Many people are beginning to become aware of the importance of seed sovereignty and the issues of seed diversity and open-pollination, but how does one actually go about saving seeds? How can we keep this vital knowledge alive and give people the inspiration and confidence to start producing their own seeds?
From Seed to Seed is a series of 4 DVDs with 40 short educational films that guide viewers step by step through the process of growing, selecting, sorting and storing 32 varieties of vegetable seeds. Disc 1 also includes an ABC of seed production, that gives a concise explanation of how to choose seeds, their botanical classification and pollination and isolation techniques.
Far from being a dull set of instructions, each film is like a short story that captures the character of the plants discussed, as they move through the whole process from seed to seed. The clear narration follows scenes of gardeners demonstrating the processes and showing the unique beauty of the plants in their different stages. The films are illustrated with spectacular hand-drawn animations that are woven into the films, illustrating, for example, how the different varieties relate to each other.
From Seed to Seed is interesting both for fully fledged farmers and gardeners who want to start or expand their seed saving, as well as for anyone who has become curious about what open-pollinated seed production looks like. The films would also be ideal for education and training purposes, both in agricultural courses and in schools. Whether you’ve been wondering, ‘what will happen if my spinach plants go to seed?’ or ‘how on earth can I extract chicory seeds?’ all the technicalities are explained here with different suggestions depending on the climate. Basic considerations that small-scale seed savers need to be aware of are covered, such as how much space is needed for growing and what is the best method of storage. Some seed varieties are easier to harvest seed from than others. For example, self-pollinating seeds such as peppers, tomatoes, beans and peas are easier to produce, whereas biennial crops such as carrots or beets are harder to save, since the plants need two growing seasons to set seed.
Pollination is a fascinating aspect of seed saving, as it makes us realise just how interdependent and complex plants are. Pollination can happen in two ways, if the plant is autogamous, it occurs within the same flower, whereas in the case of allogamous plants it requires external vectors such as wind or pollinating insects. Interestingly, some plants can be both autogamous and allogamous depending on the environmental conditions and activity of insects. Some plants are hermaphrodites, which means that they have both the female and male organs in the same flower. Beans, lettuces and tomatoes for example are ‘self-fertilising’ which means the pollen is transferred between the male and female within the same flower. There are also hermaphrodite plants in which the male organs can only pollinate the female organs of another flower, and in some cases only the flowers on a different plant. These ‘cross-fertilising’ types rely on an external pollinator to bring the pollen from one flower to another. Some plants have unisexual flowers, which means each flower is either male or female and pollen is transferred between these. On some plants, such as cucumbers and corn the male and female flowers are present on the same plant, whereas on spinach for example, the male and female flowers are on different plants.
There are, of course, a lot more complexities to seed saving than this DVD covers, but this charming and useful introduction will whet your appetite for delving deeper into the world of seeds. Selection is one aspect that is not explored in depth, but which is vital for producing good seeds and improving them year on year. To understand this, consider cabbages. Within each variety of cabbage, a single cabbage plant will express its genetic characteristics differently. It takes at the minimum 2,000 cabbages to express the full range of genetic diversity in one variety. Therefore, when commercially producing cabbage seeds, it is recommended to grow at least 100 plants for seed, selected out of a large population of 1,000 – 2,000 plants. The danger of constantly selecting from a small population is that the gene pool can be weakened.
As well as having a large population to select seeds from, it is also important to consider at which stage of the plant’s development selections are made – after germination, while flowering or at harvest time. Cabbages, for example, would be selected in the autumn, at the time they would normally be harvested. There is also a choice to be made in whether selection is positive – the best ones are transplanted into a seed growing area, or negative – the weaker plants are removed and the ones for seed are left.
Seed production knowledge is dying out due to the monopolisation of large companies who privatise access to seeds and produce sterile hybrid varieties. Since the 1970s legislation has developed to allow large companies to patent living organisms including seeds. As a result, this vital common resource has been turned into a widely consumed good controlled by the industry.
Most farmers and gardeners buy their seed every year and have little idea of how to go about saving that seed themselves. Yet seed saving costs next to nothing, is easy to do and the knowledge should be freely available for everyone to access. From Seed to Seed makes these techniques accessible and helps people to achieve greater autonomy. Furthermore, producing ones own seeds can help to develop a more in depth understanding of the characteristics and behaviour of the different plant varieties.
This article was originally published in the Biodynamic Association’s Star and Furrow magazine.
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