In the latest module of our permaculture training, we spent a lot of time with seeds. Late summer is the obvious time to do this, of course, and in a place like Nieuwenhoven, there is an abundance of seed to harvest. In my own garden in Brussels I have already harvested seed from nasturtium, garden cress, mustard and dill. The fennel will be along any day now.
So, why save seed?
For a start, it’s free! When you stop and think about it, the profit margin on the packs you buy from the garden centre is astronomical. Many of those seeds are hybrids (so you can’t collect the seeds from the plants you grow from them).
Maintaining and spread local and traditional crops is a way to restore much of the biodiversity we have lost by becoming passive seed consumers. Traditional, local varieties are usually tastier, always better suited to local conditions and have fewer problems with pests and diseases. Plants that don’t belong in our regions weaken the whole ecosystem in our gardens, bringing in diseases that it has not resistance to.
And yet local varieties are fast vanishing from the face of the earth, victims of industrial standardisation, EU regulations and the like.
International big business (think Monsanto) is patenting our plant heritage and reducing the choice of varieties available to us. By saving and exchanging seeds in our regions, we can rescue local varieties that are in danger of disappearing forever, and restore the astonishing profusion of varieties that used to hang out in kitchen gardens everywhere.
Taco in Nieuwenhoven is cultivating many rare traditional varieties of everything you can think of, and giving seed, seedlings and cuttings to his permaculture students to plant in their own gardens as a way of preserving and spreading this precious genetic material.
Some tips for harvesting seed:
- Select the healthiest, strongest specimen from among those of each variety growing in your garden and allow it to go to seed, rather than harvesting it.
- Take seed from several plants
- For plants that cross pollinate among varieties, take seed from the middle of the patch.
- Label everything carefully: date of harvest, type of plant, location
- Don’t take seed from hybrids
- If you’re not sure where the seed came from, don’t use it for seed production!
Some tips for drying and storing seed:
- To have a good germination rate, it is important to avoid damaging or breaking seed.
- Don’t harvest too early
- Dry seed carefully (7% moisture content) – best to do it naturally in the air. If using warm air, be careful to avoid high temperatures.
- Seed keeps well in linen/cotton bags. You can keep different types of seed in the same jar by layering seed bags with good brown rice (but watch out for mice!)
- Depending on the type, seeds can keep for one year or one hundred!