Saturday, March 23, 2013

Save seeds—and have a garden like no one else

I loved this mammoth, pure yellow sunflower.
I have been busy attempting to fulfill one of my lifetime horticultural goals: saving and propagating my own seeds. The process is incredibly simple, and incredibly rewarding. First, I notice what plants thrive exceptionally well in my garden. Then, I cut off some mature flower heads—or let vegetables grow to seed maturity (i.e., past the point at which they would be delicious to eat). I hang flower heads upside down to let the seed dry; I rescue seeds from (almost rotting) vegetables, rinse clean, and place on a paper towel to dry. I keep seeds in a cool, dry place (no worries there—the back kitchen is roughly about forty degrees all winter) until spring planting time.

Sunflower heads drying in the back kitchen all winter-- kept company by some oregano.
            Saving—and replanting—our own seeds has myriad benefits. First of all, we can purposefully select the plant varieties that grow particularly well for us. By saving and replanting seeds from that same variety, we’re guaranteeing a successful crop. Secondly, seeds we harvested ourselves are wonderfully free of pesticides, chemicals, or other possible soil and plant contaminants. Thirdly, those plants that were successful have most likely built immunities to local bugs or pests—otherwise they wouldn’t have done so well—and so will be even less likely to be affected by said threats in the future. Fourth and last, let’s not forget that seed saving is FREE. For the amount of money I know I have spent on seed in the spring, with no guaranteed result, I’m pretty excited about that last part.

            Additionally, I find that seed saving really individualizes my garden. Plant success isn’t necessarily a regional or zonal rule—for example, many plants that do well in my local friends’ gardens do not do well in mine. Why? Well, many of those other gardens are in a more urban area; they are thus more sheltered, sustain warmer temperatures, and benefit from almost unlimited municipal water.  Or, they are in areas with different soil makeups and consistencies. On the other hand, I have great success with plants that do not seem to do well anywhere else. When we seed save, our gardens become unique: a visit to a friend’s garden becomes a trip to the exotic, and vice-versa. 

            At a farmers’ market in Rutland, Vermont last fall, I met a vendor who said she had been part of a local seed saving community for years.  The members of the community keep careful track of their plants, preserve and label them meticulously, and meet to discuss the plants’ merits. Then, they swap or buy as deemed appropriate. I was really inspired by that. What a wonderful—and attainable—local goal. 
I will have fields of sunflowers this spring! (At market prices, by the way, this is probably about $50 worth of seed.... well worth the work.)

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