by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 29, 1999

We're working on our seed orders now. It's almost time to start seedlings of onions, as well as slow-growing herbs and flowers indoors, so we need those seeds soon.

Before ordering, we check leftovers from last year. For vegetables such as summer squash and peppers, the average packet contains enough seeds for several years worth of plants. If they are stored in a cool, dry place, many of these seeds will still be good a year, or even two years, later. Typically, as they get older, fewer of the seeds will germinate, so we compensate by planting them more thickly. A few types of seeds, such as parsnips and onions don't keep well at all. These old seeds go into the compost.

You can find seeds almost anywhere these days, from garden centers to supermarkets and discount stores. However, since seeds are alive and need care to maintain their viability, we prefer to order by mail directly from seed companies. Good seed catalogues are full of helpful information and offer a large selection. We like to order from the smaller, independent seed companies that serve this region, carry open-pollinated and heirloom varieties and use organic techniques. Some of our favorite seed sources, however, are local gardens and farms, and especially our own farm.

Seeds are critical to our success as gardeners and farmers. They are compact packages of genetic information and stored food reserves, just waiting for the conditions found in warm, moist soil in order to germinate and create tomatoes, carrots, beans and thousands of other delights out of sunshine, air, water and soil. For most of the last ten thousand years of human history, seed-saving was something nearly everyone practiced, because in order to eat and therefore to survive, it was necessary. The grains and beans which formed the basis of most diets were both seed and food. Grown in large quantities, the best were saved for planting and the rest were eaten. Our ancestors did this each year, generation after generation through the centuries. Variations in climate, soil and techniques from garden to garden and community to community, accumulated through the years, creating the incredible diversity which existed over much of our planet well into this century. These local seeds were integral to life and culture everywhere. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these varieties has disappeared.

Seeds for the Longfellow Flint corn we grow came from our friend Mel's Bloomingfields Farm in Sherman, some years ago. He's been growing this variety for about two decades, saving seed from the best ears each year for planting the next. He carries on a tradition and a line of corn, that began in Central America over 5000 years ago. This particular variety was growing widely in the northeastern quarter of what is now the United States when the Europeans arrived. Since wind carries the pollen from a corn tassel as far as two miles to fertilize another plant, it works best to save seeds for corn, and other grains, when only one variety is grown.

Beans, in contrast, are primarily self-pollinating. Fertilization occurs and seeds are formed before the flower opens, so it is possible to grow many different kinds of beans in a small area and the seeds from each plant will reproduce their own kind. We have four different types of beans saved from last year's garden.

Tomatoes and peppers are also self-pollinating, so that we can grow and save seeds from different varieties of these vegetables, too, if some care is used. Of course, this only works with open-pollinated or non-hybrid types. Hybrid seeds are the result of a cross between two very different parents. It is hard to predict how the second generation will turn out.

Seeds from plants that grew in our gardens are likely to do well because they are adapted to this environment. Seeds have a local nature. Those we save have a vigor and a readiness to germinate. Our own pepper seeds always pop up sooner than the ones we buy.

Of course, once we start ordering, it is hard to restrain ourselves. There are so many delicious vegetables, beautiful flowers and fragrant herbs.

If you would like the names of our favorite seed sources and more information about worrisome changes in the seed business, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Seeds, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.