Some people mistakenly believe that farmers have a “down season.” Without the twelve hour days harvesting and weeding, a winter spent reviewing crop spreadsheets and lounging by a wood stove might feel like vacation. Winter: that mythical space between the last harvest and first plantings, where all wrinkles get ironed out and new vortexes of time are uncovered. Day trips? Sleeping in? Hanging out with friends? Everything seems possible now, within this precious window. Winter slows everyone's roll, it’s true, but farmers are often working throughout the seemingly dormant season. Anyone with animals to tend, children to watch, seeds to order or the next season to plan knows that winter is really the season for “catching up.” As seed savers—both large and small scale—we can take a few pointers from our pioneering brethren and scale down those measurable steps for getting ahead of the work we all love: growing and saving seed.
So, just how can a seed saver “get ahead” during the off-season?
Step 1: Decide what seeds you want to save next year – start mapping your garden/farm space and figure out the necessary population size and isolation methods.
In addition to thumbing through your favorite seed catalogs, now is the time to begin browsing the Seed Exchange and decide which varieties you want to steward; a peachy tomato, a sultry pepper, or a kind of melon that looks weird but tastes like a million ideas at once. Create a wish list of your top selections and then visualize how much space you can allot to save seed in. Find out the population size and isolation distance requirements to successfully save seeds from your chosen crops (for help, watch our webinars on population size and isolation techniques and use this fits-in-your-back-pocket crop-specific seed saving guide).
Maybe this year you’re only growing out one variety of lettuce or one variety of squash for seed and for eating, in which case worrying about isolation is less of a concern. Now is the time for taking stock of your environment, striking up friendships with your gardening neighbors to ensure you’re not growing the same cross-pollinating plants in tandem, and gearing up for the season by creating a spreadsheet that provides you with a general plan-of-action.
Step 2: Make sure prior harvests are properly stored and labeled – conduct home germination tests on your older seed lots to find out which ones may need to be grown out again.
Unearth your rusty tin cans buried in the basement. Revisit the radish seeds sloshing around that dura-plastic storage box. Check to see if your containers are mouse-proof and temperature proof (our favorite seed storage mantra will forever be cool, dry and dark). If you’re really concerned, learn more about conducting a home germination test. By organizing your seed collection and reviewing the goods from seasons past, you’re doing your future self a huge favor. If this is your first year starting out with seed saving, establishing order to your system will pay dividends. Take a cue from Frank Morton and organize all your seeds, alpha-order, in a box by year – write observations throughout the growing season directly onto the corresponding seed packets, including a doodle or two, so you can always have at hand a reminder of your work.
Step 3: Learn more about the crop types and varieties you want to work with and start record keeping.
Now that the hardest parts are over, it’s time to get real with winter. Dust off the William Woys Weaver. Start a diary of the plants you’re going to be working with. This journal will be the gatekeeper if your memory fails: it will house the fun, insightful information from your wood-stove research, while keeping tabs on how those crops are coming along during the season. Don’t forget to refresh your memory of seed saving techniques as needed.
Step 4: Collaborate on a Community Seed project – network with other gardeners and seed savers through social media, events and potlucks.
Maybe your friend wants to grow the same variety of corn as you, but neither of you have enough space to make it happen genetically. Share in the load! You grow 100 plants and she will grow 100. At the end of the season, combine your stash and share the seeds. This not only prevents inbreeding depression (the reduced fitness in a population due to breeding of related individuals), but also ensures the variety will breed true to type in successive generations. If you both obtain your corn seed from different sources (say, three different seed companies who order that particular variety from three different people), you will have even more genetic diversity, and thus, more insurance against inbreeding depression. By sharing the art of seed saving with a friend, you’ll both be on your way to cultivating a regionally adapted variety, stewarding a variety, AND beginning to cultivate a community seed project. Ask others you know who garden if seed saving is a project they’re interested in trying out. Start a listserv for your region that networks everyone together, or subscribe to an existing one such as ComFood. Maybe host a potluck round-table where interested participants can share their plans for the coming season and see how seed saving fits into their food rearing practice.
The possibilities are endless – go forth boldly this season in your seed saving studies and actions.
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.