Monday, January 30, 2006

A Seedy Perspective

A Seedy Perspective (Some Thoughts and a Couple of Books)

Modern culture and commerce has evolved to the point that folks can garden, grow their own food, and have beautiful landscapes without ever touching a seed. This is, perhaps, considered the civilized way to grow plants. One can select them at the nursery, have one’s hired hands pop them into the ground where indicated, and then prune, pluck, and pick without ever having to soil one’s hands. The state of civilization may have evolved to the point, for some, that this is the only way they have time to garden.

“The Emergence of Agriculture,” by Bruce D. Smith reminds us that civilization, as it is understood by western man, evolved from intimate relationships with seed and soil. It began with the intentional adaptations of human beings to seeds, and those seeds subsequent adaptations to gardeners and gardens. From there the budding of civilization grew through the intentional selection of seeds from those plants that early gardeners admired. Qualities like hardiness, larger seeds, tastier produce, quicker fruiting, greater storage life, and many others were hand selected from plants that had originally been wild or weedy.

The improved harvests from gardeners and gardens provided abundance, food security, and subsequent leisure. Time was then available to create more complex social forms, to expand architecture, to further explorations into art, and so forth. This eventually lead to commerce and professionalism and for many, the divorce from the civilizing relationship of man and seed.

In the small but rich booklet “Save Your Own Seed,” by Lawrence D. Hills, the dichotomy between those still engaged in that primal seed selection process and those who would leave our seed selection to professionals is finally drawn. While Smith in “The Emergence of Agriculture” examines what is known about the very beginning of our roles as seed selectors, “Save Your Own Seed” illuminates our evolution as seed savers, and our impending peril. The abundance of Heirloom varieties is celebrated. Gardeners had developed these varieties by many generations of hand selection. The varieties are each adapted to small niches in a plethora of microclimates, sensibilities, and cuisines. This wondrous variety is at risk.

Hills wrote his small volume after 50 years of experience with gardening and garden writing in Britain. And while the book was written in 1975, much of what threatened seed diversity then, still threatens us today. The growing professionalism of the nursery trade in Britain and Europe brought international treaties outlawing the sale of many heirloom vegetables. These tediously and lovingly hand selected varieties may be imperil of disappearing.

In “Save Your Own Seed,” Hills encourages us to seek out heirloom varieties of various foods. He points in directions that some of this variety can be found. Instructions are given on the selection process for various crops. There are also suggestions on how we can compare our efforts to our starting point, so we know if we are making improvements or not. It is not only a thoughtful and instructive booklet; it is poetic in places as well.

One of Hills’ points is that sometimes in the home garden, seed saved from such a small genetic pool will decrease in vigor over time. So far I have not seen that in my own efforts, however, while I have been gardening long, I have not been saving seed consistently until the last few years. One of my gardening mentors, Bonnie Coleman, had been saving seed for several decades when I came to shadow her efforts. While she saved her own seed, she didn’t grow named varieties of any of her crops. Her efforts were more towards selecting from what worked well for her, and crossing that stock with the newest award winners, even if they were hybrids. In this way her selection process was on going, and she was able to maintain genetic diversity within her garden.

Bonnie Coleman was also involved with “auditioning” as Smith refers to the idea of testing plants out for possible inclusion in the garden. While at the time of “The Emergence of Agriculture” those early gardeners were primarily auditioning wild plants for places in those first gardens. Bonnie and other avid gardeners have continued that process, often primarily testing various domesticated plants for fitness in their particular gardens. However, Bonnie, and other avid gardeners I have had the pleasure of knowing, often include a number of wild plants in their recruitment and auditioning efforts as well.

It is this experimenting, auditioning, and the trial and error of gardening where we do much of our learning of the process. Discussions and friendships with other gardeners enrich our process, as well as diversify our plant collections through the trading of seeds and slips. Reading continues our gardening education. Through books we can embrace the history, thoughts, and life-ways of gardeners - modern, historic, and ancient. We can feed our perspective, nourishes our wisdom about our place in this vast earthly landscape, this infinitesimal Garden of Eden. Don’t forget it all began, when the first gardener held a seed, and understood. *

I definitely recommend the following books to feed your gardening perspective:

“The Emergency of Agriculture,” by Bruce D. Smith, Published by Scientific American Library, A division of HHLP, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-7167-5055-4 (From the Willow Creek Library, CA)

“Save Your Own Seed,” by Lawrence D. Hills, Published by The Henry Doubleday Research Association, 1975, no ISBN (From the Hoopa Library, CA)

To get started saving your own seed, please see:

Once you have a collection of saved seeds, you will want to think about organizing them:

938 words, Copyright 2006, 2015 Harvest McCampbell

Please feel free to share.


Melissa said...

Hi Harvest: Thanks for the info...Seeds are awesome things...great to look at from a microscopic perspective...I've had kids in classes sprout seeds.Every child would ideally have the experience of realizing that so much of our food comes from seeds....whether it be apples, sunflower seeds, peanuts etc..Thanks for promoting the use of heirloom seeds..Let's keep genetic diversity happening...

Harvest said...

Your welcome Melissa, thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your comment!