A few growing seasons ago, I tried a local seed company for the first time. On the back of the seed packets, it had information about how to save seeds for next year. I remember thinking, how could everyone saving their own seeds be a good thing for a seed business? But the truth is, seed saving is extremely important work. It helps make our world a better place, from small gardens to large farms.
Leah Smith is the Director of Agriculture at Sow True Seed (the same company that inspired me to start seed saving in my own garden). I reached out to her and asked why this work is important to her. She said "Seed=food," which is Sow True's slogan.
"A food system built on monocultures of a handful of corporate-owned, proprietary varieties is vulnerable to failure, especially as we face a changing climate. Anything that makes our food crops more diverse and decentralized makes the system more resilient. And you can't get more diverse and decentralized than ranks of home gardeners all over the country saving their own seed, creating locally-adapted strains of heirloom varieties, and even selecting new open-pollinated varieties. And besides, seed saving is just beautiful in so many ways - seeds are repositories of natural beauty and human culture."
Unfortunately, most of the types of seeds that are used by southeastern gardeners and farmers today are not local, and they come from very far away. Transportation costs take a toll on the environment, and these seeds aren't particularly well adapted to our climate. The plants often don't have the kind of disease resistance local plants would either. There is strength in diversity and local community. Seed saving and local seed swapping can make a huge difference in genetic diversity.
"A lot of people don't think much about where seeds come from," Smith says. "But the truth is that the seed industry has all the same problems as the food system in general-- lots of consolidation, centralization in particular regions, high fossil fuel and chemical input, low wages for labor, etc.-- and all the arguments for growing your own food and supporting local agriculture apply to saving your own seeds and supporting local seed growers as well."
So, how do you start seed saving? My advice is the same as with any new hobby: start small, with something you're really excited about. Pick a few different varieties of plants that you know you'll want to grow again next year, and learn all about them and their processes. Every new seed saver is a step towards a healthier relationship between people, food, and plants. Plus, passing around heirloom seeds is just fun. I started seed saving with flowers, but am now learning how to save vegetable seeds as well. I keep all my viable seeds in paper envelopes inside a wooden recipe box and store it in a dry place.
There are a few different processes when it comes to saving seeds. I asked Leah Smith her favorites:
"Shelling corn with an old hand-crank sheller is so, so satisfying. The "wet processed" seed crops like tomatoes are maybe less fun, but really interesting to me. The little jelly glob around each tomato seed contains chemicals that inhibit germination (the plant wouldn't want the seeds sprouting inside the tomato after all) and by fermenting your tomato seeds before washing and drying them, you're mimicking the way those inhibitory factors would get broken down if the fruit fell on the ground somewhere warm and damp and welcoming to tomato seedlings. Plants are smart like that, which is just amazing to me."
Seed saving can be intimidating if you've never done it before, but just by knowing things like how to test the viability of good seeds (they sink!), when to harvest seeds, and what kind of processes different plant varieties need, you can become a practiced seed saver in no time. I can say from experience, there's no feeling quite like completing that care cycle of your vegetable garden and growing the best plants you can!
Katai Steel Seed Storage Box Organizer
"Saving your own seed might seem like a small thing, but it really is important work!" Smith says. "And, greater awareness of the need for locally-adapted seed strengthens the market and helps companies like ours make the needed changes in our supply chains." So go learn about a plant in your garden and save its seeds this year!