Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Seed saving: facts and practicalities ~ an informative talk by Bart Acres

I've been a habitual saver of seeds in a general way for many years, proof of which can be found in a box in the garage labelled 'Seeds': it's stuffed full of old envelopes marked in scrawled ink which contain various oddments I might like to grow again one day, chiefly flowers and grasses.  Plants provide these free of charge, so it seems a sensible thing to do, but I knew very little about the science of it.

I still know very little about it, but after attending Bart Acres talk last Friday I know quite a bit more.  It's a big topic and a science in itself.  Bart is nonetheless keen to convey that with a little knowledge, ordinary gardeners can do much to improve their own crops as well as preserve varieties for future generations.

A photograph of a box of various seeds carefully stored in stoppered test tubes showed how one elderly man had put aside seeds years ago which are still good today.

Bart set up the local organics site, Otepoti Urban Organics.  It's a not-for-profit organisation which has been running for some years.  The seed savers network known as Symbiosis Seed Exchange is part of its operation, and makes a wide range of vegetable seeds available at the rock bottom price of a dollar per packet.  The site provides this page where you can read about the basics of seed saving: selecting for desired traits.

Here are a few memorable points from the talk:
  • Vegetable seeds mutate with each generation.  I had no idea of this.  As I understand it this depends largely (or wholly?) on the process of pollination.  It therefore makes sense to save seed only from plants that do well and from a range of plants rather than just one or two as each is likely to have slightly different genes which produce varying traits. 
  • Bart made the excellent point that plants don't care about feeding us, they care about reproducing for the continuation of their species, so they will do this any way they can as fast as they can.  Part of their strategy is to be as unattractive and as unpalatable to predators as possible, which will make they inclined to be bitter and unappetising if left to their own devices, so if you want the most appetising flavours it can pay to be rigorous in the care and de-selection of your crops as they mature. 
  • De-selection is therefore important and the term for it in the plant world is 'rogueing'.
  • Most vegetable seed available for retail purchase in New Zealand comes from China.  It hasn't been grown in New Zealand.
  • Seed available from retailers for back yard gardening isn't designed for this purpose - that market is too small to bother with.  Seed is selected from a range of top-producing crops designed for industrial cropping.  
  • Crops grown for industrial purposes are designed to withstand cropping by heavy machinery, mass packing and transportation, and to be ready for a single harvest.  Each of these requirements is different from what is desirable to home gardeners. 
  • Varieties of vegetable which do well in one part of New Zealand may not do nearly as well in another due to differences in climate, hence varieties which do well in Northland where the climate is semi-tropical may not flourish in the cooler, drier south; Canterbury, Otago and Southland are much more similar to each other than other parts of New Zealand.
  • Through careful seed selection local growers can develop the crops that work best in their own climate niche.  
  • Alternatively they can be obtained from the Symbiosis Seed Exchange!
Other seed banks operating in New Zealand:
Those interested in the work of the Koanga Institute may enjoy this Radio New Zealand interview of Kay Baxter by Kathryn Ryan on the 14th Dec 2010.  She talks about the history of Heritage seeds collecting in New Zealand and also of the setting up of The Community Land Trust Project in Wairoa in Hawkes Bay.  Nice one, Kay!

Seed banks operating on a global scale are
Thanks for a most interesting and informative talk, Bart, and I look forward to learning more about seed saving over time.
Thanks also to the Dunedin Botanic Garden for hosting the talk in their Hort Talk slot.

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