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My Garden Flourishes ‘Because Someone Has Saved the Seed’

I’ve learned that every little packet represents a specialized form of labour, and a journey from someone’s farm to your garden.

andrea bennett 5 Jul

andrea bennett is an editor with The Tyee and the author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp), a CBC Books’ pick for the top Canadian non-fiction of the year.

Kevin Wilson’s house is a striking, two-tone blue with a pride flag flapping gently in the breeze above the front porch. It’s about an hour’s walk from my house, along a power line. I’m here to visit. And I’m here for seeds.

It’s late spring, and Wilson’s garden is in the midst of its yearly transformation and emergence. On the left side of his front yard, the cherry tree is leafing out. There’s a herb garden, a long row of rhubarb growing bushy, and what used to be annual beds for vegetables but is now becoming a perennial pollinator’s paradise. To the right is a giant pile of wood chips speared by a broad fork.

Wilson, who lives on about one-fifth of an acre in the Cranberry neighbourhood of Powell River, B.C., grows everything from breadseed poppies to lovage to fennel to crocuses and narcissus. He grows lettuce, and corn salad and comfrey. Several kinds of currant, and an apple tree, called a maiden apple, that grows straight up rather than branching out.

His specialty, though, is soup peas, a type of pea that’s grown to dry and store — and, as its name suggests, is mainly used for soup. He grows them for himself, and to sell to friends and neighbours.

A mutual friend introduced us because Wilson, who also runs a homesteading school, is one small part of a large network of seed farmers and sellers in the Pacific Northwest. And I am looking to learn more about what goes into the process of saving seeds to sell, and grow.

When I buy my sweet millions cherry tomatoes, a hybrid bred to be productive and disease-resilient, what kind of effort and labour and technology goes into their production? (And should I be growing an open-pollinated variety instead?)

In a year that will see record-breaking heat wave temperatures and a perilously early start to wildfire season, how are ecologically-minded growers and seed sellers adapting their practices to make the backyard and small farm crops we rely on more resilient?

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An early May shot of Kevin Wilson’s back garden, where he grows, among other things, several varieties of peas to save for soup and seeds.

Depending on the time of year, our local garden store features anywhere from one to three large stands of seeds: dozens of varieties of tomatoes, broccoli, peas and beans, alongside herbs like basil and rosemary, and flowers like marigolds and poppies.

But until I began to save seeds a couple years ago, I’d never thought much about the work that goes into making these little packets appear on the shelves.

“People go to the store, and they don’t really know where all of the stuff comes from,” says Mark Macdonald, communication manager at West Coast Seeds. “All of the different types of plants are different in terms of their seed production.”

Kale and carrots are biennial, meaning they need to be overwintered and allowed to bolt, flower and go to seed in their second year. Some plants, like squash, cross-pollinate readily, meaning they need to be isolated from varieties that share the same family. Others, like tomatoes, are self-pollinators, meaning it’s possible to grow different varieties in fairly close proximity.

Plants like bell peppers need to be fully red and ripe before their seed can be harvested, which can be tricky due to climactic conditions — peppers don’t always get fully red and ripe in the temperate climates on the West Coast.

To harvest and store the seed itself, home growers and small-scale farmers might crack open fully dried seedpods — or ferment and spread tomato seeds — by hand; or they may use purpose-built machines, like threshers and seed-cleaning systems.

Wilson prefers growing soup peas to dried beans because they’re easier to harvest in our climactic conditions.

“If the rains start early in September, beans are not reliable to dry, so you could lose the whole crop,” he says. “Soup peas, drying peas, they will reliably dry down the first week of August.”

Larger companies, like West Coast Seeds, get around this problem by sourcing seeds from regions where the plants will reliably grow well. Skagit County in Washington state, for example, is one of only two major growing regions in the world for spinach seeds, according to Macdonald.

On a visit to Skagit County, Macdonald once visited a warehouse for spinach seed producers.

“They had these wooden boxes, four foot by four foot by four foot,” he says. “And they’d be full of seeds. And there was 10 of them tall, and 50 of them that way, and 50 of them that way. And that wasn’t for 100 years. That was for this season’s spinach production. That’s producing most of the world’s spinach seeds.

“Many of us source the same farm. And when those plants are ready to harvest the seeds, the farmers go out with their equipment, and fill trucks, and the trucks line up for miles.”

Dan Jason, author of Saving Seeds: A Home Gardener’s Guide to Preserving Plant Diversity and owner of Salt Spring Seeds, first got into seed saving and selling as an extension of his interest in practising self-sustaining, bioregional food growing.

He founded Salt Spring Seeds over 30 years ago, and the company has grown through the connections he’s made with farmers on Salt Spring and other nearby islands. Jason guesses that Salt Spring is the “biggest little seed company around” — they still clean and package all of their seeds by hand, and he generally drives to local growers to collect their seeds in the fall.

Jason’s perspective on dealing with climate conditions and disease that make seed harvesting more difficult is measured and thoughtful — and completely undoes the way I view my failure to save tomato seeds due to a late-season fungus last year.

“It’s about navigating and taking advantage of situations that somebody else would look at as bad news,” he says. “One year that I grew out 300 different kinds of tomatoes, there was a very bad blight. And only a couple of tomato varieties survived it. So there you go: there’s your opportunity to save blight-resistant tomatoes. That’s a great opportunity.”

Talking to Meghan McEachern, head farmer at Stowel Lake Farm, also changed my perspective on the difficulties and opportunities that come with seed saving.

Stowel Lake Farm has a market garden, provides produce to people living on and visiting the farm, and farms for seed to sell through Salt Spring Seed. This year marks McEachern’s eighth season farming, and her seventh with Stowel Lake.

Next to Dan Jason himself, Stowel Lake is the largest grower for Salt Spring Seeds. They grow three types of leeks, four types of beans, herbs like cilantro, parsley and dill; greens like arugula and mustard, kale, spinach and 20 lettuce varieties; three kinds of pepper, peas, beets, radishes, two kinds of squash and 10 kinds of tomatoes to save for seed.

“It’s quite an orchestra trying to grow them all out,” McEachern says.

For each open-pollinated variety, McEachern tries to grow at least 80 plants in order to keep the genetic diversity healthy. (OP varieties are created by allowing plants to pollinate freely; the saved seeds from an OP variety should be similar to its parent plant, unlike seed saved from a hybrid, which could produce an entirely different mix of traits in the seeds it produces.)

“The trickiest thing for us is space,” says McEachern. In the temperate West Coast climate, she explains, plants like tomatoes and cucumbers tend to do better in a greenhouse — where you can’t exactly just dig out a new bed if you need more space.

But, she says, the work is important for food security and to help mitigate the effects of climate change. In other words, there may be a good argument to be patient and grow out plants for seed in conditions that are not, strictly speaking, ideal conditions.

“We are looking at a climate reality where we are going to be struggling with drought in the future,” McEachern says. “So it’s crucial to see that we are working to grow seed that doesn’t need as much water. Each year, we’re really selecting and looking for those traits that can survive those kinds of climatic conditions.”

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A handful of Kevin Wilson’s Swedish red peas, also known as Biskopens, against a background of the peas growing up a trellis.

By the time I said goodbye to Kevin Wilson at the end of his driveway, I was taking home walking onions, lady’s mantle and a packet of Swedish red peas, also known as Biskopens — a productive, deep-burgundy soup pea that Wilson counts among his favourites.

Both the onions and the lady’s mantle, as well as the pea seeds, have now been planted into my garden, where they’ve begun to thrive. The lady’s mantle, planted in a shady area, is an easy ornamental that grows well in sub-par conditions. Like Wilson, I’ll save the Biskopens for soup. The walking onions, a perennial, can be used much the way I’d use any other onions, though the bulbs tend to have a bit more heat.

The act of walking Wilson’s plants home along the power line made me re-envision, once again, all the journeys our seeds take before they begin a different kind of journey, turning into the plants that nourish us and beginning the whole process of growth anew.

After I spoke with Jason and McEachern, I placed an order for seeds from Salt Spring, making sure to choose at least one seed — Slo-bolt cilantro — I knew would come from Stowel Lake Farm.

Both Jason and Macdonald had stressed the importance of the West Coast tradition of seed saving and seed swapping through programs like Seedy Saturdays. I like the idea that I’ll be growing out seeds from the farmers I spoke with for this story, continuing a life cycle they began at their homes, or on their farms.

When I ask McEachern if farming for seed has changed her perspective on gardening and the growing process, she says it’s expanded her view on ecology.

“At every stage of a plant’s life,” she says, “it’s not just the plant itself, it’s also all of the pollinators, it’s all of the other creatures and systems working around it which are working towards creating a plant at each stage. It’s always different, and you’re thinking about the different characteristics.”

It’s also expanded the way she views seasons, and the passage of time.

“Seeds are a multigenerational project,” she says. “I’m not necessarily going to see all the fruits of what I’m doing today. You have to have a trust in the future, that actually what we’re doing has benefit. And also, that I’m inheriting all this work that people have done in the past.

“The only reason why we are able to eat the food we eat today is because someone has saved the seed,” she adds. “We are on the backs of thousands of years of seed savers and people who have adapted the varieties we eat today, for the characteristics that we’re able to enjoy.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Environment

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