It’s an exciting time to be an eater of carrots and daikon, kohlrabi and escarole. There’s so much more variety in produce now, and many more local places—with a farmer’s face attached—to get it. And more variety in seed catalogs, too. As a long-time gardener, I remember the 1970s doldrums I got when looking through tomato listings: a few old standbys, plus some hybrids with industrial names. That was it. The reintroduction of heirlooms has added so much flavor and color! Pink, red, purple, orange and yellow—a spectrum of tomatoes from around the world and with unique histories.
In the face of plant patents and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the current food and backyard garden revolution is taking back local foodsheds. Despite what GMO proponents say about their products staving off world hunger, as well as claims of conquest over pests and diseases via genetic modification, when looked at ecologically, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties have other advantages, including resilience that one-shot solutions via chemicals and genetic finagling simply can’t achieve. Plants have diverse means of handling whatever the environment dishes out. Whether it is abnormal deluges, triple-digit heat, or drought beyond belief, plants’ innate genetic responses to challenges exemplify green invention at its best.
Open-Pollinated Defined: The New/Old Seed-Saving Revolution
Open-pollinated (OP) means that the vegetable variety in question has the ability to remain true to type when grown in the open rather than under controlled conditions. It means that the genetic pool within the variety is responding to environmental pressures, rather than being propped up by laboratory-isolated, single genes that address just one thing. An OP variety’s gene pool is freely passed on by whatever the pollination mechanism is for that plant type—wind or insects. Coupled with human tending and selection of seed from preferred plants over time, these natural genetic mutations created our cornucopia of succulent, flavorful vegetables from small, tough, plant ancestors.
Seed companies as we know them arose early in the last century, as packeted seed became marketed nationally via catalogs. At first, if a company wanted to offer seeds of a variety listed by a competitor, all the company had to do was obtain that seed and increase it in-house. As hybrids began to be produced in earnest, seed companies realized that, because the parent lines used to create a hybrid contain proprietary information, hybrids offered exclusivity; that is, no one else knew the parents—often highly inbred and specialized for a purpose—of their hybrid variety.
We won’t follow the further development of seed as intellectual property here or discuss patented hybrids, GMOs, etc. Let’s focus on positives: at the same time that seed megacorporations are mounting their current thrust for the control of agriculture these technologies represent, there is also an unstoppable grassroots resurgence of seed-saving. Along with water, seeds are our most basic world commons. For a resilient world, we need resilient seed able to create defenses under increasing environmental challenges. We’ve realized through weather events how seed is the foundation of independent foodsheds, and the call to grow our own food is getting louder every minute. Here are some things you can do to revive seed-saving arts in your own backyard:
Selfing Beans and the Peculiar Pollination of Tomatoes
Beans are among the easiest vegetables to save seed from because they’re self-pollinating. In order to preserve a plant variety effectively, one needs to stay within the variety’s own gene pool and prevent cross-pollination with other varieties. Insects generally don’t get the opportunity to cross-pollinate a bean flower because, before it opens, the male flower part sheds pollen directly onto the female stigma, the pollen-receptive area atop the ovule in which the seeds develop. Thus, more than one bean variety can be planted in your garden without much concern about cross-pollination. Most common bean varieties, Phaseolus vulgaris, function this way.
Not so with a sister species, Phaseolus coccineus, the runner beans. They are immensely attractive to hummingbirds and bumble bees. They get cross-pollinated during visits, and it’s a pretty sure bet that runner bean varieties that aren’t isolated will get crossed. A couple of years ago, another seed saver shared the apricot-colored “Sunset” variety with me. The resulting flowers in my grow-out were every color of the runner bean spectrum: white, apricot, pink and vermillion—a delightful mix of runner bean glory. I named the mix “Sunset Parade.” But I can’t pass it on because “Sunset,” the seed I received, was already something else.
Tomatoes are also considered self-pollinating, and seed savers often plant varieties next to each other and save seed. But there are exceptions you should know about. Take a look at a tomato flower. At its center is a plump cone that tapers to a slender tip, a fused structure of male stamens bearing pollen. When tomato flowers are moved by a breeze, the pollen gets shaken onto the stigma atop the female style inside the cone, self-pollinating the flower.
However, in some tomato varieties, the style is exserted beyond the anther cone, where it’s exposed to pollen from other tomato plants. Cross-pollination becomes even more likely if, say, a bumblebee visits and “buzzes” the flower. She wraps her abdomen around it, vibrates it incredibly fast, and harvests a little cloud of pollen on her pollen-gathering body hair, thus spreading pollen vigorously. If you see a little tip emerging from the anther cones of a variety you’d like to save, it’s best to isolate that plant.
Squash Pollination: Developing Seed-Saving Skills
Squash are a whole different story—cross-pollinated all the way. No pollinators, no fruit. There are a few genera of native bees whose lives depend on the pollen from cucurbits, i.e., squash-family plants. These big bees often sleep in squash flowers overnight. In the morning, if you look inside open blossoms, you may see them busily gathering pollen in the male blooms. When they then visit a female flower, the incipient fruit at the base of the flower is fertilized. Midmorning, the bees take off with a loud buzz, carrying pollen loads back to their nests, where they make it into bee bread for the next generation.
Saving seed, especially of cross-pollinated plants, can get complicated. The simple rule with squash is to grow just one variety of each of the three major species: Cucurbita pepo, maxima, and moschata. If you want to grow both a pumpkin and a summer squash, though, because both are usually C. pepo varieties, you have to learn hand-pollination skills. For corn, a wind-pollinated plant, ears must be bagged to keep the silk from getting further pollinated after applying pollen by hand from the variety of your choice.
Learning the seed arts takes time; there’s a lot to know about the growth habits and cultivation preferences of each plant type. Commercial seed producers apply carefully honed knowledge in their professionally tended fields to get what is known as high-germination seed.
So what’s the role of a backyard seed-saver without the same resources? A good many of the heirloom varieties we now enjoy are here only because of home gardeners. And valuable varieties bred by public institutions prior to current, private seed-breeding programs got offered for a while, then were dropped from catalogs. They’re only still with us because they were saved in backyards. Start your seed-saving education by reading up on recommended practices, get quality OP seed, build your soil with compost, encourage organisms in the soil/food web by refraining from chemical applications. All these things will nurture the seed, enliven your table and increase vibrancy in our local foodsheds.
Laurie Lange runs Light Green Thumb Seed, offering New Mexico adapted seed as well as wild and cultivated seed for pollinator gardens. firstname.lastname@example.org
[Reviving the Seed Arts Sidebar:]
New Open-Pollinated Seed Companies
Adaptive Seeds (www.adaptiveseeds.com): An open-pollinated (OP) seed company that developed from a Seed Ambassadors project. Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger traveled to Europe, rescuing old varieties threatened by restrictive European seed regulations. Their listings include heirloom greens and “bitters,” like sculpit and herba stella, endive and escarole—salad and braising ingredients Europeans relish and Americans could develop a healthy taste for. They have more: Listings are selected primarily for the Pacific Northwest and short growing seasons, but some of their selections are worth trying in New Mexico, especially their hardy greens for growing over in our milder winter conditions. [Garden hint: fall/winter greens need to be started mid-to-late summer to develop strong cold resistance.]
Farm Direct Seed (www.farmdirectseed.com): OP seed grown by the Hobbs family in southeastern Colorado, where there are cool nights and hot days. Dan and Jamie are building a seed list specializing in squash, peppers and Alliums, with lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies, too. They’re wonderfully thoughtful growers who express a gratitude for the challenging weather events we endure in the Four Corners states—drought, devastating fires and all. They say that raising their crops through these challenges is an opportunity for increased resilience in the seed it might not otherwise acquire.
Light Green Thumb Seed (www.pollinatornation.com): Laurie Lange’s brainchild focuses on world heirlooms and OP varieties adapted to aridity, production in triple-digit temperatures and other extremes. Lange began offering seed of plants that support pollinator conservation and habitat for native bees. She now includes veggies, flowers, herbs, native plants and cover-crop seed for overall garden resilience. One of her major goals is to fill gaps in seed selections that exist because U.S. companies are mostly based in regions where strong drought and heat tolerance is not a primary concern. One current LGT project is growing-out curly top-resistant tomato varieties that have been dropped in the trade. Saladmaster, the first revived variety, has shown it can stay alive and remain flavorful when curly top takes out other tomatoes.