Gathering Seeds — a look at what we sow
All winter long we have been neglecting the blog, and now it is well past the idle season of flipping through seed catalogs and anticipating warmer months when life springs forth, anew. Already we are pulling seeds out of their storage containers, sowing them in greenhouse flats, and rotating an armada of seedling trays from the heated coils where they get started to unheated benches nearby. The propagating greenhouse is packed with beets, allium, flowers and brassica seed sown in February and March, and we haven’t even begun the process of direct sowing seeds into the farm beds outdoors.
But we want to take a moment and look at what seeds we are using, and why, at Island Meadow Farm.
When possible, we purchase organic seeds to be used at Island Meadow. Organic seeds are grown in organic farming systems, and therefore are more well-suited to producing plants that will succeed in the growing culture we employ on this farm. Conventional seeds are produced by plants offered synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It follows that the plants grown from those seeds will thrive under similar conditions — which we are not going to give them! We would rather use seeds produced by plants that flourished and successfully made viable seed with organic farming methods similar to how we grow our vegetables and flowers around here. They are more likely to do better that way.
In addition, seed crops generally are left in the ground much longer than the vegetables they grow from. To grow biennial crops like carrots, chard and beets, the veggies are grown a full season, left to overwinter, and then make seed only in their second year of life. For a conventional seed crop, this means that pesticides and fertilizers are added to the environment for a full two seasons just to get the seed that growers will then sow. Even annual crops like lettuce must be left in the ground for a long time to produce seed. First the lettuce plants have to grow, but then they are left in the ground long beyond the point where harvest would typically occur, for the seed heads have to develop and the seeds must dry down on the plant before collection. In purchasing and using organic seeds, we are less concerned about exposure to residual chemicals on the seeds themselves than to the environmental impact of using those chemicals during seed production.
That brings us to another decision — to grow open pollinated or hybrid seeds. At Island Meadow Farm, we grow both.
Open pollinated seeds are those older varieties whose genetics have settled down enough to produce a relatively similar plant generation after generation. As long as your open pollinated plants are isolated from other species with whom they might cross (don’t get your cucumbers too close to the summer squash, for instance), their seeds can be collected and used the next year with predictable results. We love using open pollinated varieties because it feels democratic. By growing open pollinated seeds, communities are more likely to be able to maintain their own seed stock independent of the large businesses edging their way into control of the seeds we depend on to survive.
Hybrid seeds, too, have their merits. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing distinctive varieties in order to get a new, different strain. These strains are often extremely consistent in their size, color, and in the days it takes to grow them to maturity — making them convenient for farmers who want the whole crop to be ready at once. Sometimes, that uniformity is great for us. In addition, they have a certain “hybrid vigor” often observed in both plants and animals, often growing vigorously and well. The downsides to hybrid seeds are that saved seed is unpredictable and usually produces plants that vary widely from their parents. Also, the seed stock maintained for crossing the hybrid species is consistently owned and controlled by large seed corporations — a nefarious approach to food production, in our opinion.
We save some of our own seeds at Island Meadow Farm, although not many. It occupies a good deal of space to keep the crops in the ground long enough to harvest seed. It also takes a unique set of skills. We’ve started with some simple species like dry beans (in the picture above), sweet peas, potatoes and garlic — thought we hope to grow more in the future. Stay tuned!
For more information about seed production, take a look at the Organic Seed Alliance.