Last Friday morning it was snowing again as I set off for town. I was on my way to the annual Words on the Water writer’s festival. Every March for the past sixteen years I have attended this local cultural event. When I returned late Monday afternoon I felt rejuvenated. Some seeds of inspiration had been sown at the W.O.W. festival!
While I was away the robins returned to our garden, pecking and peering about on the ground for excited worms. It seems they have brought spring with them. Although it is still chilly, the sun is shining and buds on the flowering shrubs are plump. The grass has begun to grow again and the first daffodil is about to burst open.
It is time to start sorting out and starting some seeds for this year’s garden so I have been browsing through West Coast Seeds’s 2017 Seed Catalogue and Growing Guide, looking for gardening inspiration in its brightly coloured pages. I have also been perusing the less colourful, but no less interesting, Salt Spring Seeds 2017 catalogue put out by Dan Jason, Salt Spring Island’s organic gardener and seed guardian extraordinaire. I really should have placed my orders for garden seeds a month ago, but there is still time!
I support these two west coast seed companies and am interested in their selection of locally grown, organic or conventional, untreated, non-GMO vegetable and flower seed. Although some hybrids are available, mostly open pollinated varieties are on offer in these catalogues, varieties chosen for their suitability to the climate of the Pacific northwest temperate zone.
I am a saver of seeds and am attracted by seed companies that encourage their customers to grow, save and share their own homegrown garden seed. Dan Jason, in his useful book, Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It, describes exactly how to go about saving your own seeds. This inexpensive book, full of helpful seed-saving information, is available online from Salt Spring Seeds.
While I wait for the ground to dry out enough so I can start turning over the vegetable patch, there are other garden preparations that need attending to. First of all, here on the floor next to me are a dozen brown paper shopping bags full of dried seeds waiting to be sorted out, something I should have been doing all winter long!
These bags contain the dried stalks and seeds of some vegetables that I saved from last year to plant in this year’s garden. Bolted and gone to seed at the end of the summer in the case of the annuals (lettuce, spinach, beans and peas), or overwintered from the year before in the case of the biennials (leek, parsnip, beet, chard and kale), I cut the stalks when the seed pods have matured, tie them in bunches and hang them above the woodstove, or place them in labelled paper bags left in a warm and airy place, to dry.
Any variety of seed may be saved, but only open-pollinated varieties will produce seeds that grow true to the parent plant’s characteristics. Some plants will cross-pollinate, and for these it is advisable to grow only one type of that plant at a time. For example, I like to grow several different varieties of squash at once, so I buy fresh seed every year. If I wanted to save my squash seed I would grow only one variety each year in order to retain that variety’s integrity and not end up with a mongrel squash, destined for the chicken coop or the compost pile.
Tomatoes grow true to type. I keep at least one specimen of each tomato variety from which I wish to harvest seed. After letting each of these tomatoes become really over-ripe, I place each one in its own glass jar, cover it with water and put the lid on. The jar is labelled with the variety’s name and the date, then left to ferment at the back of the kitchen counter until the fruit has disintegrated. The mixture is then strained to remove the liquid. The seedy bits are rinsed and left to dry on a piece of absorbent paper.
To clean all the other seeds I have collected, I pick them from their stalks or pods, slightly crushing the husks between my fingers to separate the seeds, letting them fall into a large bowl. Most of the excess plant material is removed to the compost bin. I winnow the larger seeds like beans and peas in order to remove the remaining bits of dried husk and dirt before storing in labelled glass jars.
For smaller seeds such as lettuce, kale and leeks I put the remaining seed-containing material into a glass jar, filling it with fresh water. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the jar. Non-viable seeds will float to the top along with any chaff and remaining plant material. These solids are drained off along with the excess water, leaving a layer of seed in the bottom of the jar. The seeds are then rinsed and drained again using a fine sieve to remove most of the water. Again, the wet seeds are spread on a piece of paper and left to dry completely.
Each variety of dry, clean and sorted seed is placed in its own small airtight container or tiny manila envelope, labelled and stored in a larger tightly lidded container (I use an old biscuit tin), high up on a cool pantry shelf until the following spring when the whole lot will be brought out to begin the planting process all over again. Seed shelf life varies, but most varieties will remain viable for up to three years. Parsnip seed is one exception that stays viable for only one year.
Saving seeds is easy and rewarding, and can save the home gardener a lot of money. Seeds are expensive! Saving garden seed is also an important way to ensure the security of our own food supply; by not putting all of our eggs (or seeds) in one basket (or under one supplier’s control) we can help preserve our autonomy and self-sufficiency as gardening individuals.
For the past couple of months gardening communities around the country have been holding their annual Seedy Saturdays. These events provide a wonderful opportunity for gardeners to get together, to sell or exchange seeds of all sorts and to share knowledge and ideas about seed-saving and garden-growing. Some individuals attending these functions have started small seed companies of their own. Seedy Saturdays give the home gardener an opportunity to support fellow local growers.
Despite the cold northwesterly wind that is blowing today, it is high time to get started on the gardening season by sprouting some vegetable and flower seeds indoors where it is warm. I have bought a few bags of sterile potting mix (though I might have made my own) and will put some in a few wooden or plastic flats and recycled plastic containers that I have collected over the years. In these I will plant several varieties of tomato seed, some mixed lettuce, leek, basil, and parsley seed. I will also start some broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale indoors. Later, when the ground warms up, I will transplant these seedlings into the garden. This is also when I will begin to plant the beans directly into the prepared garden soil.
I grow a few flower varieties from seed as well; marigold, cosmos, sweet pea, calendula, zinnia all do well if started early indoors. I start my seedlings in their containers in the living room where there is quite a lot of natural light. The soil-filled flats are set on a portable wooden frame from which I suspend a fluorescent light tube, adjustable height-wise to hang just above the small germinating seeds. This extra light helps the seedlings grow strong without becoming leggy.
I have been saving seeds ever since I first started to garden. Some gardeners have an irresistible urge to propagate plants from the seed they have grown and saved, or acquired from a gardening friend or relative. My mother used to pinch off the seed pods of garden plants, flowers mostly, to dry and save for the following spring’s garden. I have been given the seeds of nasturtium, marigold, morning glory, honesty, fairy-primula, Canterbury bells, hollyhock and columbine by elderly aunties, my grandmother, other gardening pals and their mothers. It is an inspirational and creative way for fellow gardeners to show their affection and respect, both giving and receiving the saved seeds of beloved plants grown in one’s own home garden.