for separating seeds from chaff
- Trays, cookie sheets, and cake pans for sorting and winnowing
- Fans, with adjustable speeds, for winnowing
- Tarps for collecting and threshing
- Airtight containers, coolers, tubs, and buckets for storing seed containers
- Seed containers: envelopes, small paper and plastic bags for storing individual varieties
- Tape and paper clips for holding envelopes and bags shut
- Camera for documenting varietiesNotebook for documenting varieties
- Funnels for filling containers
- Measuring spoons for scooping samples
To create an ecological agriculture, both at home and culture wide, we must first diversify our attitudes about what plants are valuable and why. In food plants perfect fruit, predictable yield, and high market value are the three most common traits people look for in what they grow, but what about cold and/or drought tolerance or pest and disease resistance?
Some GMO varieties are bred to resist pests and diseases, but this artificial resistance lasts only a few generations before the pests and diseases mutate and continue to find food where they always have. Further, genetically modified plants breed rampantly with wild and heirloom varieties and are contaminating traditional gene pools worldwide. These heirloom/heritage varieties have proven their worth over many years, through insect and disease resistance, superior nutritional content, better yield and stature, and more predictable cold tolerance— yet today they are being rapidly lost.
An integrated organic agriculture, which includes beneficial polycultures, fertile soil, and naturally bred disease resistance, brings more lasting, ecological results. Traditional plant breeding, where quality comes from years of careful selection in a living garden, promotes lifetimes of food security and does not carry the unknown and potentially ominous threats of genetic engineering.
You need not be a geneticist to breed plants—anyone can do it. In her book Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties, geneticist Carol Deppe points out that all of our major food crops came from amateur plant breeders and notes that until recently, all gardeners and farmers saved their own seeds; this “amateur” level of plant breeding was all there was.(7)
When you save seeds you are selecting for certain genetic traits, whether you realize it or not. Perhaps you are inadvertently selecting the plants that have mature seeds at the time you happened to harvest them, or plants that resisted a disease that killed off the rest of the patch before you came along.
Thus the more careful and methodical you are about observing and documenting your seed-saving work, the more likely you are to develop and conserve traits that you specifically want and that grow well in your specific environment.
There is no blueprint for the perfect plant. You will have to choose what traits you need for the niches you are trying to fill in your garden, your life, and your bioregion. Here is a list of some of the most common things that people select for:
Stress, pest, and/or disease resistance. For example, if powdery mildew is common in your area, then select plants that resist it. If you select for the same disease resistance several years in a row, you will achieve what’s known as horizontal disease resistance, which spans many genes and protects crops from several angles.
Vigor and size. Big, fast-growing plants are generally healthier and contain more genetic strength.
Volume, length, and predictability of yield. Choose the plants that fruit when you want them to, and for as long as you want them to. Color, which often indicates nutrient content. Purple fruits contain different nutrients than yellow ones. Select a variety of colors and you will ensure a diverse nutritional intake. Nutritional value, which usually requires lab testing. See above.
Storage value/shelf life. Some onions store well into the winter, but others will mold within a few weeks. This goes for many different foods, and storage value often depends on genetic traits.
Ease of harvest, processing, or use. For example, certain kinds of corn, wheat, and other grains are very difficult to thresh (remove from their seedpods) without expensive machinery. Look for plants that cater to low-tech processing methods, such as hull-less barley or easy-peel garlic varieties. Diversity versus uniformity of individual plants. Conventional agriculture breeds uniform fruits and vegetables that all look alike and can all be harvested at once. For home gardens uniformity means too much of the same thing at once and works against our goal of many layered diversity. Look for plants that are different from the rest, and use those unique traits to develop new varieties.
Compatibility with a particular microclimate, such as cold or drought tolerance. For example, if your garden doesn’t get much water, save seeds from the plants that thrive in the dry conditions. If you notice that a plant does well in an odd microclimate, make note of it and save the seeds for future use in similar environmental conditions.Keeping good records is essential for good seed stewardship, from noting growing conditions and dates to maturity through keeping track of where the seeds go after they have been harvested and distributed. The more notes you have, the better you will be able to tell whether your efforts are successful.
You may not be able to tell whether a specific trait is actually from genotypic (related to the genes) or phenotypic (related to the environment) conditions. This distinction will be important as you choose and develop varieties to suit your needs and resources.
Documentation will help you recognize patterns in this regard, but in the spirit of spreading our eggs among multiple baskets, it makes sense to select for several traits at once; this helps ensure the genetic diversity of the offspring and makes up for conditions you may have overlooked. If you select for only one trait year after year, you may pigeonhole your plants and create a situation called inbreeding depression, which results in a loss of vigor and disease resistance and a decline in overall viability.
Some of this relates to whether or not the plant is naturally an inbreeder or an outcrosser, and here we stretch into scientific territory that is best covered elsewhere. For now I’ll keep it simple and say that the more diverse your selection criteria, the more diverse your seed stock will tend to be. To avoid inbreeding depression, grow large populations of plants for seeds and educate yourself about the individual needs of the species you are working with.
Choose and prioritize the selection criteria that make the most sense for you, and clearly label the plants that you intend to save for seeds while they are in their prime. Make notes in your garden journal. Later, when the seeds are mature but the rest of the plant is in decline, it will be hard to remember which plant had that brilliant orange flower or which was the most vigorous before the gophers wiped out most of the patch.
Throughout the growing season go through and remove, or “rogue out,” what you don’t want, including any diseased plants or plants that are clearly failing to mature. Most of these are fine for compost, but if they are severely diseased, burn them.
Some advanced plant breeders cultivate “cesspools” of pest populations and diseased plants and test out the resistance of their varieties there. This practice can be very risky for backyard gardeners, though, and is perhaps best left to more experienced seed growers.
I have heard some organic growers argue that it is okay to use pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers on seed crops, to keep them from spreading seed-borne diseases and/or other weaknesses.
When we dose the plants with pesticides, however, we breed pesticide dependent varieties and pesticide resistant pests. Seeds selected for optimum performance in organic conditions, after exposure to the pests, diseases, and other influences typical to these conditions, will produce plants that thrive through a diversity of challenges.
The Butterfly Effect
Ecology teaches us that everything is connected, and that everything we do has a ripple effect on the cosmic whole. We demonstrate this principle with every seed we save, through something called pleiotropy. Pleiotropy occurs when multiple, often seemingly unrelated, physical effects are caused by a single altered gene or pair of altered genes.
Carol Deppe calls pleiotropy a genetic version of the ancient Taoist understanding that you cannot do just one thing. She goes on to quote Lao-tzu in saying, “The way the world works is like a bow, when you pull the string, the top comes down, the bottom comes up, and all the parts move.”(8)
An example: A gardener saves seeds from a tomato because she likes the pink color. She doesn’t notice that the tomatoes with that color also have larger flowers than the rest. The larger flowers attract a certain kind of butterfly, which begins to thrive in her garden as she continues to grow the pink tomatoes. That butterfly’s larvae happen to be food for an endangered bird species, which happens to also eat a certain kind of garden pest, and so on.
In chaos theory we encounter a similar phenomenon called the butterfly effect, named for Edward Lorenz’s theory that every flap of a bird or butterfly’s wing could alter wind patterns around the globe.Real-life examples of the butterfly effect can be found in:
- The weather, in which small changes in tides or winds affect global patterns;
- The stock market, where slight fluctuations in one market will send unpredictable ripples through another;
- Psychology, when thought patterns are altered significantly by tiny changes in brain chemistry or environmental stimuli;
- The natural sciences, where seemingly unexplainable phenomena continuously point back to initial conditions, such as when a plant displays characteristics that were present in a parent plant several generations back.
We can use pleiotropy and the butterfly effect to initiate chain reactions in our gardens. Every seed planted has the potential to become a population of naturalized plants, and every trait selected could prevail into future generations. Thus it is imperative that we be cautious, thoughtful, and inclusive in our plans and selections. The more thorough we are in our design of the foundations of a natural system, the more beneficial will be the resulting long-term effects.
Collect seeds in the afternoon, when there is no dew on the plants. Pods should be as dry as you can get them with the seeds still inside. You can either cut the pods into a bag or a clean, dry bucket or just lean the plants over the container and shake the seeds into it.
Some plants have evolved for optimum seed dispersal, which means that often by the time the pods are dry enough to harvest the seeds all shatter onto the ground, blow into the wind, or get eaten by birds. To cut back on losses of this kind, cover maturing pods with a shade cloth to keep out birds and block the wind, or spread a tarp on the ground to catch dry seeds or mature fruits as they fall. You can also cut the plants just before maturity and dry them on a rack indoors, in a cool, dry area.
Sometimes almost mature pods can be harvested and dried indoors. Label seed envelopes or small pieces of paper as soon as you bring the seeds in, with as much information as you can fit. Include date of harvest, date of planting, traits you selected for, species and variety names, area in the garden where it grew, where you originally got the seeds, and anything else that seems relevant. Let this paper follow the seed crop into storage, and you will always have the information at your fingertips.
Threshing and Winnowing
Most seeds mature within a protective coating called chaff. To process seeds for storage and replanting later, you must first remove the chaff; otherwise it will rot in storage and cause the seeds to go bad. To remove the bulk of the chaff, cut the plants down and fold them up in a clean tarp. Stomp and dance on the tarp, which will break open the pods and separate the seeds from the chaff. Be careful to avoid getting a lot of dirt and other contaminants into the seeds.
Now you can pour the broken-up seed/chaff mixture into a bucket and screen or winnow it. An assortment of screen sizes on hand will help you either catch or sift out varying sizes of seeds. Winnowing, or blowing off the chaff, can be done by blowing over the seeds while rotating them in a large bowl, or by pouring them from one container to another, letting a fan or just a gentle breeze gently blow away the chaff.
The most viable seeds will always be the heaviest, and thus will fall straight down, while the lighter seeds—those with less genetic material— will float farther on the wind. Select only the heaviest 10 percent or so for storage, and dump the rest of the seeds and chaff into the compost or spread it around the garden where you want that type of plant to volunteer.
Floating and Fermenting
Sometimes, as with plants in the onion family (Liliaceae), the chaff is wrapped around the seeds in a way that makes it very difficult to remove. Try pouring the partially cleaned seeds into a bucket of clean water. The chaff and nonviable seeds will float, and the good seeds will sink to the bottom. Now pour off the stuff on top, strain the seeds, and dry thoroughly (see below).
Many plants, including tomatoes, squash, and strawberries, make seeds within fleshy fruits and must be wet-processed. To do this, harvest the fruits when they are very ripe but not rotten and squish the seeds out into a glass jar or recycled container. Add a small amount of water and set the jar aside for a week or so to ferment.
Within a week the slimy protective seed coats will rot off, a thick skin of mold will form on top, and the mature seeds will sink to the bottom. Don’t let them sit too long or they will rot (or sprout) and die. Fill the container to the top with water, pour off the mold, rinse the seeds a few more times, and strain out the remaining liquid.
All seeds, even if they seem totally dry at harvest, should be fully dried on a rack or in an electric dehydrator before storage. An electric or solar dehydrator with a thermostat control works best—run it overnight on the lowest setting, no higher than ninety-six degrees.
If you choose to use a drying rack, let the seeds dry for at least two weeks, and be sure to shield your drying area from mice and birds, who will feast on your harvest if given the chance.
Store seeds in the opposite conditions from those in which they will sprout. This usually means cold, dry, and dark. I store my seeds in bags and envelopes inside insulated picnic coolers (available for a few dollars at any thrift store) or in recycled five-gallon buckets (find them for free behind any restaurant) with tight fitting lids.
Oregon seed grower Frank Morton recommends using stackable plastic bins, available for a few dollars each at most hardware stores. He puts the seeds themselves in ziplock bags with a labeled seed envelope inside. When the supply in the bag dwindles to the point that the rest of it will fit in the envelope, he knows it is time to move the seeds into the “grow next” pile. He also uses the big bins for winnowing and transporting seeds and for storing fresh harvested seeds temporarily until they can be processed.
Some seeds should be stored in a freezer for best results. These include peas and fava beans, which are susceptible to pea weevils, whose larvae will die if frozen. Also freeze seeds from members of the onion family, such as onions, leeks, and chives, which are particularly short-lived and last much longer when frozen. In general the longevity and viability of your seeds will be largely dependent on storage conditions, so don’t overlook this important aspect of stewardship.
The best way to learn how to select, collect, process, and store seeds is by working alongside someone who has been doing it or years. Look around for local seed savers, and visit and interact with as many of them as you can. You will find that some are strictly by the book, with specific policies about isolation, selection, record keeping, and varietal purity. Others are all about mixing it all up, developing new varieties every year, and literally tossing everything into the wind when it comes to genetics.
Some of the most devoted seedgeeks, like Mushroom, will tell you to trust your instincts, that it is easy, that you should just “do it again and again, don’t worry about reading the book. Forget about it. You get the seeds, you plant them, again and again, and that’s it.”(9)
Remember that we can protect diversity only by keeping it alive, and most seeds will perish if stored for more than a few years. You must grow and save them again every few years, and/or distribute them to others who will grow them.
This massive, perpetual cycle of work and rebirth is daunting for even the most avid seed saver, and even large scale intergovernmental conservation programs have failed to come up with an adequate plan for regenerating the vast quantities of disappearing species and varieties. Still, every saved seed holds the potential for centuries of food, so do what you can and hope for the best.
Other Ways to Steward Seeds
If we are serious about an ecological life, we must save seeds. For some people, however, this is just not possible right now. Luckily there are several other important aspects to seed stewardship. First, we can educate ourselves and others about biodiversity and genetic conservation to help build awareness and promote relevant products and programs. Next, we can participate in local land conservation, habitat renewal, and community-supported organic agriculture projects. Finally, organizing community seed exchange events and connecting like minded people with resources and opportunities can have exponential effects toward long term stewardship. Let’s look deeper into this last point.
Seed Exchange and Distribution
We know that if nobody grows the seeds, they will die. Not only must we continue to grow them, we must get them out into the world where others will grow them too. To this end, most seed savers participate in some form of exchange, from independent mail-order seed companies to Internet lists.
The most dynamic type of seed exchange is the community seed swap. A seed swap is something like a gardeners’ flea market with an emphasis on seeds, plants, and propagative material. At my first swap people brought vegetable and herb seeds, strawberry plants, and several varieties of home brewed beer. Only a few people came, but we had a great time drinking the beer and carrying on about plants and politics.
The next year almost a hundred people showed up, bringing a large diversity of seeds, plants, fruits, vegetables, herbal remedies, handcrafts, and more. Although it seemed like everyone left with as much as they had brought, we still had a large, diverse cache of seeds left over— enough for twenty gardens. It was like magic beans or stone soup—it seemed the more we gave away, the more we had to share. Later I recognized varieties from the seed swap in the gardens of my neighbors. I also recognized more of the neighbors themselves and saw that our annual seed exchange had become an essential component to building our ecological community.
Growing and sharing seeds builds community and promotes diversity on all levels. In a way, mixing plants, seeds, cultures, and individuals is a form of inter-kindom procreation. And like other forms of pro- creation, seed swapping is another way to simultaneously ensure the survival of our species and have a great time! Anyone can organize a seed swap with some simple resources and just a few hours. I will get deeper into the details of organizing community events in the next few chapters, but here’s a quick lesson on seed swaps.
First, decide whether to work alone or in a group. Two or three people is plenty. For a single person the process takes about twenty hours, stretched out over several months. Take a minute to jot down goals. This may include short-term incentives like “Get free seed for my garden” or long-term goals such as “Increase the food security and genetic diversity of my bioregion.”
Build a Seed and Herb Drying Rack
Build a simple yet effective drying rack for seeds and plants with recycled window screens, wooden slats or branches, and some old bicycle tubes. To make a tril-evel rack, which will provide approximately twenty-seven square feet of drying space, you will need eight two-inch by three-foot straight branches, six full-sized bicycle tubes (for 26″ tires or larger) and an assortment of old window screens no larger than three feet long on any side.
Cut the tubes in half lengthwise to make twelve long strips. Then tie the strips to the end of the slats. Tie each tier together, slide the screens on, and suspend the rack from the ceiling in a cool, dark, well ventilated room, using four metal hooks.
For very small seeds, line the screens with newspaper or cardboard to keep the seeds from falling through. For larger seeds, just spread them out on the screens and keep the birds and rodents away. Most seeds take about two weeks to dry, but this will vary greatly according to climate, ventilation, and other factors.
This rack also works great for culinary and medicinal herbs. Just wash them, remove the stems, and, if you prefer, chop them up. Then spread them out and check back in a couple of weeks.
Now find out whether anyone else around you is doing similar work. A local university is a good place to start. Make a list of contacts. Visit garden centers. Look online and ask around for local seed savers. There may already be seed exchanges going on nearby.
Establish a date and place for the event several months in advance. Possible sites include schools, churches, bookstores, parks, community centers, and private homes. Most places will donate the space for free, and many will provide tables, chairs, and even audiovisual equipment. Make a list of what you will need for the event, such as tables, outdoor shelter, transportation, photocopies, volunteers to help set up, and telephone and Internet access for promoting the event.
If you circulate this list with a flyer for the event, you will probably be able to get many things donated. You may need to make a nominal investment for photocopying and extra seed envelopes; this money can be recovered later by putting out a donation jar at the seed swap. At past events our donation jar has yielded anywhere from forty-five to three hundred dollars.
Look for local scholars and professionals to invite to the seed swap as guest speakers or workshop instructors. These might be university students or professors, landscape designers, farmers, authors, or a vaudeville troupe doing puppet shows about seed saving. At a seed swap people are often preoccupied with the seeds themselves, but a short workshop or demonstration goes over well and adds another dimension to the gathering. Also invite activist groups or garden clubs to set up information tables.
Many people will bring seeds to the swap, but others will come empty-handed. Sequester seed donations from local growers and seed companies in advance so there is surplus at the event. See the section on seed storage, and stash the donations accordingly until the day of the swap.
Make a flyer and post it around town about three weeks before the event. To reach a wider variety of people, send a press release to local media sources, and follow up with phone calls a few days before the event. Bring tables and chairs, set up an hour or two early, and display the seeds so they are easily accessible.
It helps to make small signs to help organize seeds by plant family, so people know where to look and where to put the seeds they bring. Provide empty envelopes for people to stash small quantities of seeds. Recycled junk mail/business reply envelopes work great—seal them, cut them in half, and you have two little envelopes that can be labeled, filled with seeds, and folded shut.
As people arrive the seed swap will probably take one of two shapes. Sometimes participants set up personal displays of their seeds and other goods. This is the “marketplace” version of seed swapping, where people negotiate individual exchanges with one another. I prefer the other version, the potluck-style seed swap, where people add their seed to what is out on the tables, perhaps with a note about the variety and growing procedures. Donate any surplus at the end of the event to a local seed bank or garden project, or store it until the next seed swap.
Start the event with a circle of all people who come. Have everyone introduce themselves and identify what types of seeds or goods they brought. This is also a great time to announce workshops or guest speakers, pass around a mailing list, and point out the donation jar. Then everyone just goes for it. The only rule is: Don’t take more than half of anything.
In the past seven years I have traded seed for homemade lotions, teas, baskets, gourds, jewelry, vegetables, lodging, herbal medicines, and counseling. Through face-to-face exchange I have shared seeds with more than two thousand people, and those seeds have surely been passed on again. This simple act builds regional food security and stewards global genetic diversity. In addition, you’ll save money, meet interesting people, make good use of surplus resources, and have heaps of good organic fun!
Now that we’ve explored some of the elements of an ecological garden, how can we bring it all together into a functional whole? The next chapter will outline a design formula that will help you integrate these elements, along with the other aspects of your home and lifestyle, into a holistic ecological system.
Seed Swaps for Cultural Evolution
by Nick Routledge
The Sages insist there is a fundamental unity through all diversity. So where’s the evidence? One of the most potent examples may well be manifested in the palpable reality of the humble seed swap.
Think about it.
Take two ostensibly separate worlds, those of humans and of plants, and imagine any singular occasion that better affords the opportunity to both witness and nurture the “energetics of togetherness” between them.
At a seed swap, is it the people who are collectively engendering deeper and stronger interrelationships in the green world, or vice versa, and then some? Where are the boundaries between the dynamic interplays of these two cultures? Look with eyes that see.
They don’t exist. They’re an illusion. And seed swaps don’t simply serve to drop the veil of separateness, they’re also fundamentally about catalyzing the birth of profound collective synergies and strengths that each realm, plant and human, brings to the other.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a higher expression of the gift of life to itself, anywhere.
Which is, of course, why seed swaps are where the sharing and creation of real power is grounded, not the rootless and utterly temporary illusion that passes for social physicianship we see in capitols and elsewhere. Deep gardeners know that you can walk out of a seed swap with a form of authentic power in your pocket, with the literal potential to transform the politics of an entire bioregion. And of course the cosmic irony is that this form of power transcends all political differences.
As the Sages say, conscious evolution is not about gaining power, but about becoming power. Perhaps that’s why our experience around seed swaps consistently demonstrates that they don’t just attract the finest seeds in any locale, but some of the finest people too. Local seed swaps are where the deepest indigenous wisdom of land and people becomes most potentized, shared, and enlivened; they stand at the arrowpoint of the evolutionary impulse in any bioregion.
Notes for Chapter 6
1. Georgie Starbuck Galbraith, New York Times, 6 May 1960. As found on www.moore-warner.com/quotes.php, 3 December 2005.
2. Dr. Garrison Wilkes, as quoted in Kent Whealy, “Rescuing Traditional Food Crops,” www.primalseeds.org/OTHERSTUFF/new/rescuingcrops.htm, 18 November 2005.
3. Cary Fowler, Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990).
5. Paul Raeburn, The Last Harvest: The Genetic Gamble That Threatens to Destroy American Agriculture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
6. Alan Kapuler, telephone interview, September 2004.
7. Carol Deppe, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, 2nd edition (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2000).
8. Ibid., 262.