Ever’thinz gwoin’ to seed
As my winter and early Spring garden begins to “bolt”, that is, sending up it’s flowers preparing for its next generation, I begin the ritual of saving next years seeds. Really, its my rope. Safety rope, as well as, the rope that rings the bell of my independence. I don’t save them all and I dont save them from a lot of things I eat, But saving seeds of some basic food staples gives me great satisfaction and pride (the good kind). It’s so easy. The hard part for me is when I try to genetically engineer my plants. For instance, I try not to eat my best ears of corn, or biggest garlic cloves, or the last heads of red lettuce that bolt. These are characteristics that I want to cultivate in my plants. Granted, I don’t get that deep sense of resolution one gets from entirely plowing up a bed and freshly planting another. I must steer around the few gangly looking plants that are in the process of going to seed. They flower, and that is pretty, and I get some beneficial insects attracted to the garden, but then they fall over, look weedy, and in constant threat of being trampled. There is something of a lesson in tolerance and patience that harkens to a Buddhist teaching of haveing compassion and respect for all aspects of a being’s life. The reward is that I am on the road to be more patient and respectful and I have a little bundle of the promise of next year’s food supply in my own hands! With good returns as well. When I plant 1 kernal of my sweet corn I’ve been growing for the last 22 years I get a return of 2 ears averaging 136 kernals on each. That’s a return of 1:272 in 60 days! On top of that, every year the plants are better adapted to the soil and weather conditions that they are grow in making them easier to grow and be more productive. Keepin’ it local, baby.
Some seeds that I find easy to save and perpetuate are: corn, beans, skwosh, red lettuce, arugula, and tomatoes. The bulbs are garlic, potatoes, sun chokes, dahlias. My sunflowers, dill and red mustard seem to volunteer year after year so I don’t bother with these.
When harvesting, select a couple of plants that have the most desirable characteristics. Let them just do their thing. Flower, seed, get old, gray and wrinkly just like you and me. Continue to water and care for them, maybe honor them by staking them up, and plant the next succession of veggies around them. Last Fall I planted chard in my carrots and as I ate the carrots the chard grew to fill in the space. This Spring I’ll take up my lettuce and plant my corn etc. They will flower and go to seed amongst the young’uns like grandkids visiting the grandparents. When the seed heads get brown it will be a good time to harvest them. Pluck them off the plant and continue to let them dry in a shady, dry spot. When they are crispy and fall away from the husks, crumble them up and separate the seeds from the chafe. I like to wrap them in paper with name and date and put them in a glass mason jar with a bean sprout top on it on it, but poking holes in a mayonaise lid will suffice for letting some air in. I also put a piece of brown paper bag over the jar and then screw the lid on and that guards against moths and other sneaky little varmits. Store them away on a moderately forgotten shelf. That’s it. It’s really satisfying to have even one strain of favorite veggie that is uniquely yours. I think after 10 years you can name it yourself. More and more there are people doing the same thing with their favorite seeds and I hear about all these seeds swap now. A great opportunity for us in the gardening community to come together and share stories, experiences, and genes. You are not A-L-O-N-E out there in the universe. (Hmm, I wonder if anyone ever reads this blog? Mom…? Dad…..?)
If you are just getting started with saving seed from scratch, I recommend that you start at a local seed swap with local varieties that have been proven by local gardeners Heirloom varieties gotten from companies that are interested in preserving genetic diversity and our food heritage are another good option and between the two is a balance between local authenticity and a solution to possible inbreeding. Sources for heirloom seeds are High mowing seeds at the French Broad food coop or mailorder at Jonny’s seeds. At the big box stores hybrids are available but they are too genetically unstable for saving as seed, often sterile and revert to having undesirable characteristics. A plan of obsolescence that keeps the people dependent on seed companies and less dependent on their community. I’m shocked at the copyrights being slapped all over our seeds. This year’s fruit tree catalogue of age old varieties had trademarks on them because of a “sport”. (Some small difference that had shone up in an orchard somewhere amongst the millions of clones.) I saw no difference at all in the pictured fruit, and since they want to sell “their” variety, the original variety is now unavailable. In the future if someone wishes to propagate that tree they will have to pay royalties. They stole trees that should be in the public domain. With there being less and less small local propagation nurseries it will be a matter of time before these few corporations will have trademarks on all the fruit trees. If we dont start perpetuating our local heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables we will have passively let our birthright to essential food sources be taken over by companies very far away. Where’s the freedom is that?
So now I get to tell you a true story about me and my corn.
Once upon a time in a holler far, far away a young man determined, and border line hell bent, lived in a rather bumpy province reffered to as West Virginia. Suspected by most to be the place where the movie “Deliverance” was shot he met a local woman, Phyllis. She was one of them Hilton girls up second creek over in Hollywood (where the stars shine all night). Well, her pappy was of the old mountaineering breed that, even in the eighties of the last century, continued hunting, trapping, and digging sang and yeller root. Kept a garden as well, for as long as those Hilton girls could remember. Grew ’bout everything, but had a some corn, pop and sweet, that Phyllis was particularly prideful of. It was small, and good and it was her Daddy’s. No doubt he’d gotten from his, and his his. Well, this young man traded a few kisses for a few of these kernals and planted them. In a year or two had him a good size patch. He began to notice differences in the size of some stalks and ears, and when a particularly large ear showed up that he was partial to, instead of eating it he pollinated with it, and amongst its progeny, choose the biggest ears for to dry for seed. It wasn’t another year or two when some of the stalks began to show two ears on a stalk and then the second ear started to fill out. Over about 10 years the stalk went from givin’ one ear about 2 inches long to two ears about five inches in length. He then left of the place in the summer planting out but not taking care of his garden and after a few years the corn seed stock dwindled and was gone. Phyllis’s Pappy died and she too let her seeds go. Everybody’s lives had gone to seed. The corn line severed forever.
One day ten years later…
….the now not so young man returned back to his old home place from the city a little more polished and while cleaning up for his new girlfriend came upon a small glass vile with 20 corn Kernals in it untouched by the marauding mice. Could it be…the old corn seed? So excited, and being the 4th of July when the corn is supposed to be knee high, the man quickly set the seeds soaking in a teacup. planning on planting them out as soon as he got back to the city in North C’lina. Waking up the next morning to pack his belongings all the seeds were gone! after 10 years of not getting eaten by the mice they had finally got them. Solemnly, he packed up his things and when he picked up some clothes on the couch, there laid the seeds. All of them in a nice little pile ready to be packed up. The mice had stashed them for a later date. Been March, a hungrier mouse wouldnt have waited.
The man returned to his C’lina home in the city and watched to see if the corn would sprout. Two did. lacking any garden beds, he planted his seeds in pots. He spoiled that corn. Treated it will the best organic seaweed ferilizers he could find and they faired well and soon tassled. You have to remember when you grow a small corn patch, and this was as small as you could get, and get away with calling it a patch, your going to have to pollinate it yourself. Which is a good tool for genetically selecting the best plants. When the silks begin to appear at the end of the newly forming ears, break off some of the tassle on top that has spread open and yellow powder falls freely from. Touch the silks with it and repeat this as many times as you can remember until the silks die. You will get a lot more kernals on you ear than with wind and random chance. Now in a big corn patch there’s so much pollen floating around that you don’t have to do anything. There is a lot of pollen out there that is hybrid or genetically engineered that could pollinate my corn and pollute its genes. Probably has. They say that even in the most remote farms in Peru where there are ancient lines of local corns grown, genes from genetically engineered corn have been found in them. So its a good idea to pollinate your own corn. Keep it local, Baby.
It wasn’t just those little hard corn kernals that germinated, something in that man germinated as well. Connected him with a line. Something that seemed to have been lost was still retrievable because ever since that man got back his corn he started farming again. Squeezing it in any niche he can around his little c’lina city home, his work place and community parks. If you want a couple of these seeds just write me in the comment form. It wouldn’t be right for me to be alone in the universe with Jim Hilton’s corn seeds.