January marks the slow but unmistakable start of a fresh growing season. This beginning takes the form of the arriving seed catalogs, still fun to hold in one’s hands, to leaf through, in this digital age. Even if your browsing is now entirely online, the catalogs and the seed merchants behind them provide a timeless and dual service.
As utterly old-fashioned as the idea of buying seeds may be, it is a relatively new phenomenon in the way gardeners (and farmers) have sourced their plants through the centuries. In the old days, you set aside a patch of radishes or cabbages or carrots, say, and let them flower and seed. This is how you obtained seed for the next season, and by perpetuating the tallest sunflower or the most flavorful tomato or that lone lettuce that didn’t bolt in the heat of June, you could select for progressive traits. Our gardening ancestors were also functioning as breeders.
Until seed companies emerged in the mid-19th century, “no distinction was made between gardener and breeder,” says the Austrian agronomist Andrea Heistinger. She is writing in “The Manual of Seed Saving,” recently published by Timber Press.
The book reinforces the reality that seed-saving has never gone away. Many farmers around the world save their own seed for the next crop, and many worry that the business and scientific practices of biotech seed companies will harm the farmers’ traditional seed autonomy.
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In the United States, groups such as Seed Savers Exchange have worked for decades to preserve and protect the thousands of heirloom varieties long nurtured regionally and often brought by immigrant communities since the early days of the Republic.
But hobby gardeners should – and do – save their own seed, not for the lofty goals of retaining biodiversity or for cultural heritage, but because it can be immensely satisfying.
As the cost of seeds continues to rise, it is also a real money saver. I’m still trying to figure out how I recently spent more than $50 on poppy seeds.
Not every seed is a keeper. Modern F1 (first-generation) hybrids are genetically unstable, and you can’t rely on them to come back true the next season. More to the point, you don’t want to spend months coddling one if the end product winds up inferior in some fashion.
Which seeds should you keep? Varieties that are naturally pollinated and genetically predictable – open pollinated in the breeder’s parlance. They take the form of heirloom varieties, old commercial varieties and even new varieties that have been bred the old-fashioned way, writes Heistinger.
Some veggies are fussy because of the possibility of cross-pollination. Others are not. Beans and peas are more likely to fertilize themselves (even before the blossoms open). Heirloom and old-variety tomatoes generally seed true to type, as do peppers.
Another consideration is that it is no use harvesting seed that is not ripe. A soft, sweet garden pea is fine for the palate, but you need to wait for the hard, shriveled version for seeding.
To harvest the mature seed of a cucumber, you have to wait for the fruit to turn inedibly golden soft. For biennials and bolters you similarly sacrifice the culinary value of its root, bulb or leaf. This is one reason I don’t do a lot of seed-saving: I don’t have enough room in my little community plot to allow things to sit around and get seedy.
In neglected plots, you often see broccoli or cabbages that have gone to seed: The foliage opens up, the stalk grows a couple of feet, and the flower stems arch up from hidden crevices to sport little cross-shaped blooms. This is interesting but emblematic of abandonment.
What is more acceptable is the speedy life cycle of another brassica, arugula. Sown in March, by late May it is getting bitter and ready to bloom. It grows to a surprising height, and then its muddy white blossoms turn quickly into slender pods. At that point, you might as well hang on for a month, harvest the seed, and sow it again in September for a fall crop.