Some Thoughts on Saving Seeds

Seed exchange ensures the survival of genetic diversity.

by David Hiatt

I first started saving seeds when I discovered that a variety of squash that I was fond of growing was no longer being offered by Stokes; fortunately, I had about 10 seeds left, so at the end of the next year I saved a fruit for seeds and have been growing it and saving seeds for some time.

Another stroke of fortune was that the squash was open-pollinated, so I did not have to worry about what the offspring would look like. Saving hybrid seeds, while occasionally yielding interesting results, often ends in disappointment.: if the seeds germinate (some might well be sterile), the plants will take on the characteristics of one of the parents. Given enough time to experiment, it is possible to keep selecting plants that have desirable qualities, and making sure they do not cross with each other.

In view of my experience with the squash, I became interested in learning how often seed companies dropped varieties from their catalogues without comment. My reading eventually led to Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, and I discovered that the loss of varieties was becoming the rule. Indeed, of the 82 squash varieties offered in 1981, only 52 were offered in 1994. Of course a number of new varieties have been introduced, and, of course, they are all hybrids.

But when an open-pollinated variety is dropped by seed companies in favour of a new and more profitable hybrid, its genetic diversity is also lost, and unless someone keeps growing it out, that particular gene pool is lost forever. Estimates vary, but between 8,000 and 11,000 open-pollinated varieties have been lost since 1900.

In 1995 I decided it was time to become involved in trying to help preserve more endangered varieties, so I joined Seeds of Diversity Canada (SoDC), formerly The Heritage Seed Program, and ordered five different varieties of heirloom tomatoes from Bill Minkey in Darien, Wisconsin. Bill offers 628 different varieties to SoDC members and to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). In both organizations, the grower's name and address are listed in the annual Seed Listing (SoDC) and Yearbook (SSE), allowing members to order from individual growers. Most seed packs are a dollar, for postage and packing materials, though some bulkier seeds, such as corn, are two dollars. Those who order seeds more or less pledge to re-offer them the next year (biennials, of course, take two years).

Drawing courage from my experiences with SoDC, I joined SSE in 1997, hoping that my offering Hopi Orange Squash (a C. maxima type that I got from Seeds of Change in Santa Fe)-would meet the needs of the 8,000 members of SSE. I was uneasy when the first two orders asked for Hopi Orange, but my remaining 50 seeds were saved from further demands. It will be listed next year in both SoDC and SSE, even though we have not yet cracked one open to discover what seedy treasures they may or may not contain. Gardening is always a chancy enterprise, but it becomes really dicey with the added dimension of seed saving, though the rewards are even greater.

One of the greatest delights is in being able to offer seeds someone has been unable to find. Last year I re-ceived an order for Mrs. Hawkins' Spinach from a woman in Australia. She had tried to order from a company that did not take overseas orders. So I was particularly glad I could furnish the seed, which was originally native to Australia. (Actually, "Mrs. H" is not a spinach, but a giant form of lambsquarter, Chenopodium alba, a much loved and eaten weed in most North American gardens.)

Another delight is in receiving word from someone that your seeds performed well in their new garden. Recently, a charming gardener in Ontario wrote that she and her family had picked their first Marizol Bratka tomato on Aug. 15, and she plans to grow more plants next year. In this case, it's interesting to consider another dimension of seed saving: a grower in New Jersey had crossed two heirloom varieties, Marizol Purple and Purple Brandywine, very successfully. Bill Minkey grew it out, I got the seeds from Bill, grew it out and offered the seeds through SoDC. Now the seeds grown on Cortes Island have found their way to Ontario, and from there, they'll find their way to who knows where. Maybe Australia?

* Seeds of Diversity Canada, P.O. Box 36, Stn. Q, Toronto, ON M4T 2L7; (905)623-0353

* The Garden Seed Inventory is published by Seed Savers Exchange, Seed Saver publications, 3076 North Winn Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, USA.

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[From WS December 1998/January 1999]

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