Seed savvy

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

Farmers and agriculturists have been growing food and selecting seeds for future harvests for 10,000 years. Fewer than six generations ago, our ancestors lived rural lifestyles, growing food and saving their own seeds or acquiring them locally. Today, the majority of farmers don’t save seeds and most of the rest of us have forgotten how. As passive consumers in a global economy, despite all the amazing technology at our fingertips, we have forgotten how to feed ourselves.

Modern seed production is geared towards agribusiness, which is geared towards making food production as cheap as possible. Plant breeders hybridize seeds for identical plants for uniformity in harvesting and processing. In this biotech age, seeds are genetically modified for resistance to the ever-increasing amounts of pesticides that are needed for ‘farming’ with unnatural monocultures. Today’s consumers have become addicted to an abundance of cheap food from around the world, made possible by an era of plentiful fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the reality of cheap food is that it harms the Earth and it’s killing us through poor nutrition in the process.


Row of silverbeet going to seed.
Row of five-colour silverbeet going to seed

As we transition towards a sustainable future, agriculture will once again be based on small-scale, regional food production and we will need naturally pollinated seeds, which we can keep saving. Seeds that have been hybridized and tampered with genetically do not provide the solution to feeding ourselves.

Seed selection: As a seed saver, you participate in selection, encouraging the qualities you most value in a plant. Select seeds from the healthiest, best-performing plants in the garden, displaying the most typical characteristics of the variety. If selection is not carefully maintained, it’s easy to lose the favourable traits of a certain strain.

‘Off types’: Inspect the plants frequently to identify any ‘off types,’ plants that show different traits from the other plants. These should be ‘rogued’ out by removing them before they flower.

Seed collection: Timing for seed collection is critical and observation is the key to success. Wait until seeds are ripe enough for collection, but don’t wait until they have dispersed into the garden or the finches have eaten them. Be aware of weeds that hide among plants and remove them before inadvertently collecting their seeds.

I collect most seeds in brown paper bags, upon which I write the name and date of collection and any other pertinent information. If there’s a large volume of seeds to collect, I line large, plastic tubs with bags, which then stay in the greenhouse for two weeks so the seeds can dry. They are then moved to the dry garage, which is cooler, until they are cleaned in October.

Labelling: For everything you collect, identify the name and record the date of collection and any special features.

Drying: Thorough drying is critical before storing seeds in sealed containers or envelopes. The larger the seed, the longer it needs to dry. If possible, leave seeds to mature on the plant, but it is sometimes necessary to harvest seeds before they are quite ripe.

Cleaning: Remove the chaff and other debris by sieving seeds through screens of different sized mesh. Winnow seeds in a light breeze to remove any tiny particles or dust. I use a hairdryer on a cold setting to do this.

Storing: The ideal temperature for storage is 5°C, in a dark, cool, humid area. Avoid fluctuations in temperature. Paper bags, envelopes or airtight containers (yoghurt tubs) work well. Seeds retain longer viability when refrigerated or frozen. Place dried seeds in small, zip-lock, plastic bags; pack these into a sealed, glass jar and place in the fridge.

Carolyn’s new book The Zero Mile Diet – A Year-round Guide to Growing Great Organic Food is now available (Harbour Publishing)

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