BY KOKHEONG MCNAUGHTON
Instead of a New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been coming up each year with one word that I write out in big letters on a sticky note posted on my computer desk in front of me so that I can look at it every day and remind myself what is important for me that year. In 2022, it was “HEALING”. This year, the word is “SEEDS.”
Why seeds? Since we’ve launched the “Los Alamos Community Seed Library” project in March of 2022, I have learned a lot about seeds. There is still a lot more to learn. I want to be able to look at a seed and tell what plant it comes from. Most of us can do this to varying extent, but there are a lot of seeds out there that I cannot identify. It’s impossible to know all of them, but the more I study, the more I learn. The more I know.
I have not always been a seed saver. In fact, I only started saving seeds about 10 years ago after I posted a picture of a bright red hollyhock on my Facebook Page. A friend in Minnesota wrote to me to ask if I could save some of the seeds for her. She had been looking out for red hollyhocks, and the color of mine was just what she wanted. So, I did. Once I started saving seeds, there was no holding me back! First the flowers — red hollyhocks, pink four o-clocks, yellow-and-white columbines, maroon snapdragons, purple poppies, purple-and-pink cosmos, red Mexican hats with yellow trims, sunflowers, Zinnia… you name it. Then the vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, radishes, Chinese Cabbage, squashes, chives, dills, corianders, beans, lettuce, spinach, arugula… anything that I grew and let go to seeds. They were all neatly packed and labeled with the name of the plants and the year the seeds were harvested. I joined several online Seed Swap groups and shared them with many people all over the country. Seeds that are common here are rare in other parts of the country.
Why save seeds? Given that they are so easily available and so cheap to buy, is it worth the trouble? There’s so much to learn about saving seeds and planting them. When is the best time to save each type of seed? What do the seeds look like? How do I separate the seeds from the chaffs? How do I know if the seeds I saved are viable? How do I store them to ensure they remain viable? Do they need stratification to grow? When do I plant them? Do they need scarification? Do I soak them first? When I plant them, do I orientate them in a certain way for best germination so they don’t have to do somersaults inside the soil when they sprout? Once they sprouted, how do I protect them from being eaten by birds and other critters?
Some seeds are very easy to save. I simply cut off the seed heads from the mother plants when they are ready, and shake them onto a sheet of paper or into a brown paper bag, spread them out to dry, then label and store them in envelopes or jars with a silica gel pack to keep them dry. Other seeds require more work. Tomato seeds need to be fermented to get rid of the gelatinous covering before drying and storing. Healthy seeds from the squash family can be identified by feeling for the cotyledons within, and separated from those unfertilized or partially fertilized ones that float to the top in a bowl of water. The sticky pulp adhering to the seeds needs to be washed off before spreading the seeds out to dry, which takes several days. If the seeds are saved for cooking and eating, they need to be separated from the chaffs by repeated winnowing. Seeds have to be thoroughly dried before storing or they’ll turn moldy and rot.
Saving seeds is empowering and allows us to select for qualities we want to preserve. Our ancestors had been saving and selecting seeds since we evolved from hunter-gatherers to settling into domesticating animals and growing food. People used to save seeds from one year to the next to ensure continuous food production. It’s only in relatively recent human history that we’ve relegated this to seed companies.
I save seeds for many reasons, the least of which is economic. By selecting the plumpest seeds from the biggest delicata squash, I hope to grow even bigger ones next year. Plants in my backyard produce seedlings that have adapted to the unique soil conditions and mini climate of my little corner of the earth. Some seeds are not easily available locally, like those of bitter melons, winter melons, hairy gourds, and other specialty vegetables used in Chinese cuisine. Other seeds are saved for use in cooking, like mustard seeds, coriander (from cilantro), dill, fennel, and parsley. Some plants propagate themselves through self-seeding without any interference from me. All I have to do is make sure they don’t get over-crowded by transplanting the seedlings to where I want more of them to grow. I give a lot of them to friends, or pot them up for Plant Sales and Plant Swaps.
Some seeds are easy to germinate, but others need to be frozen for a period of time, like nature intended, before they will germinate. This process is called stratification. We can mimic nature by putting them in the freezer, but I find that Winter Sowing in milk jugs or clear plastic food containers to be a good way to do this. Come spring, they’ll sprout in their little green houses and be ready to plant out when the soil warms up.
Saving seeds takes my gardening awareness to the next level. I pay more attention to each plant and get to know them better as individuals. I mark those from which I plan to save seeds, knowing full well that the seeds from my red hollyhocks that I sent to my friend in Minnesota may not all have produced red flowers, due to open pollination by bees, but I hoped a few did. I delight in the surprise element as much as the “hope eternal” aspect of starting something from seeds.
Some of the seeds saved by KokHeong McNaughton. Courtesy photo