Beginning to Save Seed — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 12, 2022

I try new vegetable varieties every year, because I am quite susceptible to seed catalog madness in January. But there are also some varieties I grow every year, no matter what, because we love them so much that our garden would not be complete without them: red russian kale, Jaune Flammée tomatoes, Schweizer Reisen peas, Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers, Costata Romanesco zucchini… the list could go on, but these are the first who spring to mind.

Above, Jaune Flamée and Vorgebirgstrauben grow side-by-side up a string trellis. I tried red plastic mulch one year to heat up the soil for tomatoes. The results were not impressive, and I now grow without plastic mulch, since I’m breeding towards vegetable varieties that thrive without so much coddling. 

When I’m planning to plant a particular variety for, say, the third consecutive year, that’s a trigger for me to think about saving seed for it. Here’s why:

  • What if seed producers stop growing this and I can’t find it some year in the future? My garden would not be complete.
  • If it does well enough that I want to grow it year after year, it’s probably pretty well adapted to our conditions… but growing the same variety for multiple generations in the same place presents a great opportunity to breed toward it becoming even better adapted to our specific microclimate. Plus, as a laissez-faire gardener, I’ve got a seed-saving superpower, which is the ability to breed towards greater resilience. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
  • Look how many wonderful meals these plants have provided to us. What gift can I give in return? Plants want to make seeds. Allowing the completion of their life-cycle, and even acting as midwife to the next generation, is one of the most powerful acts of reciprocity that I can imagine.

My seed-saving mentor, Rowen White, describes the beginning of a long-term relationship with a new vegetable variety this way:

“This season I’ve fallen for this amazing Turkish cucumber variety called Çengelköy from Istanbul. It might seem odd, but I’ve asked them if they would adopt me, and I promised to care for them in the seasons ahead. Being a seed steward is all about initiating and sustaining relationships with our seeds and food… While I’ve grown a number of cucumber varieties over the years, the way these make me smile indicates that these are going to join the long-term family collection here on our farm.”

I love the image of asking a plant to adopt me. It speaks to the way healthy relationships change and deepen over time. My partner and I started out as acquaintances, then became good friends, and then significant others, before making a lifelong commitment to each other. Our commitment deepened when we became co-parents of the next generation. This progression expresses the joy we share, and the care we have for each other. If so with people, then why not with plants? Why are our relationships with the foods that feed us stuck in suspended animation? Or, to borrow language from the dating scene, why are our plants getting “friend zoned”?!

Well for one thing, capitalism depends on our willingness to buy and sell stuff, including food and seeds. We’ve sacrificed much of our natural ability to be producers rather than consumers on the altar of “economies of scale.” It’s true that nobody can do it all alone. A certain amount of cooperation and commerce is beneficial. But becoming too far removed from the plants who keep us alive, I think, has not made humans any happier or healthier.

Nobody can do everything, but we can each do what we love. If you love food, you can grow it, and you can deepen your relationship with the plants who feed you by saving their seeds. Learning how to save seed in general is complicated, because plants can be annuals or biennials; self-fertile or promiscuous; pollinated by insects or wind. But learning how to save one particular type of seed for one particular type of vegetable is do-able for just about anyone.

Jaune Flammée seed 

Which varieties do you grow year after year? Which little sprouts feel like old friends when they pop up in the springtime? Which foods stir deep memories when you bite into them? What can you learn about the life cycles of those particular plants?

You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Just start with the easiest one. My first year saving seed, I only did Red Russian Kale. The next year, I added Schweizer Reisen peas and Jaune Flammée tomatoes, both of which are self-fertile. In 2022, I’ll try to save seeds from my Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers. This will be my first insect-pollinated seed crop, and I admit, I am nervous! But I am going to try it anyway, because I love these little cucumbers, who are so prickly I have to wear gloves to pick them, but never bitter. I want to show them my gratitude, and count them among my extended family.

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