It’s the end of the harvest season, and although a great deal of my mind and energy is turned to enjoying the fruits of this year’s produce (today I’m canning applesauce and freezing pureed sugar pie pumpkin) already I find myself dreaming of the spring garden. Part of this impulse, I realize, is inspired by the plants themselves, which as living beings have an innate desire to reproduce, and are now, in autumn, dropping their seed-filled fruits to the soil, or waving them into the wind. It is time to think about saving seeds for next year’s planting.
There are so many reasons to save seeds. One is simply the placing of our lives within the cycle of nature, the completion of a circle from planting, to eating, and seeding again–to relish this lively, easy, sustenance from the land on which we live, even in urban places. But there are other compelling reasons to save our own seed: the control of our food supply apart from corporate interests; the preservation of biodiversity and heritage/heirloom varieties in our crops; and the taking of a stand in support of farmers’ right to save seed. Farmers have been improving their crops and preserving favored varieties by saving seed for millennia. Today, five large, multinational corporations control 75% of global vegetable seed production, and the industry contrives at every turn to limit both the ability and the right of global farmers and gardeners to save their own seed through variety patenting, licensing agreements, and the development of “Terminator Technology” to render seeds sterile. It’s completely–what’s the word? Evil.
Seed-saving can seem daunting, what with jars and drying racks and silica packs, and all manner of esoteric instructions. Still, there are many simple ways to participate in the beautiful, global, grassroots movement to save seeds. Our favorite is to save mainly the seeds that readily dry themselves.
We leave a batch of beans on the end-of-season vines until the husks brown and wrinkle, then collect the already-dried bean seeds within. This is one of Claire’s autumn jobs, and she particularly loves to find the shining pink and black seeds in the pods that have collected on her Scarlet Runner Bean teepee. Many flowers pods also dry themselves. Claire collected the seeds from the marigolds in her edible-flower garden. When the blooms are ready for dead-heading, the seeds are almost dry, and only need to be spread out for a day or two before storing in jars for spring planting.
One of the very best ways to save seed is to let the plants do it themselves. Make sure to leave a green onion or two to flower and go to seed. Unlike some invasive spreaders (like fennel) onions seeds don’t travel far, and will naturalize in the area you originally planted them. Young sunflowers grow easily beneath their parents, and if you live in a temperate environment like we do in the Pacific Northwest, you can mulch these volunteers with straw for overwintering, and a healthy headstart on spring growth. We’ve enjoyed watching a squirrel harvest the seeds from our mutant mammoth sunflower (by hanging upside down from the plant, of course), then earnestly plant them all over the garden, patting them down with his bad little squirrel feet. If they grow, we’ll have a sunflower forest!
Tomatoes and squash can be left to compost in the winter soil. Cover them with straw, and watch for the plants to emerge soon after the last frost. Be sure and label the fruits you leave out so you know what’s growing. Also be on the lookout for squash and gourds vining out of the compost heap!
For instructions on saving just about any kind of seed, check out the International Seed Saving Institute’s tutorial.
And when we don’t manage to save seeds, or when we want to try new varieties, there are so many lovely small companies that are working to preserve heirloom varieties, and farmers’ rights. The Sustainable Seed Company is just one of the many seed sources that deserve out support, and they have a great, informative website.
Meanwhile, Happy Harvest.