A very old idea is back in fashion for gardeners of a DIY mind – seed saving and collecting. Native Americans saved carefully selected seed at the end of each growing season, both to carry forward for future crops, and to improve the species they grew (and are still growing). And when our ancestors came to America from Europe, Asia, and Africa, a great many of them came with seeds from their homelands, for both the practical reason of survival in an unfamiliar environment, and for remembrance of what had been left behind.
Why are people saving their own seeds now? To preserve the open-pollinated heirloom and non-genetically engineered seeds for future use is the short answer. Ensuring that rare species continue to exist for the sake of genetic diversity is the larger concern, as well as to maintain historic ties to earlier eras of agriculture, and America’s immigrant culture. These larger goals are shared by several seed banks, including the Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and even Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation.
Seed Savers Exchange (located in Decorah, Iowa) recently held a day-long series of workshops and lectures at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, and updated participants on its ongoing CORE project to update and fully catalog its archives, and to expand its historical database. “CORE” is an acronym for “Collection Origins Research Effort;” SSE’s presentation at the Botanic Garden is the second annual appearance, and the series will be continuing in the future, including the seed swap, pointers on how to collect seed, and planning a garden for easier seed-saving. Their Heritage Farm and its visitor’s center are open to the public from March through December.
While Seed Savers Exchange accepts collected seed from anywhere, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange concentrates primarily on seed collection and preservation of southern and southeastern American heirloom varieties, native to the rural southern small-farm and market-garden agriculture. Interestingly, Southern Exposure is located in central Virginia, near Monticello, though unlike Monticello (and Seed Savers Exchange), it is not open to the public; it does sell the collected and saved seed through its website.
The Monticello Plantation is, of course, a more elaborate operation, as its research and historical collections extend far beyond agriculture. But agriculture was a passionate hobby of Thomas Jefferson, and his gardens functioned as a botanic laboratory and trial garden for plants and seeds collected in his extensive travels. The plantation and its tiered vegetable gardens have been meticulously restored and replanted with an eye to historical accuracy, and his meticulous records have even been recorded in book form – “A Rich Spot of Earth,” written by Peter Hatch, the long-time caretaker and restoration visionary of Monticello’s gardens. As with both Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure, Monticello sells its heirloom seeds via its website.
One interesting aspect of the current seed-saving movement is the existence of the global seed vault in remote Svalbard, Norway (to which Seed Savers Exchange contributes on a regular basis). Funded in part by a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the seed bank at Svalbard, built into the side of a mountain and monitored remotely, is a secure, climate-controlled repository for seeds from all over the world, primarily to ensure that all manner of diverse crops can continue to be grown or propagated in the future. The seeds, meticulously sealed and catalogued, are kept at -18 degrees Celsius (-.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and very low humidity to ensure future viability. For obvious reasons, this so-called “Doomsday Vault” is not open to the public!
But one needn’t own a mountainside vault to save seed. Follow the lead of Charleston, S.C. chef Sean Brock, and collect and save your own seed – he uses a chest freezer, and has fashioned a lab of sorts above one of his Charleston restaurants (read more about his seed-saving in the current issue of Lucky Peach, chef David Chang’s quarterly journal of food and writing.)
So, be current and old-fashioned all at once. Try saving your own seed this year, and come to the seed swap next spring!