• Seed Savvy #2

    Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant. — Robert Louis Stevenson

    Years ago, I was disappointed with the limited varieties of vegetable seeds available. Through a friend, I discovered a hole-in-the-wall seed collective in East Palo Alto. When I finally found it, my inner hippy was totally stoked.

    The small store was filled with glass containers of every size, perched on tippy wooden shelves, which sagged here and there. Colorfully faded print, which bespoke a former life, appeared through the rusty lids. The current contents were labeled in large, loopy handwriting. Lemon Thyme. Mint Thyme. English Thyme. I didn’t realize there were so many different varieties of thyme!

    The shelves were filled with seeds. I was in heaven as I scooped up and labeled my finds.

    One of my finest discoveries was rhubarb. Before I even planted the seeds, I was dreaming of strawberry-rhubarb pie, a favorite dish my grandmother made to perfection. Over the summer months, I coaxed and coddled these plants. (In reality, I just watered… plants know how to grow.) By September, the stems were a brilliant shade of red and ready to harvest. I was such a great gardener that MY rhubarb stems were more luscious looking than those in the store. I dutifully cut off the toxic leaves over the compost bin and carried the stems into the kitchen.

    I knew something was off when the smell coming from the oven was, well, rather rank. I peeked inside the oven and instead of a puffy, golden pie, I saw a collapsed crust cratered over oozy lumps and bumps. Confused, I waited another 15 minutes and pulled it out. The pie was done, but what it had done I wasn’t sure. My roommate walked in and sniffed. He asked why I was baking chard. Huh?

    Back at the compost bin, I held up the discarded, suspicious rhubarb leaf. I took a small nibble. Yup, Swiss chard. Did you know there is a leafy green called Rhubarb Chard (aka Ruby Red)? Grown for its colorful red stems?

    When I went back into the kitchen, I saw that my roommate had disappeared along with half the pie. Goes to show that if one puts enough sugar in a dish, someone is bound to eat it. No matter what it smells like.

    Seed Terms Re-visited

    Last year, I first wrote about seeds in Diggin’ It #10 and received an overwhelmingly positive response. At that time, I wanted to include a more concise definition of seed terms, but ended up ranting about horrific GMOs.

    The nomenclature of seeds can be confusing. For years, large seed companies have used words like heirloom and hybrid erroneously, usually branding them with the popular gardening term of the season. Fortunately, many small seed businesses have sprouted up and use the terms correctly… and with dignity. With the rise in awareness of GMOs and the quiet upsurge of seed banks, I feel it is important to really understand what types of seeds I’m actually purchasing.

    Organic Seeds

    Organic, by definition in the plant market, means derived from a living thing without artificial chemicals. To claim a seed is organic, it must come from an organically certified farm. The USDA sets the standards for organic certification, which include inspections of the fields, testing of soil and water, and even record keeping. Many states have certifying agencies that further the federal standards in a localized market.

    Open-Pollinated Seeds

    Left alone, Mother Nature excels at seed production. Open-pollination, either by insect or wind, is the most fundamental form of seed development. These seeds produce plants that are genetically true to the parent. In the seed market, open-pollinated seeds are generally termed “organic” and are readily available through numerous seed supply houses (see below). Many gardeners harvest organic seeds from their gardens in the fall and save them from year to year, ensuring a reliable crop of food or flowers. Locally, the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and our lupines (Lupinus spp.) are stunning examples of open pollinated, organic plants.

    Heirloom Seeds

    Many gardeners boast about using seeds that can be traced to plants originally grown generations ago. Now that’s very cool! These are called heirloom seeds. There is some controversy in the seed world about what actually constitutes an heirloom, but it is generally agreed that if the cultivar can be traced to pre-commercial production, before WWII usually, it can be called an heirloom. Seeds that have been found dormant at ancient sites and unearthed by archeologists and are still viable are true heirlooms.

    Hybrid Seeds

    Finally, there are the hybrids. In nature, hybrid seeds are created all the time — it strengthens plants or makes them resistant to changes in climate or environmental fluctuations. Think Mendel, Darwin, and evolution. In horticultural practice, hybrid seeds are created by manually cross-pollinating plants to achieve a new plant. This may be to promote an unusual flower color or produce a plant with improved characteristics based on the best traits of each parent plant. In seed catalogs, the terms F1 (first-generation offspring) and F2 (second-generation) are used to indicate a seed’s genealogy. While hybrid seeds produce desirable plants, they rarely retain these idyllic features from one crop to the next. Hybrids may or may not be organic and are generally made for the commercial market.

    Finding a good seed company also stirs my inner hippy child. I’ve ordered from many businesses, but now I’m happy with just a few. I love calling them up (yes, on a phone… well, even my cell) to discover about their latest finds, ask for suggestions for my temperamental north-facing yard, and just talk plants. I’ve yet to find a grumpy gardener on the other end. And my rhubarb story has become legendary….

    Favorite Seed Companies

    www.seedsavers.org — A non-profit organization dedicated to saving & haring heirloom seeds

    www.nicholsgardennursery.com — A family owned nursery for more than 60 years.

    www.crimson-sage.com — A certified organic nursery specializing in unusual and medicinal plants.

    Dana Goforth lives in Pacific Grove with 4 longhaired cats and several ponds where her garden used to be. She is a writer, artist, teacher, and gardener. You can find out more about Dana at www.danagoforth.com.

    Seed Terminology Reference

    Organic: Seeds derived from USDA certified farms. Or those found in nature!

    Open-pollinated: Mother Nature’s way of making a new generation of plants.

    Heirloom: Seeds that can be documented to originate from plants grown in the pre-commercial (1940s) era. A popular term large seed manufactures love to use in marketing.

    Hybrid: In nature, a common change in plant attributes. In commercial seed production, a manufactured cross between two plants that have desirable qualities.

    GMO: Genetically Modified Organisms. Man-made seeds that require man-made products to make them man-made grown.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 23, 2014

    Topics: Front PG News, Diggin' It


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