Lauterbach: Preserving seeds can be tricky, but it is still possible to do

Special to The Idaho StatesmanDecember 6, 2013 

1010 local seeds

There is an urgency these days among gardeners, nurseries and even many seed vendors, for gardeners to save their seeds.

We've known for some time that thousands of varieties of vegetables were lost in the 20th century because they fell out of favor and were no longer profitable.

Once they're gone, they're gone forever. Breeding may bring back a variety, but taste changes with age, and even sharp consumers are never certain they're tasting the old favorite.

Seed Savers Exchange has embarked on a series of webinars to teach seed saving mainly of food crops, trying to encourage more seed saving by individuals. Members of SSE may order seeds directly from other members' lists of seeds they've saved from the yearbook that usually lists about 12,000 named varieties of vegetable seeds. SSE also issues a catalog of seeds that organization sells to the public, profits to support their seed preservation activities. All offers are open-pollinated varieties. Free public catalogs may be ordered at www.seedsavers.org/Catalog.html.

If you don't save your own seeds, or if you prefer hybrid varieties, you have to keep repurchasing seeds to grow each year. If you do save your own seeds, in time that crop becomes acclimatized to your weather conditions, growing season and soil, slightly altering the variety. Such adapted seeds are known as "landraces."

Farmers and gardeners for centuries have improved versions of the crops they grew creating new landraces. A landrace of corn that exists in central America is said to bear cobs that are over a yard in length. I'm sure that is not a sweet corn, probably a flour or flint corn to be dried, then ground into meal or masa, a sight to behold.

Some landraces adapted to specific climates and/or soils, may be faster to mature or more productive of food than other versions of that crop, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are not candidates for seed saving, for the manufacturer demands you buy new seed each year. This of course prevents individuals' acclimatizing varieties and creating new landraces.

GMOs are confused with hybrids by many, but they're quite different. Hybrids are developed by conventional breeding, GMOs use human technology to force-breed characteristics that could not appear in nature. Thus a plant may have animal parts as well as plant.

In the Treasure Valley seed saving classes are given, and seed swaps and sharing are held at different times of year. See www.facebook.com/CommonWealthSeedLibrary or treasurevalleyfood coalition.org/?page_id=665.

Classes are announced in The Statesman, on the above websites or in nursery newsletters such as "Experience Edwards."

Some of the requirements for saving seeds are extreme for home gardeners. For instance, one is supposed to let eggplants go beyond ripe to yellowish, matte finish on the fruit, to save seeds, and the official recommendation is to obtain one of these from each of eight or nine plants for biological diversity. Letting an eggplant stay on the plant for that long probably will prevent other fruit from setting on that plant, reducing your harvest.

Letting a seed-bearing organism remain on any plant until maturity reduces its productivity, but one way to obtain genetic diversity as well as acclimatization is to share your home-saved seeds of a particular variety with another person who shares her saved seeds of the same variety with you.

I've heard some Basque gardeners return to their homeland occasionally to obtain fresh seeds for peppers. If they'd let one or two peppers remain on the plants until they're completely ripe, then harvest the seeds, and share them with another person growing that variety who has saved his/her seeds, both could gain genetic diversity without a significant reduction in harvest.

Resources for necessary isolation to prevent cross-pollination and instructions on seed saving include Suzanne Ashworth's "Seed to Seed," Jere and Emilee Gettle's "The Heirloom Life Gardener," Bryan Connolly's "Organic Seed Production and Saving," and Carol Deppe's "Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties." Deppe also includes extensive directions for breeding and dehybridizing varieties.

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

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