Gary Paul Nabhan Speaks at Seed Savers Exchange

2013 Conference Keynote

Gary Paul NabhanAt this year's 33rd Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) was more than happy to welcome back a long-time friend, Gary Paul Nabhan. Gary has been a supporter of Seed Savers Exchange going back to before 1980, and has since appeared at numerous SSE Conference and Campouts. Having recently published a book titled "Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land," he spoke this year about climate uncertainty becoming the new normal and the importance of adapting our food systems to a changing climate. Stressing the importance of agrobiodiversity in mitigating the effects of climate change, the Ecumenical Franciscan brother led Conference attendees in a renewal of their vows—to seeds. Repeating after him, the crowd recited:

I, (name), a gardener, farmer, seed saver, and eater,

wish to renew our sacred vows

to take care, love and serve,

the astonishing diversity of life on this earth.

Through sickness and in health ("I bet you knew that line," Gary laughed),

in times of crisis and times of joy,

to sow the seeds of food justice,

to sow the seeds of food security,

to sow the seeds of food democracy,

to sow the seeds of true food sovereignty,

through our own actions and our own eating patterns

so that we may all eat what we have truly sown.

I reaffirm our covenant with this earth,

to humbly be one more way that seeds themselves regenerate into more seeds to nourish all of us.

View the video of Gary Paul Nabhan's keynote address at the 2013 Conference and Campout:

Check out Gary's website here, and his recent article in the New York Times here.

Stop back to our blog in the coming weeks for more coverage of this year's Conference, as well as the Harvest Edition of the Heritage Farm Companion coming out this Autumn.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. Our mission is 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.


Apple Grafting to Preserve Diversity

Pewaukee apple

Pewaukee apple “This apple comes from an old tree at my grandmother’s home, and it is the best apple I have ever tasted.” We hear this story a lot around here, and usually, the story ends like this: “Now the tree is dying, and nobody in the family remembers what variety it is.”

Well, there is only one thing to do, graft! Apples are propagated by grafting a part of the old tree, called scionwood, onto a new rootstock. Grafting is necessary because apple seed produces offspring unlike the parent plant. This propagation technique allows you to determine how large the tree will eventually grow – choose dwarfing rootstocks for a small backyard or a large pot on a patio, or graft onto a standard rootstock to grow a full-sized tree that will survive generations.

Join us and learn this ancient skill by attending one of SSE’s bench grafting workshops held on April 5 and April 12, 2014 (editors note: registration is now closed). Attendees will go home with three heritage apple varieties and the skills to start their own orchard. Workshops are led by Seed Savers Exchange orchard manager and apple historian Dan Bussey, who is nearing completion of his book documenting all of the named apple varieties grown in North America since the 1600s.

Listen to Dan Bussey's talk, "Our Apple Heritage," here.

View a short video introduction to apple grafting from Dan:



View a past SSE webinar on apple grafting here:


Webinar: Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving


This month's SSE webinar episode will highlight best practices for planning a garden for seed saving. Learn the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid seed and gain an understanding of plant taxonomy, reproductive structures and pollination methods. View the archived recording of this webinar below.

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Click here for information about SSE's seed donation program

Webinar: How to use the SSE Yearbook


The Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook  is one of the greatest sources of heirloom varieties in the world. This member-to-member exchange offer over 12,000 unique varieties! The Yearbook is also a meeting place where gardeners share varietal-specific growing tips and stories. In this webinar, you'll learn how search, select and request varieties from both the online and print versions of the SSE Yearbook.

View the archived recording of this webinar below.

How to use the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook

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Webinar: Welcome to Seed Savers Exchange


Learn about the history, work and latest projects of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) from co-founder Diane Ott Whealy. View the archived recording of this webinar below.

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The results are in!


The ‘Dester’ took home the blue ribbon at the 6th Annual Tomato Tasting and Seed Saving Workshop at Heritage Farm last weekend. With over 40 varieties in the lineup, the competition was steep for this year’s unlikely winner.

The ‘ Dester’ tomato was something of a Cinderella story from the SSE trial gardens. Every year our commercial crew grows out a number of new varieties from the collection or from member-growers to discover new offerings for the SSE catalog. This year a champion was born! The ‘Dester’ is a large, full-flavored, pink beefsteak tomato. It was the first tomato on the sampling line, yet the flavor stuck in visitors’ minds when it came time to cast their vote—more than 40 tomato samples later.

Other top finishers included last year’s favorite, ‘Lemon Drop,’ a small yellow-green cherry tomato with a sweet—almost tart—flavor, and ‘Black Sea Man,’ a Russian heirloom with brownish-pink fruit and full-bodied or “complete” flavor, as one participant put it. The salsa tasting line featured 14 homemade recipes. Ironically, the blue ribbon went to Anne Sheahan’s Mango Salsa, proving the eclectic pallets of this year’s voters. (We’ll try to get the heirloom tomato version of the recipe for next year!)

Visitors passed through the display gardens snapping pictures of the towering, 10-foot-tall ‘Hot Biscuits’ amaranth, and the barn wall completely covered in ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory on their way to seed saving workshops.

SSE tomato advisor Craig LeHoullier was back by popular demand to provide a personal and passionate introduction to the cult of the heirloom tomato, including a list of the tomatoes he would choose to be stranded with on a desert island. (In case you’re wondering, or planning for a "three-hour tour," his list included ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Lucky Cross,’ and ‘Cherokee Chocolate’.)

Craig’s talk was followed by a lively question and answer session, which gave him a chance to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of heirloom tomatoes and their histories. He even managed to dispel a few myths before breaking for a trip through the tomato tasting line. (Don’t believe the hype, says LeHoullier there’s no such thing as a low-acid or disease-resistant tomato!)

“The joy of gardening is that there are no absolutes,” said LeHoullier before prompting the crowd for their favorite qualities of heirloom tomatoes.

Meanwhile SSE staff led a hands-on workshop on saving tomato seeds.

“One thing I try to remember when saving seed at home is that I don’t need 100 fruit to get started,” said workshop facilitator and SSE Horticultural Technician Gabi Masek. “Two to five is really all you need!”

The workshop covered everything first-time seed savers would need to know to start saving their own seed, including ideas of what to do with extra seeds, like trying a home germination test.

While the adults took notes at the workshops and tasting tables, the kids displayed the fun factor of heirloom tomatoes with a tomato toss and ketchup-making activity led by SSE Display Gardener Grant Olsen.

“I already have a few ideas of how to make the tomatoes a little sloppier for next year’s toss,” said Olsen with a grin.

Whether you were tasting, tossing, or taking notes, we hope everyone walked away from this year’s Tomato Tasting and Seed Saving Workshop with a little inspiration for their own gardens.

 And if you missed the event, here are a few tomato seed saving tips to help you get get started:

In nature, ripe tomatoes fall from the plant and slowly rot exposing the seeds, allowing natural weathering to break down the slimy gelatinous coating on the seed.  This is easily replicated through the process of fermentation.  To save tomato seed, seed savers must deliberately remove the coating from the tomato seed. Here’s how:

  • Take the seeds out of your best looking tomatoes and put them into any container that can hold liquid.  Don’t worry if there is pulp in with the seeds.  Keep as much juice with the seeds as possible.
  • Some seed saving techniques suggest adding water to the mixture.  We recommend not adding water unless the mixture evaporates before it starts fermenting.  This can be done by adding about ½ cup of non-chlorinated water to 1 cup of tomato seed and pulp.
  • Fermentation should happen in 24 hours-4 days.  This depends on many variables such as air temperature or how ripe the fruit is.  A layer of white mold may grow across the top.  Once this mixture has fermented continue to the next steps so seeds do not germinate.
  • Think about where to put the tomato seed mixture because inevitably it will smell. You may want to cover your mixture with a mesh screen to keep out fruit flies.
  • After fermenting, add water and stir.  Mature seeds will sink to the bottom.  If the seed is light enough to float, it is probably not fully formed, mature, or viable.  Don’t save these seeds.
  • Pour off pulpy mixture, but not the viable seeds in the bottom of your container.
  • Pour the remaining liquid into a kitchen strainer and wash thoroughly under the faucet until clean.
  • Drain, and then spread the seeds out thinly on surface to dry.  Any substrate to help them dry as quickly as possible will work: coffee filter, paper plates, paper towel, or wax paper.  It is best to dry seeds out of direct sunlight; this could take up to 4 weeks.
  • Store the seeds in an envelope or seed packet and place in a dry, cool location.  You can assess the quality of your storage conditions by adding the room temperature in Fahrenheit plus relative humidity.  Try to keep that number under 100; the lower the number the better the conditions for seed storage.

But don’t forget to follow the most important rule:  Put a label on everything, every step of the way.  Because in the words of our collection curator, “No one wants to plant something, thinking they have one variety and end up with something else.”

Note from a seed saver: Tomatoes will, most commonly, self-pollinate, so seeds saved will remain ‘true to type’ without worrying about cross-pollination.  However, there are always exceptions.  Some tomatoes can cross pollinate, this is dependent on many factors such as flower shape, environment, and biodiversity.  To ensure seed purity you may want to plant only one variety or spread different varieties throughout your garden.

Voices from the 31st Annual Seed Savers Exchange Conference & Campout

The Annual SSE Conference and Campout is a great place to meet like-minded gardeners, learn from experienced seed savers, and enjoy the beauty of Heritage Farm—but don't take our word for it. Hear what this year's participants had to say about the experience: [youtube][/youtube]

Conference highlights: 'Speed saving' with Suzanne Ashworth

Are you interested in the idea of seed saving but think it sounds too difficult or technical to actually try yourself? Let seed saving expert Suzanne Ashworth convince you otherwise. Suzanne led a number of workshops at this year's Conference & Campout. I caught up with her for a few minutes between sessions—and according to Suzanne, a few minutes is all you need to get started. In fact, you could have your own seed collection started in less time than it takes to cook dinner! Check it out: [youtube][/youtube]


Want to learn more? Here are a few tips from our Public Program Manager Shannon Carmody to help you get started:

If you’re interested in seed saving, understanding some basic concepts before you get started will make the process easier. It all starts in the planning stage; here are a few guidelines to get you started.

  • Who’s your daddy? Know whether your parent plant is a hybrid, heirloom or open-pollinated variety.Hybrids, which are created by crossing plants of two different varieties, generally do not produce offspring with the same traits as the parent plant. Seed saved from open-pollinated varieties, on the other hand, will produce plants identical to the parent.Heirloom seeds, which are handed down from generation to generation, can be saved and re-planted and still maintain most of their original characteristics and qualities. In other words, they remain true-to-type.
  • Become a mad scientist. Know your plants scientific name (genus and species).Cross pollination is the transfer of pollen between plants. To save pure seed, you want to prevent two different varieties in the same species from cross pollinating. Different varieties of plants within the same species will cross-pollinate, but this doesn’t usually happen between plants in different species. Planting just one variety in a species will help ensure you save pure seed.So if you know your plants scientific names, you will know which ones will cross-pollinate. For example, what we commonly refer to as squash could fall into one of four species: Cucurbita maxima, C. argyrosperma, C. moschata, and C. pepo. These four species won’t typically cross-pollinate. On the other hand, Brassica oleracea includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and kohlrabi, all plants you might think wouldn’t cross but actually do!
  • Busy bees in a squash flower

    The birds and the bees. Know how your plants pollinate. Understanding how garden plants pollinate will help you prevent cross-pollination. For example, some plants, like beans or lettuce, will self-pollinate before the flower is even open, making them less susceptible to cross pollination. Although on occasion insects can cross pollinate. Saving seed from “selfers” is a good way to get started.On the other hand, plants that are insect-pollinated (squash or cucumbers) or wind pollinated (corn and spinach) are more likely to cross-pollinate if varieties in the same species are grown together.

  • Hey, give me some space! Plan your garden accordingly.Some fruits being saved for seed must be grown to full maturity and allowed to ripen after the fruit’s edible stage. Let’s take carrots for example. When you pull this sweet root out of the ground after about 2 months, there isn’t too much showing above ground. However when you’re harvesting seed, a carrot plant can be up to 4 feet tall!
  • Keep up with the Jones. Know what your neighbors are growing. Some varieties, especially those that are wind or insect pollinated, need a certain distance of isolation to ensure seed purity. For example, sunflowers must be isolated by ½ - 3 miles, and corn needs a distance of 2 miles. So, you may have to consider what your neighbors are growing. Others, like tomatoes, lettuce and beans might only need to be grown in different parts of your garden.
  • So, what’s the hurry? Plan on your plants being in the ground longer.Imagine your favorite lettuce plant - you love eating the fresh crisp leaves of an early summer lettuce, and then pulling it out to make room for a heat-loving plant. Harvesting lettuce seed, however, requires leaving the plant in its spot, letting it bolt, flower and go to seed. All of this will take more time. But you may be surprised, and impressed, to see your 3 foot tall lettuce plants with delicate yellow flowers.

Lettuce being grown for seed.

Remember, some plants are easier to save seed from than others, so start simple. Doing your research in advance will save you time and energy in the garden later.

For more information on getting started with seed saving, check out Suzanne Ashworths classic book "Seed to Seed"