Our Winter Wednesday Workshop series begins this month. We hope to see you there!
Tree Sale information is now available on the website. Catalogs will be in the mail soon.
Look for us in the Cadillac News! Our weekly column - "Conservation Corner" is featured every Tuesday.
Here's this week's article:
Tips to help save our seed heritage
If you are a gardener, you’ve probably already started receiving seed catalogs in your mailbox. Page after page of glossy vegetable photos has lured many a gardener into buying more seeds than they need in a given year. Which leads to the questions: “Can I save some of the seed I purchased and plant it next year?” “Can I save seed from the plants that I grow and ease the pressure on my wallet?” and “What do all those terms and abbreviations in the seed catalog mean anyway? Saying that seeds are vital to our agricultural heritage seems more than obvious. But what isn’t always obvious is the story behind the seeds that are for sale, and what you can do to both save money and keep our seed heritage strong.
Many types of seed can remain viable for several years if stored properly. Seeds from vine crops such as melons and cucumbers can remain viable for five years. Most other seeds can usually be kept for two or three years. The exceptions are seeds from the onion and carrot families, including herbs such as parsley, dill, and cilantro. These seeds normally remain viable for only a year when stored at room temperature.
To prolong the life of your seeds, keep them cool and dry. In other words, give them the opposite of the warmth and moisture that they need for germination. A mini fridge dedicated to seeds is a great option for those who want to keep a large quantity of garden seed from year to year. For lesser quantities, a sealed plastic bag in the family fridge will do. A freezer can be used for long term storage, but only if you can be sure that the seed has been allowed to dry thoroughly beforehand so that ice crystals don’t form in the seed and ruin it.
Different types of garden crops vary tremendously in how easy it is to save seed from them. Easiest are those that are annual crops that don’t cross-pollinate readily (beans) and those reproduce vegetatively (potatoes & garlic). The most difficult are non-hardy biennials that require you to keep the plant alive through winter (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), and those that are pollinated by wind (special steps need to be taken to prevent cross-pollination).
Whether or not you can save seed from the plants that you grow depends on what type of seed it is. Here’s an introduction to the various seed types –
Open-Pollinated (OP) types are ones that are pollinated without the help of humans. Many, but by no means all, of these varieties are genetically stable, and seed saved from them will be the same as the parent plants.
Hybrid varieties are ones where two different parent plants are specifically chosen for the traits that they can pass down such as disease resistance, higher yield, plant size, color, etc. Hand pollination is frequently used to produce hybrid seed. Seed catalogs will often list them as being “F1”. Seeds from hybrids are usually not saved, as plants produced from the seeds of hybrids will often be quite different from the plants from which they came.
Heirloom varieties generally refer to those varieties that were known prior to World War II. Many are favored by gardeners for their flavor. They are not often used in production agriculture because newer varieties have been developed with increased yields and better disease resistance. The vast majority are open-pollinated rather than hybrid, and they often can be successfully saved.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) - This technique use DNA molecules from different sources and combines them into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified genes. Currently GMO seed is mainly used in field crops, and is not available to gardeners. However, GMO sweet corn has been developed, and it can cross-pollinate with home gardeners’ sweet corn. GMO seeds are patented and saving them is illegal.
Organic seeds can be either open-pollinated or hybrid, but not genetically modified. In order for them to be labeled as organic, the parent plants must have been raised according to the USDA organic standards.
Where to Get Seeds
If you are interested in saving seeds, look for a retailer or an organization that offers open pollinated varieties. Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are organizations that are dedicated to saving and distributing open-pollinated heirloom seeds so as to preserve our seed heritage and diversity. Both seed companies and organizations must follow Michigan’s “Seed Law” to ensure that seed sold in our state is viable, true to type, and does not contain noxious weeds.
Many people choose to purchase seeds through catalogs because the catalogs often provide significantly more details about a seed variety than can be found on seed packets in a store. They also usually offer a larger selection. Reputable catalogs will tell you whether or not the seed is open-pollinated or a hybrid, so that you know whether or not you can save the seed. They often frequently contain symbols that tell you which diseases a variety is resistant to, how much cold it can tolerate, days to maturity, and suitability for growing in a greenhouse.
A small refrigerator dedicated to seed storage can help gardeners not only save their own seed, but keep purchased seed viable for many years.
Seed catalogs can tell gardeners whether or not the seed is hybrid (F1) or has a patent on it (PVP) and thus can’t be saved; or if it is open pollinated (no marking in this case) or Heirloom (HL symbol) and therefore suitable for saving. It also gives information about suitability for greenhouse growing, trellising, disease resistance, and days to harvest.