- garden snowscapes, © the author. All rights reserved.
A Small Seed of Rebellion
Fourteen below zero. A forty-mile an hour wind howling outside, blowing the snow into swirling drifts against my garden fence, the metal glistening with ice. Inside, I relish the time to sit in front of the woodstove and plan my spring planting. This is the season when most gardeners love to receive those glossy garden catalogues in the mail, thumbing through the pages filled with picture perfect vegetables, new varieties, new tools that promise to lighten your work load. My main tool, the gartenbleche, or push cultivator, is cleaned, oiled, and resting in the shed. My catalogues form a small pile next to my easy chair. I glance through them mostly to compare the cost of the few things that I can't buy locally seaweed fertilizer, seedling heating mats, and an occasional new gardening book.
What about ordering my seeds? I drive a knife down into the skin of one of my dried okra pods, stripping out the green seeds, letting them fall into a large bowl. I open a small manila envelope and scoop up about fifty of the seeds, marking the date, species, and variety of the plant on the flap. I squeeze the envelope into my storage box, next to others filled with squash, lettuce, and tomatoes. In the spring, I will rescue the box from its place in a sealed cabinet in the basement, readying my peat pots and my garden soil to begin again the cycle of nature.
Non-hybrid, organic, and heirloom, most of my seeds come from my own garden, saved from the previous season. Seed saving, now something of an oddity among gardeners, was standard practice just a few generations ago. Each fall my grandmother saved her beans in a blue Mason jar stored in the fruit room, then planted them again in the spring. Then small seed companies began offering more and more hybrids, extolled for their strength and vitality. Pictures of beautiful, unblemished zucchini and sweet corn splashed across the centerfolds of catalogues, enticing customers to fill out their yearly order forms. Hybrids cannot reproduce, so gardeners who desired them must purchase them every spring. A business was born. Next, the seed companies' offerings became slimmer. Over the past twenty years, many heirloom and regional varieties disappeared from the glossy catalogues.
In the early 1980s on the banks of the Mississippi River, I walked down a Clinton, Iowa street and found the doors of the Burpee Seed Company closed and shuttered. Burpee, a classic small gardening seed company and a fixture in the city, had been sold, first to General Foods, later to ITT. Conglomerates, which had swallowed up agricultural seed companies, were now moving into the realm of gardening. Small, family-owned garden seed companies had become corporate, and with this consolidation came changed seeds. Garden seeds, mostly hybrids, were often treated with chemical coatings, "additives" and fungicides.
In the 1970s, Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug's "Green Revolution" set out to "feed the world" and "eradicate world hunger." The Green Revolution promoted non-self-perpetuating hybrids and industrialized agriculture in the United States and abroad. The hybrids produced higher yields but required large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Agribusiness promoted hybrids to farmers in third world countries who then stopped using their more adaptable native species and varieties. For example, well-meaning western scientists recommended that teff, a low-yielding but high-protein and extraordinarily drought-resistant Ethiopian grain, be replaced with hybrid corn or wheat. Teff has been seen thriving on the edges of fields of drought-stricken African corn. Poor farmers in third-world countries abandoned their centuries-long practice of saving their own seed year after year. Instead, the farmers were dependent upon U.S. corporations for their seed and chemicals.
In the early 1970s the American chemical companies naturally turned toward consolidating with seed companies. The chemical companies had the money. The political climate was conducive to mergers. Increased public health and environmental safety concerns skyrocketed the costs of bringing new drugs and pesticides to the market. Many of the major patents of the 1950s were expiring. Top chemical firms were gobbling up lesser companies in an attempt to maintain their profits. So major companies with interests in agricultural chemicals moved into seeds, including Atlantic-Richfield, British Petroleum, Monsanto, Stauffer, Upjohn, and ITT. These conglomerates created a closed system. Farmers bought seed from the same company that sold them the chemicals required to grow the crop.
The Burpee Seed Company's boarded-up storefront in Clinton told a story of demise: of a street corner, of regional seed varieties, and of a small, family owned business. By the early 1980s, I was searching the country for untreated seeds, those without pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals. Organic seeds were nearly impossible to find. My quest brought me right back home to another small Iowa city, to the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, where McArthur Fellow Kent Whealy and his then wife Diane Ott Whealy were addressing the loss of bio-diversity in gardening seeds.
The Whealys, a Midwestern couple accustomed to growing part of their food in their garden, had become aware that seed varieties were vanishing. In 1975, Diane's terminally ill grandfather gave them seeds of two garden plants, Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory and German Pink Tomato, which his parents had brought from Bavaria when they immigrated to St. Lucas, Iowa in the 1870s. The Whealys planted the seeds in their garden, harvested them, and saved the seeds for the next season. From this small endeavor grew a national and international network of gardeners who preserved their seeds, saved heirloom varieties and passed them on to others who followed suit.
The Whealys bought a small farm near Decorah, hired the Amish to restore the barn, began extensive garden plots, orchards, and a herd of White Park cattle, a rare breed that roamed the British Isles in pagan times and figured into ancient Celtic lore. They saved endangered species, large and small, and encouraged those of us who signed up for a small membership fee to share the wealth.
Every spring a huge book arrives in my mailbox with non-hybrid vegetable seeds that one gardener offers free of charge to others. Years ago I sent off for dozens of seeds, varieties that I thought would be most suited for my location and soil. I requested seed from gardeners who were in my zone, as close to home as possible. Since that time, I have settled on certain varieties like red-stemmed okra, Wild Matt tomatoes, and sunburst squash. I grow these crops regularly, saving the seed from one harvest to the next. Then I try to rotate in another vegetable or variety new to me from more seeds that I've procured from my fellow Seed Savers.
Many seeds are easy to save. I simply let the red-stemmed okra pods grow wild on the plant, and harvest them at the end of the season. I put them in a mesh bag and let them dry from the ceiling beams of my kitchen. In the winter, I strip out the seeds, storing them in a tight container in a cool, dry place, ready to plant the following spring.
Tomatoes are a bit more complicated. I place my Wild Matt tomatoes in a blender, mashing them until the mixture is thick and pouring it into a Mason jar. I add one cup of water to every cup of mashed fruit and stir the mixture. Then I set aside the jar and let it ferment for three days, stirring it twice daily. A thick layer of mold will cover the top of the jar. I add enough water to double the mixture, stirring vigorously. On the third day, I pour off the mold and other debris and let the good seeds settle to the bottom. I rinse them in a strainer, removing excess liquid, then spill them out on a ceramic plate to dry. In a couple of days they will be ready for their own manila envelope.
A lot of work for a few tomato seeds? Seed savings is the ultimate "local" food. You never leave your own backyard. But does seed saving really save anything besides the endangered varieties? I now save almost all my seeds from my garden. I save the actual cost of buying seeds from glitzy, resource-draining catalogues. I save real energy and future health costs by bypassing seeds that have been chemically treated. By not buying the seeds locally, I save the gas for the trip to the store. And what do I gain? I gain a real sense of self-sufficiency, of staying in touch with my food and with nature. I make a small contribution to energy conservation while I engage in a big act of rebellion against control by the oil and agribusiness companies. And I gain new friends. I've stayed in touch with several gardeners throughout the years, returning to them again and again for new seeds. In the Seed Savers Exchange, you don't fill out an order form. Instead, you write letters to individual people. A few weeks later, they write back, with a handful of seeds tucked in the corner of the envelopes, seeds that they hope will find their way into your garden the following spring, seeds that they hope will continue to have a long life of propagation on this earth.