Plant species are dying out. To preserve plant diversity, social groups that promote seed saving are sprouting up across the country.
As the warm August summer sun nourishes and matures our gardening harvests, it’s an ideal time to join the flourishing movement of seed savers. Plant diversity has never been so important—or so social.
Why save seeds?
Plant diversity—the base of our food system—is under attack. According to organizations such as Seeds of Diversity Canada, today more than 75 percent of all traditional crop varieties are extinct, and most remaining varieties are in danger of extinction.
This decline in plant species diversity not only seriously reduces the variety of choices in our food chain, but also represents a loss of cultural heritage.
Many communities have been creating their own seed banks, including in them seeds unique to their own geographic growing areas.
“I became involved with seed saving because our future depends on it,” says organic farmer Pauline Martens, a dedicated seed saver and board member of the Salt Spring Seed and Plant Sanctuary. Martens outlines key reasons to grow your own food and save your own seeds.
Without seed, there is no food.
To maintain diversity
|We have lost many plant varieties that were available only 100 years ago. There are many reasons for this, including large food companies choosing varieties that travel well (over taste and nutrition). Further, large seed companies have been purchasing small seed companies, therefore limiting choice.
To build community
Creating community seed banks, educating the public about seed saving, encouraging people to share seeds with their neighbours, participating at Seedy Saturday events—these activities facilitate community.
To appreciate nature and the life cycle
By saving your own seed, replanting that seed, and eating its crop, you can experience a sense of awe, wonder, and fulfillment.
To save money
Growing your own food provides you and your family with less costly and more nutritious food.
Socializing over seeds
Across the country, gardeners, farmers, plant collectors, health advocates, and conservation groups gather together to save and swap seeds, exchange ideas, ask questions, and socialize over seeds used for food and ornamental purposes.
Many of these gatherings are called Seedy Saturdays, usually held in spring (so you’ll need to save your harvest of seed until then). For a nearby location, check out the Seeds of Diversity website (seeds.ca).
A Nova Scotia Seedy Saturday
Rosmarie Lohnes of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, reports that their seventh annual Seedy Saturday, held in February 2013, was a very important project for reuniting farmers and gardeners during the winter.
“The event stimulates people to think about growing their own food, and shows that it is possible to become more self-sufficient in our food needs. It also helps us to reconnect to where our food comes from and enforce local ideals for the sake of the environment.”
Lohnes’ company, Helping Nature Heal, hosts this annual event as a fundraiser for their local food bank. Organizers highlight themes of sustainability, education, opportunity, and availability for all.
Local seed savers come to swap seed, seed vendors come to sell their seeds, and businesses offer some seeds for free. Their farmers’ co-op supports the swap table and donates organic seed packages.
Prairie Sun Seed Festival
Heather Torrie, public health nutritionist for the Yorkton area in Saskatchewan, is one of the organizers of their Seedy Saturday program called the Prairie Sun Seed Festival. “Our event brings together people who are interested in saving and exchanging heritage seeds. Preserving old varieties helps to maintain biodiversity. The seed exchange table was one of the features of our festival,” says Torrie.
“This year we had more people participate in the seed exchange. Our overall attendance was way up from the previous two years. Our planning committee has been pleasantly surprised that the festival brings together people from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, ages, economic status, and lifestyles. The workshops are always well attended. We try to keep the focus on growing food, preserving food, living sustainably, and looking after the soil.”
Saving seeds in BC
In Delta, BC, Kristin Crouch, master gardener and community garden coordinator, helped to organize their February 2013 Seedy Saturday. “Our Ladner Community Garden Society started a Seedy Saturday to spread their passion for growing from seed,” says Crouch.
“When we opened our community garden, we quickly realized that people did not grow from seed, but bought vegetable starts at the local nursery. By teaching them how to grow from seed, they not only saved money but had way more selection to choose from.”
Here, people learn about gardening, sell, share, and swap their heirloom seeds and stories with seed and plant vendors, while also enjoying garden lectures. The focus is on open-pollinated seeds (see below for definition), allowing the home gardener to save seed from year to year. People bring in their saved open-pollinated seeds to be shared at swap tables for something they haven’t grown before.
“The idea behind seed swaps is to encourage the saving of seeds that may otherwise become lost or extinct,” adds Crouch. “In this way we can preserve plant species for generations to come. Everyone has memories of a favourite plant that grew in their grandmother’s garden. Let’s rekindle the love for those old-fashioned heirloom plants.
“As land becomes scarce for food production, we also worry about food security. Can we grow enough food to support ourselves? If delivery trucks stop running, how long could you feed yourself, or could you?”
What seeds to save
Seeds of Diversity recommends beginner seed savers start with the self-pollinating vegetables such as tomatoes, bush beans, lettuce, and peas, which are the easiest and most reliable. Self-pollinators are complete with both male and female parts in their flowers; therefore, these plants almost always pollinate themselves, making it easier to keep varieties pure. They recommend planting self-pollinating plants 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 m) apart in the garden to encourage seed purity.
Pauline Martens of Salt Spring Seed and Plant Sanctuary emphasizes that you cannot save hybrid seeds and expect a true plant, so look for open-pollinated varieties if you are interested in seed saving.
Depending on local growing conditions, the adventurous gardener may seek to broaden their gardening horizons and research close-to-extinction plant varieties. Martens draws attention to examples such as Orca Beans, Nantes Coreless Carrots, White Wonder Cucumber, Parris Island Romaine Lettuce, Yellow Crookneck Squash, and Christmas Grape Tomato, among others.
How to collect and store seeds
Seeds should be collected from plants that have reached their maturity stage by ripening completely on the plant. For example, bean and pea pods are only completely ripe when they turn brown and dry.
Be sure to choose plants that are free from disease, and separate the harvested seeds from the fruit, seed heads, and other plant parts before storing them.
Keeping the seeds dry before storage is important to prolong shelf life. Spreading them out in a dry area with good circulation can dry them.
Most seeds can be stored in paper envelopes in dry air at room temperature for a few years, but to extend the life of the seeds, store them in airtight glass containers in a dry, cold, dark environment, such as a refrigerator or freezer. After placing them in containers, label them with the variety name and date they were harvested.
Gardening resources and glossary
Seed savers can get access to many helpful resources—books, online articles, gardening experts, and educational agencies.
This summarized version of gardening definitions was generously provided by David B. Davidson, associate dean, School of Horticulture, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in Langley, BC.
Pollination within a species; includes cross-pollination where the pollen comes from different plants and self-pollination where the pollen from a plant can pollinate the same flower or other flowers on an individual plant. Corn, peppers, and cucumbers are cross-pollinated; tomatoes are self-pollinated.
Seeds formed by cross-pollination of two parent plants or varieties of the same species. Offspring from first-generation hybrid plants do not typically produce plants with characteristics of the hybrid. Corn is the classic example of a hybrid.
These are open-pollinated plants that were typically grown in earlier times, often developed by small, isolated communities or families.
Seed produced under regulations covering organic production (use of approved fertilizers, soil amendments, pesticides, growth regulators, et cetera). Genetic modification technology is not permitted.
A plant whose genetic material has not been modified by the insertion of DNA from a different organism by human intervention.
A plant living for one year (or less) and producing seeds for the species’ survival.
Plants having a life cycle of two years; during the second year, the plant flowers and produces seeds; examples include carrot and parsley.
Plants producing flowers and seeds every year; examples include apples and blueberries.