By: Helen Krayenhoff
A seed is the amazing container that holds the promise of future abundant harvest. It never
fails to amaze me that a small tomato seed can grow into a six-foot-tall plant covered with
hundreds of bright bite-sized tomatoes in just a few months.
In a more serious and global view, seeds are the future of our food supply. Over the past decades,
the availability of many different varieties of seeds has steeply declined because several corporations
have bought up many small seed houses. These large seed companies have focused much of
their R&D on new varieties that meet the needs of industrial agriculture, where, for example, hundreds
of acres are planted with one variety of tomato that ships well. These kinds of growing conditions require
pesticides and herbicides, and they deplete the soil of important nutrients. These seeds rarely meet the
needs of the home gardener. Nor do they have the flavor, color and shape, or connection to the variety’s history.
Several decades ago, it became apparent that backyard gardeners were interested in the preservation of the old varieties.
Some of these good people took up the call with great fervor, and now a treasure trove of seeds (including oncepopular
varieties from now-defunct seed companies) is reappearing. Some of those seed-savers have made their work into
a business. Many others support this work by ordering seeds from these savers’ catalogs. Go online to seedsavers.org to see
what I mean. At that site you can join the 33-year-old Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and download or order their catalog,
which allows you to order seeds for hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables. SSE also publishes the Garden Seed
Inventory, now in its sixth edition. The inventory lists all non-hybrid seeds available in the United States and Canada
and additionally shows all the varieties that have been dropped over the last 20 years.
It’s great to support the heirloom seed businesses, and it’s even better to find local venues to get these
gems. Seed saved from plants grown right here in the Bay Area are more adapted to local environmental
stresses and become much hardier and acclimated as a result. Seed swaps, whether informal affairs
between neighbors and friends or organized by local interest groups, revive an old
common custom of maintaining gene pool diversity. Saving seed is
an ancient skill that is easily learned (see Resources below.) To make
sure the varieties stay pure (if this matters to you) you’ll also need
to learn about separating similar varieties in your garden. If you
want an easier route to seed gathering, go to a local nursery, they
carry many great packaged choices as well.
Sometimes the best veggies emerge as volunteers from last year’s
fallen fruit or seed pods. If you planted hybrids last year, you may not get
fruits that come true but you may have something you like even better. If your compost
isn’t hot enough to kill seeds, that’s another place interesting seedlings can
emerge in your garden. These volunteers know when to germinate, so the guesswork
of when to plant is removed.
Some seeds can be planted directly into the ground, others need to be planted in a warm
place first and then transplanted once they have put on some growth. Warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers,
cucumbers, and squash should be started indoors earlier in the season and transplanted out into your garden
when the weather warms.
If it’s still too cold and wet outside to plant, use the time to plan your garden, do inventory of your
old seed, and talk to your friends and neighbors about what varieties worked for
them in previous years.
Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner, with her partner Peggy Kass, of
Kassenhoff Growers, a local organic plant nursery, which you can
find at kassenhoffgrowers.com She is also an illustrator, and her
drawings are often found gracing the pages of this magazine.
Look for her work at helenkrayenhoff.com