STORY AND PHOTOS BY BILL THORNESS
Perhaps you’ve admired a perfect head of lettuce in your garden or a friend’s—the spray of burgundy speckles across the rounded whorls of soft green leaves. But have you seen it six months later? It will shoot up from six inches to 30, with smaller, spikier leaves leading to a riotous head of branching florets boasting chartreuse buds that burst into wispy white clouds of seed.
We may prefer to eat the leaves of the Red Oak Leaf lettuce, but the seed head is really the show.
It happens with so many garden plants, if you let them go past their prime picking time. Radishes send up a second-season cloud of tiny white flowers, then tender edible pods. Carrots set a stately umbel that’s fractal-like in precision. Chard releases long nodding stalks with seeds bunched and clustered like they’ve been herded up. And brassicas offer a swaying field of yellow or white flowers that are as stunning in salads as they are in the garden.
Letting your garden vegetables go to seed is not an act of neglect—at least, it doesn’t have to be. It can be a deliberate botanical practice that yields every bit as much satisfaction as picking when ripe and putting the food on the table.
If your vegetable garden is there to feed you, you might wonder why anyone would let perfectly good plants go past their prime and set seed. Perhaps it’s a practice that’s buried deep in our DNA.
Over the long history of agriculture, farmers have saved their own seed. The “granary” full of next year’s crop was the lifeblood of the farm, and plant breeding often was part of the job too. The strongest plants were left to flower and their seeds collected for next year’s garden, always hoping to find better specimens.
For many gardeners, saving seeds isn’t done out of necessity or for breeding these days. These days it could be an act of self-sufficiency, politics, or love.
“They’re my favorites,” says Ballard gardener Calvin Creasey of the plants he saves. “I kinda have a passion for them.”
A seed-saver “since before email,” Creasey, who offers his services as Propriety Natural Gardening, lists a dozen or more plant types in the annual Seed Savers Yearbook, the brainchild of Iowa-based Seed Saver Exchange. Their hefty newsprint book is filled with lists and codes from 598 seed savers who offer 13,000 home-saved seeds to fellow SSE members. They’re grown in 50 states and eight foreign countries, making it the largest citizen seed-saving effort in the world.
In those dense Yearbook listings, you’ll find fifty pages of bean varieties, twelve pages of lettuces and a whopping 173 pages of tomato listings. Chances are, the tomato varieties available in nurseries would not cover more than a couple of pages. Seed-savers delight in diversity, in sharing something unusual.
That camaraderie is another great reason to participate, says Caitlin Moore, co-director of the King County Seed Lending Library (KCSLL). “Seed libraries are popping up all over the country,” she says. “We’re taking matters into our own hands.” It’s a movement that keeps local seed circulating freely, ensuring variety and vigor in the seed supply. And it’s a backlash against a corporate seed industry that’s giving gardeners relatively few varieties from which to choose, wreaking havoc on farmers’ freedom of choice with patented seed and genetically modified hybrids.
In fact, “despair” was what propelled Moore into the work, after feeling “helpless in the face of all the things that plague our food system. I had this moment where I realized that saving seed…was how I was actually going to make change,” beyond letter-writing and furious rallies. “It was the only thing that gave me hope in the face of the horrible stuff you read.” She started a seed library in Olympia, then moved to Seattle and helms the KCSLL, which now has seed at four locations.
Saving seed, and even breeding your own plants, is a positive step toward biodiversity and self-sufficiency. It also creates a more diverse garden ecosystem, attracting a plethora of pollinators all through the seasons. “You’re inviting a diversity of bees, green lacewings, parasitic wasps [and] beneficial organisms into your garden,” Moore says. “All the insects that show up when you let things flower, they’re all good.”
Thinking holistically is what propelled Max Sassenfeld into seed saving, while studying the systemic practice of biodynamic agriculture. The Bainbridge Island native was a student at the Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento, which had a farm that produced seed for 75 percent of its crops. He learned that biodynamic principles see the farm as a “self-sufficient organism.” Whenever possible, “inputs come from the farm,” he explained. “Generating your own seed makes sense.”
He was surprised to learn that seed saving doesn’t have to be a big operation. “There were maybe five beds out of 60 or 70 that would be in seed each year. You don’t need miles of beet seed to have a self-sustaining seed production, even in a small garden.”
Today his Tani Creek Farm produces much of the seed for the unique varieties of produce he sells at the farmers markets, and he sells excess seed through his website. He also lists a number of seeds with SSE, where he found a tribe of fellow enthusiasts. “All the people I admire who’ve been doing this for a long time—they were all on Seed Savers.” It was an opportunity to get seed directly from Northwest seed-saving pioneers like Peace Seeds founder Alan Kapuler and Organic Seed Alliance Senior Scientist John Navazio.
Today, however, Sassenfeld notes that you can buy from those small, innovative growers—through their own seed companies. Peace Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Wild Garden Seeds, all grew out of the passion of small growers to save quality seeds in our region, even “dehybridizing” hybrids and breeding their own new strains.
If you’re not ready for seed-saving, advises Moore, at least buy your seeds from “all the little, local, farmer-owned seed companies that are popping up.”
But saving seeds doesn’t have to be difficult. “Don’t be intimidated by it,” says Sassenfeld. By following good gardening practices and some tried-and-true methods (see sidebar), many gardeners can do what the farmers are doing, albeit possibly with less skill or artistry. But by saving your own seeds, you will provide yourself with better seeds for your garden, adapted to your conditions, and even to your methods. And it even saves a bit of money, which is more important for the small farmer.
“They say it takes only two generations and [the seed] has adapted and changed to your climate,” says Sassenfeld, “but to me the vigor is there within one generation.” The seed “really also adapts to your methods of fertility, and…how you work the earth. That’s a big thing.” Imagine if the seed was programmed to know your methods, what type of compost you make. Could it even be ready for the stress of you taking that annual mid-season vacation?
The flower heads might not be that smart, but they will be forgiving about their ripening timeline. And letting some of your produce go to seed could be the wisest thing you do in your garden—for the beauty, the beneficials, local adaptation, and your ability to keep your favorite varieties alive, feeding you again from year to year.
Bill Thorness is a longtime Seattle gardener and author of Cool Season Gardener and Edible Heirlooms, both from Skipstone Press. This summer he took the plunge and listed his first seeds, Black Spanish radish, with Seed Savers Exchange.
TIPS FOR SEED SAVING:
1. Know your plants.
Anna Cheeka’s Ozette, a Northwest heirloom potato, is one of the varieties that Creasey saves. “I dig what I want in late summer, then I leave them in the ground,“ where they overwinter and resprout. “They don’t like wet,” he says, so cultivate a potato bed to withstand extreme winter moisture.
2. Grow it one season before saving.
“You want to know it will grow true to type,” advises Moore. Know the genus, species and type of plant sex life (whether it’s self-fertile or needs a male and female plant to produce seed, for instance).
3. Grow good specimens.
“You have to have a certain degree of skill at growing vegetables before going into seed saving,” says Sassenfeld. You need strong plants with desirable traits. Don’t save the last straggler, save the best specimen.
4. Recognize the stages of seed.
“I know what color the seed is supposed to be when it’s ripe,” Creasey says. “I’ve just learned how far a seed can go before I bag them up.”
5. Save from as many plants as practical.
“It’s awesome to see a whole row of carrots blooming,” says Sassenfeld, but that’s often not possible in a small garden.
“More plants equal more variation,” explains Moore. You certainly can use seed saved from just a couple of plants. However, if you kept saving seed from that same small batch year after year, the strain might eventually lose its vigor.
Growing a row for seed saving takes garden planning. Realize that the plants will be in the bed longer than normal. To manage more seed saving, collaborate with other gardeners who can each save one type of plant and share their seed supply.
From the excellent manual Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth (Seed Savers Exchange, 2nd Ed., 2010), come basic tips for the two seed cleaning methods: wet or dry processing.
Dry processing: Done on plants that produce pods or husks (beans, peas, corn, radishes and lettuce). Allow to dry in the garden whenever possible, even upending paper bags over the seed-heads if necessary to shed rain. Or pull the entire plant and hang upside-down in a dry location. Thresh the seeds to break them free from their coverings. Place in a feed sack or pillow case, flail it or walk on it. Winnow the debris and chaff from the seeds.
Wet processing: Done on fruits with pulp, like tomatoes, which need to go through fermentation to remove the germination-inhibiting coating on the seed. Put the pulp in water and allow to sit, skim the scum that develops in 2-3 days, then strain, wash, and air-dry the seeds in warm conditions on a non-stick surface.
Store conserved seeds in dry, dark, cool conditions. Use paper sleeves in cardboard boxes in a dry basement with desiccant packages, for example, or glass jars tightly sealed in a refrigerator.
Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa: seedsaversexchange.org
King County Seed Lending Library, Seattle (KCLSS): kingcoseed.org
National Seed Swap Day: Jan. 31. Day of seminars, seed swapping and bartering. See KCLSS for details on local events.