Spring Seeding Guide - Health-in-this-Place

In their most sophisticated iterations, seeding strategies reflect the deeper insights of holism. We graduate from asking “When and what do we sow?” to, “Which seeding approach makes the soundest ecological sense?” What, in fact, am I seeding, and why?

Take, for example, the issue of choosing between hybrids and open-pollinated varieties of plants. Hybrids are plants that do not breed true to type when you save and replant their seed because, in essence, their form is engineered by plant breeders to genetically self-destruct at the conclusion of their first-year growing cycle. The primary incentive for breeding hybrids is categorically not ecological: it is economic. By contrast, open-pollinated varieties of food crops - plants which do breed true to type when you save and re-sow their seed - possess, by definition, an ecological integrity that is inherently sustainable.

World-class OP varieties which hold their own in all key characteristics of interest to gardeners exist, and we would have ready access to many more but for the fact that the ‘economics’ of the seed industry incentivizes their wholesale destruction and/or limits our access to them. Simply put, when we sow OP as distinct from a hybrid seed, we make a conscious choice to support an inherently sustainable world.

Going Deeper

As you begin saving seed, a fundamental shift in outlook necessarily follows: ‘the seed as tourist’ (hybrids are, in essence, plants that have a sense of place bred out of them) in your life is supplanted by the presence of ‘the seed as homemaker’. Now, seeding is no longer a process which begins and ends with putting a seed in the dirt. It is an act which has the potential to embrace the entire plant cycle, from seed to seed and, critically, year through continuing year. Now, the seed you plants has the potential to befriend you, your family, your community and your bioregion, for life. Now, with each seed you put in the ground, you enact the potential to invoke a conscious act of stewardship. Which plants does it make sense to seed? Which seeds does it make sense to plant?

Just because we can raise a seed (grown and harvested elsewhere) into an edible plant does not mean that the type of plant or variety will reliably complete its cycle and mature seed in our local soils and climate. What we seek are plants that not only feed us, but which possess an inherent capacity to reproduce well hereabouts – to sustain not just us, but themselves. Seed-saving prompts us to recognize such plants. At the same time, it affords us the opportunity to selectively save seed from particular crop types or varieties which demonstrate, for example: early seed-maturity in our bioregion; especial resistance to common local disease or pest cycles; tolerance to the trying conditions of our winters if the crop – such as many Brassicas, for example - has to over-winter to mature seed the following summer; or a broad array of other traits which, as a whole, actively improve the line’s capability to reproduce here.

Tactics evolve

Seeding tactics evolve. Lettuce, a crop which lends easily to seed stewardship - because it generally does not outcross with other varieties growing close by – produces dry seed in fluffy tufts atop the plant – making them highly vulnerable to fall rains which can soak and ruin a seedcrop. And so we seed the lettuce varieties we wish to save – especially the bolt-resistant varieties (which, because they hold out against the tendency to flower, are slow to make seed) earlier than the lettuce varieties we are not saving seed on this year. Our climate can make maturing melon and their seed difficult: and so we lean toward growing on OP melons such as Haogen which, because of their smaller size, mature seed earlier (while larger varieties are still sizing up). And so on.

Once we begin saving and replanting our seed as a defining priority in deepening a relationship with our food – when we carry the ever-evolving ‘memory’ of our co-evolutionary relationship with our food, from year to year, and can witness how our choices each season directly affect the character of the germplasm in our care, our approach to fundamentals tends to shift, markedly. Take George Steven’s observation:

"From my experience of 12 years of growing food and seed crops…imbalanced [high] fertilization results in an effect referred to as “leveling the playing field”, where natural selection is defeated by pumping up plants to uniformity. With moderate fertility only the strong will survive and make seed. A low-input approach may at first be lower yielding…but aspiring seed-savers shouldn’t be discouraged.”

The immoderate regimen which typifies food-growing as we currently practice it – which involves throwing as much fertility and water as we can get away with, at our dirt, and pushing our harvest, front and back, as far as our techniques allow – produces fat, immediate yields; but at the cost of suppressing the natural intelligence which allows us to recognize and help usher forth the germplasm possessing the deepest sense of health-in-this-place.

The Payoff

As it happens, the crop improvement that accompanies a frugal localization dance doesn’t take very long at all. I see clear evidence in the seed stewardship efforts of locals who are striving toward the creation of a low-supplement culture of the soil – one more in keeping with the way Nature works. Whenever I encounter a deepening local tendency among seed savers toward balanced, conscious stewardship of soils, water and air, the foundations of our world, I witness a marked increase in the health and yield of the plants growing there – with less needed in the way of management and input. The dance between local seed and local ecology is both intimate and fruitful.

The experiences of those who are discovering what it is to embrace the Long View more fully suggest that greater awareness with regard to stewarding local ecology, and a shift in the priorities associated with saving and raising seed, are one and the same thing.




February 8,2008

By Nick Routledge for the Observer Allotment Blog