This summer I’ve started a new job working on an urban farm. Our mission: getting teenagers interested, excited, and empowered about growing food. One project we’re starting is creating our own seed library by saving seeds from some of the crops grown on our farm. Saving seeds from successful crops is as old as agriculture itself. Seth explained it handily in OMG: GMO Part I: “Farmers save the seeds from the biggest and most fruitful plants and use those the next year, creating larger and more successful crops.”
Why is it important to save seeds? To maintain crop variety and diversity. A study, now out of date, but still relevant, found 93% of major crop varieties had gone extinct. It’s a scary to think that all our eggs are in a pretty small basket. Seed sovereignty, the freedom to save seeds, is a major part of the conversion that determines the foundation on which our food system is based.
Saving seeds not only helped produce bigger and better plants to eat, it also helped spread plant families around the globe. As people migrated, they brought their seeds with them. In a new environment some of these seeds might grow really well. Other seeds might not. Over many, many generations the plants might evolve to be completely different than their ancestors. Perhaps they would bear fruit at a different time of year due to warmer weather. Or maybe they would grow much closer to the ground for protection from strong winds. The many-armed mustard (or Brassicaceae) family is such an example of related plants that have so many distinct looks and tastes based on where they evolved.
Our farm’s goal is to save seeds from plants that have thrived in our specific microclimate: the heart of a city, with very long winters and a short growing season. We are starting with some of the simplest seeds to save (and some of my all time favorite crops).
Beans and peas are just about the easiest of all seeds to save; just leave some pods on the vine until they are crispy dry, remove them from the shell and the seeds are ready for the next season. These legumes are self-pollinating, meaning the male parts of the flower fertilize the female parts of the same flower. The hardest part in saving these seeds is not eating your crop! I was unsuccessful at this. Any pea that crosses my path is doomed to be consumed.
This dry method of seed processing and saving is used for many crops including grains, onions, beets, carrots, brassicas and spinach. In coming posts I’ll discuss saving seeds from the fruits we eat, like tomatoes, how hybrid crops are developed, and which foods you eat come from trademarked seeds.
On the farm, we’re saving spinach seeds (above), but the plant’s mechanism for creating seeds differs than legumes. Spinach plants are either male or female. You can’t tell until your plants bolt and send up a large stem from the plant’s center. Male plants produce copious amounts of pollen that is blown on to female plants by the wind.