Why Raise Seeds?
A sneeze several years ago started me along the circuitous route toward growing seeds to save.
I had heard the arguments against growing seeds for so long that I began believing them all. Don’t grow seeds, the garden books say. These various arguments all seem to boil down to one main point: that you and I really aren’t smart enough to save seeds. Our grandparents did, as did their parents; as did countless generations reaching almost back to our ancestors who first swung out of a tree, but the plain truth is that the human line has petered out a bit, and that you and I aren’t capable of growing our own seeds.
Then comes the final point, the real clincher: Seeds are cheap.
I won’t argue that seeds at almost any price are a bargain. Think for a moment of someone building a kit that would include all of the parts and the directions for building a celery plant. Think of being able to do this, then offering it so that the entire package-parts, directions, and container-weighs but l/70,000 of an ounce.
Nature has designed such a kit-a celery seed.
But are seeds really cheap? I hadn’t thought of it too much, only realizing that each January my seed bill grew larger and larger, while my garden stayed the same. And noticing that I now paid $2 for what I thought was a dollar’s worth of peas.
Then came that sneeze. Surprising how it snuck up on me. Surprising how loud it was. Surprising me so that my right hand snapped skyward. My right hand at that moment was holding a few seeds-$5 worth of tiny petunia seeds. The dustlike seeds shot up, then were caught in the gale of the sneeze and scattered to, in this case, the one wind.
The seeds were gone, but not forgotten. For that incident started me thinking more about seed costs. My handy calculator soon told me that, if I had managed to sneeze away a pound of those petunia seeds, instead of 1/128 of an ounce, my sneeze bill for the day would have amounted to more than $10,000. That’s much more than gold costs, and it certainly shows that seeds aren’t cheap.
I noticed, too, that seed packets were changing. Only infrequently did they tell me the number of seeds to be found therein. The price for a packet most often was more than a dollar. And no longer were the packets fat with seed. Some were downright slim, even undernourished, in shape.
Today’s prices haven’t dropped from those of several years ago when I first began to watch them. The move of prices has been in the opposite direction. A good hybrid tomato seed sells for $5 for l/32 of an ounce. I’ll save you the calculating and tell you it’s $2,560 a pound-and the seed is even more expensive if you buy it by the packet instead of in the comparatively large increment of l/32 of an ounce.
Clearly, I had found one good reason for raising and saving seeds. To save money. The day of the nickel packet of seeds was over. It was time I looked for another, almost-free source of seeds.
Then I began to wonder if there might be other good reasons for growing and saving seeds.
I immediately thought of a Lebanese family in town. Their grandparents had arrived on Ellis Island years ago, bringing with them very little money, only a few clothes, a handful of squash seeds, and a heedful of recipes for cooking those squash in the most delectable manner. Various grandchildren now are growing what must be the sixtieth generation of those seeds in this country, never giving this squash an opportunity to indulge its promiscuous habit of crossing with any other member of its not-so-immediate family.
Here was another reason for growing and saving seed. To preserve and perpetuate varieties that could die out. Look at a seed catalog of ten or twenty years ago, and compare the varieties of seeds found there with current offerings. Many have been dropped, some for good reason, others because it doesn’t pay to carry too many varieties. Perhaps one of those dropped was exactly what you wanted, because of its taste or keeping qualities or looks. If you had saved this seed, you could have continued a variety now forgotten. Your choice of which varieties to grow would not be entirely in the hands of the seed companies.
Many good old heirloom strains, no longer offered commercially, have already been lost. Some of the vegetables we enjoy today -the Royalty bean and Clemson Spineless okra for example-are still available to us because one family nurtured and handed down the seed for generations. Once a variety dies out, it cannot be retrieved.
If you have seed of a special, obscure, unusual, or heirloom vegetable variety, you-and many other people-might someday be glad that you kept the strain vital by planting and saving it.
If you raise and save seed, you are producing seed for your garden, and, by careful selection over several generations of plants, you can produce plants best suited to your climate and your gardening conditions. No one else but you can do this. Flavor, pest and disease resistance. early bearing, and size are among the many characteristics that can be enhanced by judicious selection over a period of years. Years ago seeds became scarce as the number of home gardeners spurted. Something like this could happen again in the future, caused by a truck strike, blizzard, postal mix-up, or failure of crops. If you have raised and saved seeds, such an event will not hamper your gardening activities one bit. In fact, if you have raised more seeds than you need, as most of us do, you will be able to help your neighbors in a most meaningful way.
If you have a keen eye as you observe, evaluate, select, and compare your plants, you may even discover something new and valuable. The chances may be against it, but good new strains of plants have been found and are being found, some by plant breeders and a few by observant everyday gardeners. One such person was a turn-of-the-century seed grower, Calvin N. Keeney of Leroy, New York, who is credited with originating nine new varieties of bean, among them the Burpee’s Stringless Green Pod, still listed in the Burpee catalog and credited as having the “finest flavor.”
There’s one benefit on which you yourself will have to put a value; I can’t. Let’s say you first attempt something easy-saving peas. The year that you plant those peas, you will put them in the ground with a little extra care. They’ll get the choice compost for encouragement. You’ll spend a minute or two longer with them each time you cultivate around them. And, sure enough, they’ll taste a bit sweeter than any other peas you raise that year. There’ll be a deeper satisfaction in growing them. What’s that worth to you?
The final reason for raising seed? To prove to those writers of gardening books that the human strain hasn’t weakened to the point where it is incapable of growing vegetable seeds. Grandpa was a smart old codger, but not that smart. Maybe he just grew seeds for saving because no one told him he couldn’t.
A Satisfying Hobby
Seed-growing can be a satisfying, fascinating hobby, and you can select your own level of involvement. Perhaps that will be at the easy level of growing your own peas and beans for seeds. Perhaps you’ll try selecting your best carrots to replant the following spring or maintaining your own especially vibrant strain of marigold or zinnia. Perhaps you’ll find a way to grow cauliflower seed without the use of a greenhouse (and write to tell me how to do it). Be assured, though, that you won’t outgrow this hobby, no matter how much you experiment, no matter how much you learn.
If you have any doubts about this, look at some of our nation’s historic figures-Thomas Jefferson is a good example-who found a lifetime of satisfaction from experimenting in this area. Or look at what some of today’s professionals in the field are attempting. A single example is the present effort to give other plants the ability that many legumes have, to host soil organisms that change the nitrogen in the air to a form that can be used by the plant.
Obtaining and Exchanging Seeds
Obtaining seeds of some little-grown yet desirable vegetable and flower seeds is becoming a challenge. As seed companies merge, many marginally profitable seed lines are dropped, and commercial availability becomes restricted or ceases altogether. Fortunately, various seed-saving organizations have sprouted to perpetuate heirloom and other seldom-seen varieties.
The Seed Savers Exchange (Rural Route 3, Box 239, Decorah, Iowa 52101) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “passing on our vegetable heritage.” The exchange publishes information regarding seed saving and an annual list of varieties available through the membership. If you send a long self-addressed, stamped envelope, you will receive an informational pamphlet. The headquarters of a flower and herb exchange is located at the same address. Your county Cooperative Extension agent may also know of other local and regional seed exchanges in your area.
Keep in mind that quality control by amateur seed savers will vary greatly, and that there is no guarantee regarding fitness of seed obtained through exchanges.
The Andersen Horticultural Library’s Source List of Plants and Seeds by Richard T. Isaacson and published by the University of Minnesota lists over 20,000 varieties of plants commercially available in North America. The list includes, for instance, 144 varieties of petunia and 140 varieties of bean. Many of the varieties are available only from a single source. Another excellent resource for varieties of vegetables is the Garden Seed Inventory published by the Seed Savers Exchange and available for $17.50, postage paid.
If there is a little-known variety you would like to grow, track it down and learn to save its seed before it becomes unavailable. You may wish to make seed that you save yourself available through an exchange. It is a satisfying way to help perpetuate our invaluable plant resources.
Arguments Against Growing Seeds
You will face discouraging arguments about raising seeds both in what you read and in your conversations with other gardeners. Arguments such as these:
You can’t save the seeds of hybrids, because they won’s produce true in the next generation. True, but there are many open-pollinated varieties that were growing successfully long before the hybrids were developed. This is not an attempt to belittle the contribution of hybrids. Most of them are more vigorous and produce more food or flowers per plant than do the open-pollinated varieties. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t find hardiness, top flavor, and great satisfaction in the varieties that you can raise for seed.
It is difficult for the gardener to isolate varieties and strains to avoid unwanted cross-pollination. And this is one of the reasons why the commercial seed-growing industry has moved westward into dry areas where there are fewer wild or garden varieties that may cross with the crop being grown for seed. Cross-pollination can be a major problem if the gardener works in the midst of other gardens where one has no control over what is being grown nearby. This at best is a delightful challenge to the gardener, and at worst may limit the breadth of seed-growing activities.
It is d difficult in some areas to raise healthy seed because of the prevalence of certain diseases that carry-over on or in the seed. Not all species have seed-borne diseases. Careful roguing (or weeding-out) of unhealthy plants minimizes disease problems. Post-harvest measures can be taken in severe cases.
You are legally prohibited from saving seed from patented varieties. The Plant Variety Protection Act specifically allows the “farmer” to save seed for his own use and even to sell it to other “farmers.” The U.S. Patent Office (separate from the Plant Variety Protection Office) is granting regular 17-year patents on certain seed-propagated plants from which one cannot legally save any seed for propagating purposes. Packets of these seeds should be clearly marked to indicate this patent protection.
Unwanted cross-pollination and faulty selection of seed plants results in the gradual deterioration or “running-out” of the seed. If and when it does, simply buy fresh seed to renew your stock.
Raising and saving seeds is not for everyone. The gardener whose only aim is to grow as much food as possible may not be interested. The gardener to whom the height of adventure is trying a new variety of tomato may back away. But the gardener who enjoys a challenge, who likes to try something different, who wonders about the “why” of the plant world-this person should try raising seeds. There will be failures and problems and disappointments, but these will only make the successes sweeter. And any small measure of self-reliance we can recapture in our overly dependent society is cause for satisfaction.