As an unabashed garden enthusiast, I am extremely passionate about topics that are not exactly “normal” things to talk about at, say, a dinner party (for proof, see my previous blog post on mulch). I’ve been known to debate the correct type of worm to be used for composting most efficiently (obviously the red wiggler), or go on at length about how to properly mix cow urine and cow dung to create the best manure mix. Maybe that’s why I’ve never actually been invited to a dinner party.
But one topic that will NOT make you lose your appetite is seed saving. As part of my AIF Clinton Fellowship project, I have been helping to establish a small seed library at the school to increase the sustainability of the garden and cut down costs. But the seed library is also a great introduction to lessons about biodiversity, natural resources, and the basics of the plants we grow on site.
A Brief Overview of Seeds
Saving seed from one harvest to the next season’s sowing is an ancient custom that only recently became co-opted by the commercial interests of huge multinational companies, who push the convenience and ease of buying pre-packaged seeds on both gardeners and farmers. I don’t mean to demonize all commercial or pre-packaged seeds — for a casual backyard gardener or beginning farmer, it may be easiest to get started with these types of seeds.
But what gets lost in the ubiquitous use of these purchased seeds is biodiversity, adaptability, and taste. Over thousands of years, farmers have been selecting seeds from their best performing plants, inadvertently creating thousands of varieties of the same crop that are tailored to thrive in a specific growing location. For example, in India a single variety of rice, after 14,000 years of selection and experimentation, has diversified into over 110,000 varieties. Each of these varieties of rice had unique properties that made it perfectly suited for the regional climate, nutritional needs of the growers, and soil characteristics. The seed from these varieties would be saved or traded by farmers for the following season.
However, once pesticides and fertilizers became easily accessible, there also came a push to industrialize and mechanize agriculture. New crop varieties were developed that would theoretically have a higher yield but would depend on nitrate fertilizers and fail to germinate in the next generation — meaning that both fertilizer and seed would need to be purchased by the farmer every year. As farmers were encouraged to expand production using these new technologies, thousands of traditional seed varieties were lost. Of the over 110,000 varieties of traditional rice once found in India, less than 6,000 currently survive today.
Why Save Seeds at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam?
Aside from the monetary savings associated with not purchasing new seeds every growing season, one of the biggest reasons we focused on saving seeds as an aspect of my project was the opportunity to use the process as an educational tool. By saving seeds, we were able to have discussions about financial sustainability (how do we keep the garden going long-term with few costs?) but also ecological sustainability (if we are expecting less rainfall next season, we want to save the plants that grew best with little water to reduce irrigation needs). It gave us the chance to talk about what biodiversity means, and why it is important that our food comes from different sources. And, perhaps most importantly, it allows the students to think critically about the plants they choose to grow and builds ownership and accountability in the garden.
Our little seed library is just beginning. Some seeds (papaya, beans, flowers) are easier to save than others (radishes, greens, tomatoes). It takes effort, care, and attention to make sure that the seeds are properly harvested and stored, and forethought to know what seeds will be needed in the future. But despite all that, it’s a promising start to establishing a resource that can teach the students so many different life lessons.
For further reading:
Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving by Jared Zystro and Micaela Colley
The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray
Soil Not Oil by Vandana Shiva