The Promise of Seeds

Seed company catalogs appear in my mailbox every January and February and it’s one category of catalog I truly look forward to receiving. The covers display gorgeous glossy photos of incredible tomatoes and stunning flowers. These breathtaking visuals are something I count on. In the dark depths of a cold and overcast winter, it is difficult to envision blue bird skies and remember the warmth of spring. When winter seeps into your bones, shrugging it off is a kind of drudgery. Thus, the predictable arrival of the yearly seed catalogs is a welcome sight. If you are like me, and need waking from your hibernal sleep, I have found the best medicine for the winter blues: planting seeds.

When I hold a seed my hand, perhaps I scrutinize it more than most. Seeds resemble tiny pieces of nothing and, bearing no outward symbol of their paramount importance, are unassuming. My curiosities about them bear many questions lending a search for answers on how we can best share, save and protect seeds, without which we could not exist.

First, for a little perspective, I will share a basic history of seeds as it pertains to America. When the English first emigrated to America, they brought seeds from Europe, but soon discovered that many of these seeds did not grow well in our climate and soil. Trading with the Native Americans for indigenous seeds was of absolute importance if the settlers were to survive. These early settlers relied on seed saving from one year to the next, practicing saving seeds from the strongest plants symbolized a tangible promise for the following year.

Burpee’s seed catalogs from the 1940s were informative as well as beautiful with hand drawn illustrations.

In the Colonial Era, seeds remained a precious commodity. Presidents Washington and Jefferson formed agricultural societies that saved, cultivated and exchanged seeds, although they were not widely available to the public. Colonial farmers were no doubt doing the same amongst themselves to reproduce the strongest crops for the following year.

In the early 1800s, the Secretary of the Treasury initiated a program requesting U.S. ambassadors and military officers to gather seeds and seed data from their posts around the globe. In 1839, this program became more methodical when the U.S. Patent Office established an agricultural division, which began collecting seeds and launching free seed distributions.

Established in 1862, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) devoted at least one-third of its budget to collecting and distributing seeds to farmers across the country. By the turn of the century, USDA had sent out over 1 billion packages of seed. The seed distribution program was enormously popular with farmers as public seed was free and of good quality. It also enabled farmers to conduct extensive seed breeding and provide the genetic foundations for American agriculture. Farmers developed steady genetic improvement mainly through a simple process known as phenotypic selection, in which seeds from the healthiest and most productive plants are saved and replanted the following season, according to the Center for Food Safety. After extensive lobbying by the private sector, this free seed distribution was discontinued around the mid 1920s.

The development of hybrid crops, such as hybrid varieties of corn introduced in the 1930s, was instrumental to the growth of a private, commercial seed industry. Hybrid seeds were effectively a biological strategy for seed companies to expand their market influence. Instead of on-farm seed saving, farmer seed breeding, and public research and distribution, hybrid seeds gave seed companies new opportunities to explore – and to often exploit – farmer dependency on purchased seed. As these companies expanded and gained more relevance in a shifting agricultural landscape, a new era of consolidation in the seed industry began. (Center for Food Safety)

My husband’s grandfather was a farmer. Each year at harvest he would take a small portion of his grains and put them in a seed cleaning machine that was kept in the barn. These seeds would then be reused the following season. With the rise of agricultural conglomerates and the patenting of seeds as intellectual property, seed saving is no longer practiced by the majority of farmers.

Insomuch as, in 1983, a study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) revealed that over the course of 80 years, the U.S. lost 93 percent of its agricultural genetic diversity. RAFI’s report concludes that 75 percent of today’s food calories worldwide are derived from just nine plants. This leaves the food supply in a vulnerable state, as genetic diversity is essential for food security.

Therefore, we must continue to save, share and protect seeds for the present and for our future. Saving seeds is a time-honored practice dating back thousands of years. Different kinds of seeds often require different methods for saving. Wet seeds like tomatoes and melons will require more preparation than dried seeds like beans and corn. Remember heirloom seeds will produce plants with the same properties as its parent plant. A hybrid seed may or may not possess the traits of the parent plants and will not be uniform in appearance or identical to the mother plants. There is so much literature available on how to save seeds, and the University of Maryland Extension office can be a valuable tool as well.

Sharing seeds can be a dynamic social experience. Many communities have seed swaps often held at libraries and community centers and this is a great way to meet other gardeners and trade for seeds you want. If there are no seed swaps in your area, all you need is a few gardening friends and you’ve got potential for seed swap – just start the dialogue.

Across the country, many public libraries have sprouted seed saving libraries – including Talbot County. Repurposed card catalogs make excellent drawers to organize seed envelopes and that’s just what you’ll find at the Easton and St. Michaels branches – free seeds for the public and a chance to share your seeds with the library. Another local seed saving initiative is headed by Environmental Concern. Located in St. Michaels, their “Seed Stewards for Monarchs” program’s goal is “to increase milkweed seed inventory in order to grow more milkweed. Seed Steward volunteers receive free swamp milkweed or butterfly milkweed plants to start a Monarch butterfly habitat.”

The Seed Savers Exchange provides yet another opportunity to share. Their mission is: “To conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. Since 1975, we have been working hard to keep heirloom varieties where they belong – in our gardens, on our tables, and in our hearts…”

Seed banks offer protection for the future of the world’s seeds. There are 1,000 seed banks around the world but none as famous as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Funded by Norwegian taxpayers, it was built in 2008. Way up north, in the permafrost, 1,300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world’s largest secure seed storage. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults. In 2018, it held more than 1 million seed samples.

“Because it is surrounded by permafrost, the vault was designed to provide failsafe protection against calamity, both natural and otherwise. However, rising average temperatures in the region and an unseasonable warm winter recently led to heavy rains and a widespread melting of the surrounding permafrost, which caused the first 15 meters of the 100 meter tunnel into the vault to flood…the seeds were undamaged. However, when the vault was initially designed, it seemed inconceivable that the permafrost around it would ever be at risk.” In a Heirloom Gardener article in the fall of 2017, it was stated that the vault’s mangers have since invested millions more in improvements to ensure the safety of the seeds inside.

All this talk of permafrost brings me back to my favorite winter project – planting seeds. As long as you have a sunny window with about 6 to 8 hours of sunlight, one can start some seeds indoors. For best growing conditions, use a seed starting soil blend and keep your seeds watered, warm and happy in the sunlight. I love the daily winter routine seeds provide me as I check on their condition and watch for signs of emergence. This ritual reminds me of the excitement I felt for a third grade school project planting bean seeds in a Dixie cup and watching them day by day until they sprouted. I wasn’t the only one whose enthusiasm was palpable. My classmates all delighted in the sprouting of the seeds. Looking back, I remember all of us gathered close to the window, vying for space with jabbing elbows and leaning over the seeds to see whose had spouted first. Sprouting is the fun part; the hardest part is choosing which seeds to plant. I’ll admit I have only saved a few varieties of seeds in my garden career, but this year I plan to save a few more. I am most anxious to watch my Black-Eyed Susan seeds sprout indoors this year. I saved seeds last fall from a few plants that seemed to be slightly different in color and behavior than the ones that generously inhabit my property. I hope these saved seeds will show the hints of uniqueness displayed last year and perhaps be a new cultivar – at least in my microenvironment in Trappe. I wonder, could I be witness to natural selection at hand?

Seeds are simple and complex, predictable and unpredictable. They represent a promise for beauty and sustenance and a symbol of independence for the gardener. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson captures the seed’s spirit best: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

 Seed Saving & Sharing Resources

Talbot County Free Seed Library

Seed and Seed Catalog Jargon

Cultivar – a cultivated variety of a specific crop. Example: ‘Red Ace’ is a beet cultivar. Cultivar is a contraction of “cultivated” and “variety” and is often used synonymously with “variety.”

Open-Pollinated – an in-bred variety where individual plants in a population cross-pollinate each other and produce nearly identical offspring. When grown using appropriate precautions, these varieties “come true” when seed is saved year-to-year.

Hybrid – controlled cross breeding of two distinct, inbred, open-pollinated cultivars. The seed harvested from the intentional cross will produce an F1 (first filial) hybrid. Hybrids tend to be vigorous, uniform, and productive, and many have some disease resistance. Producing hybrid seed is labor-intensive, accounting in part for the often higher price. Hybrid seed is not true to type: seed saved from this year’s crop and planted next year will not be uniform in appearance or identical to the mother plants. Therefore, hybrid seed must be purchased each year.

Heirloom – open-pollinated cultivars that persist because their seed is saved and passed down from one generation to the next. They contain valuable germplasm that would be lost without the efforts of individual gardeners, farmers, small seed companies, seed-saving groups, and the USDA. They often have a colorful history and add interest to the garden and dinner table. Heirloom cultivars vary widely in productivity and disease and insect resistance.

Disease Resistant – ability to resist or impede a disease-causing pathogen. The level of resistance may be high or intermediate. This can also apply to insect injury. For example, sweet corn cultivars with long, tight ear leaves resist corn earworm feeding. Cornell University has excellent charts for identifying and selecting disease-resistant cultivars.

Disease Tolerant – ability of a cultivar to tolerate a disease infection or adverse environmental condition (e.g., drought, cold temperature) without a significant reduction in growth or yield.

Indeterminate / Determinate – the shoots of indeterminate tomato cultivars continue to grow and branch throughout the growing season. The shoots of determinate type cultivars reach a certain length and terminate in a flower cluster. Determinate tomato cultivars range in height from less than 1 ft. to 5 ft. and are sometimes referred to as “self-topping.”

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