A number of plant breeders, farmers and seed companies have joined together to start the Open Source Seed Initiative. Over the last 25 or so years, the seed industry has consolidated tremendously leaving a small number of large multinational corporation in control of the majority of the world’s commercial seeds. These companies use a number of techniques to “protect” their investments. One is to hybridize seed creating a new variety from two dissimilar parents. If that plant is allowed to set seed at the end of its cycle, that seed won’t come true the next time it is planted. In other words it will most likely revert back to one of its parents, rather than produce a replica of the planted variety. The result is that growers need to return to the seed company and purchase the seed again. More recently seed companies have begun to patent their seed. This also prevents growers from saving or sharing seed to replant the following season.
According to the Open Source Seed Initiative website “patented seeds cannot be saved, replanted, or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be the foundation of a just and sustainable agriculture. Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created to free the seed – to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights.” A number of seed breeders have joined OSSI and contributed varieties that can not be restricted in the future. Check here for a list of seed companies who have OSSI listed varieties.
Even though it is still winter, it is the time to start thinking about your spring planting and which plants you’d like to grow for seed.
Some things to consider when planning your garden for seed saving include:
Type of seed – use open pollinated or heirloom seed as it produces new seed that is more true to the parent seed. Hybrid seed, if saved, is less likely to produce new seed that is similar to its parents. Because of that hybrid seeds are not recommended for seed saving.
Soil fertility – crops grown for seed require good nutrition that is available over a long period of time. Consider using organic compost and amendments that are slow release.
Space – crops grown for seed require more space because they normally increase in size once they start to flower and produce seed – this is especially true for biennials, like beets, chard and carrots. Remember too, that crops grown for seed will be in the ground much longer than a crop that is harvested right away. For example, lettuce is normally harvested after 40-50 days of growing. If you are growing it for seed, you can expect it to be in the ground up to 6 months. This also means that that space you might normally have had available for another crop after your harvest at 50 days is now unavailable for several more months.
Isolation distances to ensure production of pure seed – Knowing which plants are of the same genus and species and which will cross is important if you want/need to grow pure seed. If a cross occurs it means that pollen has moved from one flower to another flower on the same plant or from a flower on one plant to a flower on another related plant. See Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth for information on plant families.
Peas, beans, lettuce and some tomatoes are self-pollinated which means their pollen doesn’t need to move to other flowers for seed set to occur. Self-pollinated crops are unlikely to cross with members of the same genus and species. That means you can plant more than one variety fairly close to each other ( 5-20 feet) without worrying about unwanted crossing. On the other hand, crops like hot peppers, squashes, broccolis, kales, carrots and corn are cross-pollinated and will cross readily with others they are related to. To keep these crops from crossing they must be separated by 500 feet up to 2 miles.
Population size – How many individuals do you need to grow in order to preserve the genetic diversity of the variety? Self-pollinated crops like peas, beans, lettuce, or tomatoes are best for small gardens, because they require the fewest number of plants to make sure that a variety’s fullest expression is maintained. Organic Seed Alliance suggests that you only need a minimum of 5-20 plants of each these crops in order to get a good representation of genetic material for the next generation. If you have a larger garden, you can try crops that cross and need larger population sizes like hot peppers, squashes, members of the Brassica family, carrots, amaranths and corn. Peppers require a population size between 20 and 40 plants, whereas corn, which really needs to mix its genes, requires around 200 plants.
Need for pollinators –crops that cross pollinate in order to produce seed need pollinators or wind to move the pollen from flower to flower and plant to plant. Planting lots of flowers in your vegetable garden will significantly increase the number of pollinators and consequently will result in better seed set and yield. The more pollen that moves, the better!
“Seed libraries, often located in public libraries or other community gathering points, are institutions created for the purpose of sharing seeds. The idea is that a library patron can “check-out” seeds to grow themselves, let “go-to-seed”, and then return seeds to the library to share with other community members. The seeds circulated at lending libraries are usually regionally-adapted…The purpose of most seed libraries is to provide an alternative to genetically modified seeds, increase biodiversity and plant resilience, and reconnect local people with their food systems.” (Quote excerpted from http://seedlibraries.org/page/why-seed-libraries-1).
Seed Libraries have become so popular that there are now over 300 in the United States alone. (seedlibraries.net… then use the pull down menu to navigate to Start a Library and choose Sister Libraries).
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an article originally from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis (http://www.startribune.com/politics/national/286955151.html) on the controversy surrounding the legalities of seed libraries. The controversy began this past year in Pennsylvania when the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture contacted the Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg. The library was notified that it was in violation of the Seed Act of 2004.
The Seed Act regulates the selling of seeds, and protects farmers and gardeners from purchasing unviable seeds as well as ensuring that undesirable weed seeds don’t get established in the state. The Seed Act also states that all seeds need to be tested for purity and germination rates.
In order to fully comply with the state’s seed regulations, the Simpson library could only distribute commercially grown and packaged seeds that meet the regulations set out in the Seed Act. The Simpson Library and presumably other seed libraries in Pennsylvania will no longer be able to distribute seeds grown in their members’ gardens. The library is however allowed to sponsor a yearly seed swap at which people can share seeds.
Since Simpson was contacted, it has been reported that other seed libraries in Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been contacted by their Agriculture Departments.
Every state has its own seed laws so it is important for seed libraries to know what their state’s laws stipulate. The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) based in Oakland, CA has a resource page for some of the different state seed laws. (http://www.theselc.org/seed_law_resources)
SELC joined with Shareable (shareable.net) to offer support to seed libraries and will work on and publicize seed library legal issues. They will also work toward crafting a seed library exemption law in California. Check www.theselc.org for updates.
California has at least 47 seed libraries and many are based in northern California. Here in Sonoma County, we have seed sharing groups based in Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Petaluma. The West County Community Seed Exchange in Sebastopol was founded in 2009 and is currently located at St Stephen’s Church on Robinson Road.
The Exchange proudly grows organic, open pollinated, non-gmo seeds on land provided by the church and currently has 123 vegetable varieties, 28 flowers, 23 herbs and 14 grains in its inventory. The Exchange does not sell seeds, nor does it guarantee the quality and germination rate of its seeds. You can read more about the Exchange at westcountyseedbank.blogspot.com.
To stay current on this issue of seed libraries and the ongoing legal issues, subscribe to updates on seedlibraries.net.
Last week I attended the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California and heard William Woys Weaver give a talk about his Roughwood Seed Collection.
William Woys Weaver is a food historian and author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History as well as 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From.
Weaver lives in Devon, Pennsylvania and maintains a collection of over 4,500 varieties of seed. His interest in seeds began when he was a small boy and spent a lot of time with his grandfather who was an avid gardener. His grandfather, H. Ralph Weaver, started collecting seeds in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t until after his death in 1956 that young Weaver discovered the extensive seed collection in his grandmother’s freezer. Weaver has spent years adding to and preserving the collection.
To make sure that his very rare and historically significant seeds outlive him, he has been working with Baker Creek Seeds to make some of his varieties available to the public. He has also been working with Mill Hollow Farm in Edgemont, Pennsylvania, to establish an organically certified produce and rare seed farm using seeds from his collection.
Some of the bean seeds he profiled include Pelzer Juni, a very productive bush bean, Walkers Great Valley Long Pod (pre -1800), Beaumont’s Gray Pole (pre 1800), and Purple Kinsessing Pole, a pre 1700 Pennsylvanian Native American variety. To my knowledge, none of these are available from commercial sources.
He also profiled several tomatoes such as Atlantic Prize, 1889, which he considers great for canning. He recommended Governor Pennypacker, 1907, for sauce. Neither the Atlantic Prize or Governor Pennypacker are available commercially. He also spoke about Redfield Beauty, an heirloom selected from AW Livingston’s Beauty and released by the H. G. Hastings Seed Company in about 1897. (http://www.victoryseeds.com/tomato_redfield-beauty.html). It is available from Seed Savers Exchange and Victory Seeds.
In closing he paid homage to St. Gertrude, who is the patron saint of the kitchen garden. Her day is March 17 and marks the traditional start of the gardening season.
The Heirloom Expo is this week in Santa Rosa, CA. This is a great showcase for the pure food movement, heirloom seeds and vegetables and the anti GMO movement.
Visit in person or look for updates here on this website. The following seed companies will have booths where attendees can purchase seeds and ask questions about heirloom varieties:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, Botanical Interests, Bountiful Gardens, Heirloom Seed Store, Hudson Valley Seed Library, Kitazawa Seed Company, Living Seed Company, Natural Gardening Company, Redwood Seeds, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
If you are nearby, please show your support for these companies that are keeping heirloom varieties alive and well. The Expo continues Tuesday September 9 through Thursday September 11 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Seeds are living organisms. They contain genetic material, proteins and carbohydrates that provide everything the seed needs to transform into seedlings and then full size plants.
Seeds come in all sizes and colors and shapes. They have the ability to stay dormant for long periods of time and then germinate when environmental conditions are conducive to good growth.
The ability to save seeds for future plantings was discovered about ten thousand years ago and changed forever the way civilizations managed their food production. Communities were able to stay in one place to raise their food instead of moving from place to place in search of food growing in the surrounding environs. Seed saving remained an important part of farming practices until the early part of the 20th century when seed companies took over much of this work.
Today, a hundred years later, seed saving is a lost art. Saving seed allows us to preserve genetic material honed by thousands of years of natural adaptations. A wide genetic base allows gardeners and farmers to select from a multitude of traits and allows plants to adapt to a variety of climatic and soil conditions. Currently, nearly half of the 8000 varieties of seeds listed in the 6th edition of Garden Seed Inventory, published by Seed Savers Exchange, are available from only one commercial grower. If any one of those growers stop growing a variety to produce new viable seed, that genetic material, its traits and its history are lost forever. SeedStewards believes it is vitally important for gardeners, backyard growers, and farmers to take up the call and adopt varieties that are in danger of becoming unavailable before it is too late.
Please read more about my efforts in the following pages and please contact me if I can provide more information about this important work.