“It all started here, in the Floral Hall, VanDusen Botanical Gardens, over 20 years ago… That was 1990 and the very first Seedy Saturday in Canada took place in this very room!”
That’s one of the many interesting things Master Gardeners learned about the history of seed saving in Canada from Uber-seed-saver Dan Jason, during his talk at the annual GM of the BC Council of Master Gardeners in October. Jason started one of Canada’s first completely organic seed companies, Salt Spring Seeds, 27 years ago.
Turns out British Columbian MGs have been instrumental in kick starting the seed saving movement in this country (and beyond.) Now there are over 100 individual Seedy Saturdays annually across Canada alone. But history was not a key aspect of Jason’s speech. Instead he made MGs aware of the crucial work being done now to save heritage, non-GMO contaminated seeds before it’s too late.
“Due to industrial agriculture and the corporatization of seed companies around the world, there already is heavy contamination of corn, canola and other seeds…you just can’t find those seeds without genetic modification anymore because of how easily crops get tainted” said Jason.
Genetically modified crops are a problem both for the farmer and the environment, as “they require higher and higher inputs of the pesticides and herbicides that companies like Monsanto produce. Soon the soil is depleted and the farmer’s ability to raise anything without genetic modification is gone.”
Not to mention the major concerns consumers have about ingesting genetically modified foods; we know it’s in many if not most of our pre-packaged foods. A massive push is underway to force food producers to label GM foods on packaging-- but Monsanto and others are pushing back just as hard to avoid that. In the United States, their lobby groups spent $17 million dollars in 2013 publicizing the benefits of industrial agriculture and the wondrous growing powers of genetically modified foods.
Meantime, who is preserving the untainted, healthy seeds? According to Dan Jason, it’s a core group of about 1,000 dedicated souls around the globe, who volunteer their time and expertise in creating seed banks and growing out non-GMO, heritage seeds. But they need help—lots of it.
“It’s not enough really, it’s a fragile system, especially for the more rare varieties—very few people are growing them out, which is the crucial part. It’s not going to help in the long run to only save the seeds in a bank somewhere—the plants must be grown out so they can adapt to the changing climate. Otherwise, you’ll just have seeds that won’t be viable down the track.”
That’s where individuals with experience, such as MGs, can come in. “Master Gardeners know about soil issues and propagation—it’s all about the health of the land. Growing things that support the bees for example. There is a huge upsurge of people saying we have to protect this planet for our kids.”
Not only is it good for our food supply and for the planet, growing seeds out can also make a gorgeous and unique display in the garden. Carrots take two years to get to seed stage, but when they grow up to two metres (six feet) high and shoot up their stunning white umbels of flowers very similar to Queen Anne’s Lace, it's well worth the wait. The following photo shows carrot and allium flowers.
Any member of the allium family (onions, garlic, leeks) also create those lovely umbels, except there is a wide range stalk heights and of seed shapes: from small hard black squares attached to the stems of chive flowers to the miniature garlic gloves waiting at the base of their round heads. Kale is another lovely plant at seed stage; with its already large stature and architectural leaves, the seed pods late in the first season or middle of the second add a delicate, almost airy, touch.
For those who want to get involved in preserving this precious resource, a good starting place is at Seedy Saturday, an event held in many communities across the province (including of course at Van Dusen Gardens, where it is always held in February.) With many longtime food growers in attendance, information about growing for seeds is readily available—as is the chance to buy or trade heritage, non-GMO seeds grown right in our own climate.
Or what about starting your own Seed Library? Jason says it the newest concept in seed saving circles at the moment.
“Basically you go to your local library and ask for some shelf space. It’s dry there and very public of course-- plus no one is making money from this. And members can then take out whichever seeds they wish, just like a library book, but then you also promise to grow them out and save the seeds. Later you return those seeds from the plants you’ve grown out. It’s a way of keeping seeds in the public domain in a very low key way.”
Perhaps some new seed savers are among the Master Gardeners who listened to Dan Jason speak? It’s an idea MGABC President Lynn Chrismas and many other MGs already support. Chrismas encouraged MGs to get involved: “some of the money raised at every Seedy Saturday in Vancouver goes to Seeds of Diversity [the umbrella organization in Canada to preserve heritage seeds] and MGs could also consider starting a Seed Library in their own areas, if they don’t have a Seedy Saturday close by.”
INSTRUCTIONS ON SAVING SEEDS FROM DAN JASON'S TALK
1. Make sure the seeds stay dry. 2. Make Sure the seeds stay dry. 3. It doesn’t matter much what you put them in. Glass jars, out of the sun, not too hot, in the dark—they’ll last 4, 5 years no problem. 4. Grow the plants out, allowing them to adapt to the changing climate. 5. Save the seeds from next year’s plants and give some to friends. 6.Keep the seeds dry! J
HOW TO SAVE SEEDS (ABRIDGED FROM DAN JASON’S 'THE WHOLE ORGANIC FOOD BOOK')
If growing out to seed in a small space, consider planting one variety per year to avoid cross-pollination—in larger gardens, read about minimum planting distances needed between varieties to prevent cross-pollination.
TOMATOES 1. Grow healthy plants, harvest fruit from your most prolific plants and set aside one or two from each plant that you wish to save seed from. 2. Cut open, squish pulp together with water and leave in a bucket for 3 days—allow to ferment, stirring every once in a while. This helps soften and unstick the pulp around each seed.
3. Pour contents of bucket gently through a fine sieve or screen a few times, blasting with a cleansing stream of water each time to remove all pulp. The seeds will sink to the bottom—transfer them by hand to clean bucket or bowl. 4. Remove any remaining pulp, set to dry on clean paper or a fine screen in an airy place. Remove any suspect seeds—the good ones should be extremely dry.
5. Transfer to envelopes within glass jars or other completely dry container. Label with date and variety. 6. Store in dark, dry space.
BEANS 1. Grow healthy plants, choose a few highly productive plants for seeds and let those pods dry on the vine. 2. Check the pods frequently to attain maximum dryness, but before the dry pods burst open. A good test is to see if your thumbnail creates a dent in the seed—if not, it’s ready.
3. Carefully remove the seeds from the pods, remove all debris and let dry on a screen in an airy location for a day or two. Remove any broken or suspect seeds. 4. Label and store in containers, do not completely seal container as bean seeds prefer a bit of air—keep in dry cool place.
CARROTS Carrots will readily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace, so be sure to cut down any of these flowers before the carrots go to seed.
1. Grow your favorite variety of carrots (no F1 hybrids, of course; these seeds from ag-corporations don’t grow true from saved seed.) 2. Decide whether you will be bringing the carrot tops (plus a couple of inches of carrot) inside to over winter or leaving them in the ground, under mulch (on the Coast, it’s okay to leave in.)
3. By the middle of the second season, the seed carrots will have sent up a large multi-branched umbel or flower head. Let the flower heads develop until about September, so that the first flowers have gone brown but there are some fresh flowers on the umbels, before cutting down the stalk—this will ensure the greatest number of mature seeds.
4. Let the entire stalk dry, in an open paper bag and take some time to shake out all the tiny seeds, removing any debris. 5. Label, place in an envelope within a glass jar and store in a cool, dark place.
By Suzette Meyers Curtain , Vancouver MG