Lauterbach: Seeds, like fashion, can go in and out of style

Special to the Idaho StatesmanApril 19, 2013 


If you’re apprehensive about buying genetically engineered seeds, pay heed to the “safe seed pledge” sworn to by many seed companies, usually printed in catalogs and on websites.


What if you've found the perfect variety of vegetable to grow for your family, but now you can't find seeds for it? Varieties come and go, depending on sales volume.

I've heard that more than 30,000 varieties of vegetable seeds have been lost in the past century. Thirty years ago, one of the most popular mild peppers available was a variety called Gypsy. It had been named an All-America Selection in 1981. Since I don't grow that variety, I didn't notice its dwindling availability. A friend loves it, however, and couldn't find seeds this year.

Surprisingly, I discovered Gypsy pepper plants at Fred Meyer, so I bought two plants for my friend. She would save seeds to guarantee herself a supply, except that the variety is a hybrid. Saved seeds from those ripe peppers probably won't yield peppers like Gypsy. I've since discovered seed sources for Gypsy peppers.

Whenever you see seeds listed "on sale," but not in the regular listing, that's a tip that the company is selling out of those seeds and won't be carrying them again. Save your own seeds, if the variety is not identified as hybrid or F1 (en route to hybrid, not open pollinated).

Remember Jersey Golden acorn squash? It won the 1982 All-America Selections Bronze Medal, and deservedly so. It was a bush squash that produced fine-flavored, nonstringy squashes. In my garden it was an insect magnet, and if others experienced that assault too, that may be the reason you can't find seeds for that squash any longer.

Some vegetable varieties are open-pollinated, but saving seed is difficult because the plants are biennial. That means they would normally go to seed the year after they were planted. If we have an unusually mild winter, some plants may overwinter naturally, then go to seed.

Onions and others in the Allium genus, and even some carrots that are normally biennial, may be fooled by unsettled weather into thinking they've gone through a summer and a winter, and here comes summer "again," so they bolt into flower and set seeds their first year.

Some gardeners treasure seeds handed down generation after generation, having become "family seeds" for specific flowers or vegetables. If they were prone to disease or not impressive examples of that variety, seeds wouldn't have been saved. I'm one of the gardeners who love to grow this type of plant, getting seeds shared by the heirs of those seeds through gift or membership in Seed Savers' Exchange.

Young gardeners should look into Carol Deppe's "Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties" to start their own tradition and guarantee themselves tasty, healthful food.

I know many large seed companies are offering some "heirloom varieties" of seeds, but they can put a sudden end to that availability by claiming "sold out" or "crop failure," forcing you to buy hybrid seeds year after year.

When genetically engineered garden seeds come on the market they must bear a new name. No known variety is so changed, then re-issued under its old name, so if it says "Early Girl," it's the same tomato you've been growing and buying seeds for years.

The bottom line to ensure your food future is to find the best open-pollinated varieties, then to save seeds from several plants and store them correctly. Saving from one plant limits diversity, opening a new box of problems. Once seeds are truly dry, you can prolong their life by freezing them. That will also kill tiny seed eaters.

Normal seed longevity varies: Allium and parsnip seeds are usually only viable for one year, and many sources say the longest period of viability of other vegetable seed is five years. I did not keep my tomato seeds in ideal circumstances, but they were stored in dark, dry conditions and I received excellent germination from some tomato seeds that were much older than five years. Pelleted seeds usually last much longer than bare seeds, too.

Unfortunately some weed seeds such as field bindweed, may be viable for up to 50 years, just as we all suspected.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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