In gardening, what looks like a mishap may be an epiphany in disguise.
“If you remembered to harvest your lettuce, great,” Ken Greene reminded me recently. “If you forgot to harvest the lettuce, great!”
Missing a harvest window means you could be on your way to growing a crop of that plant’s seed, which is what Greene, a founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Co., would like each of us to learn to do.
He and I were catching up about how last spring had gone with customers showing an unprecedented demand for seed. Seed sellers everywhere heard from worried gardeners who were rattled to see “sold out” beside desired varieties and, worse still, “taking a pause” notices when companies halted shipping.
There will be seed for sale for the next growing season, Greene is quick to offer reassurance — but you can also supply some of your own.
In the process, you could become part of that seed’s life story.
Some seeds-to-be are in that row of lettuce that suddenly stretched way up in the heat, looking very un-lettuce-like and making tiny yellow flowers. Or inside a couple of your juicy tomatoes, and the pods of peas and beans.
“Some of the other answers for gardeners are in your drawer, in those half-used packets,” Greene said. “But you need to care for them till then. Seeds are small and powerful, and we can be small and powerful, too, just by learning how to save and share them.”
He shared how-to’s for the saving the easiest seed varieties — and the story of the seed that got him hooked.
About those seed shortages
When gardeners faced long waits or unavailable items last spring, they thought that meant there was a seed shortage. But while some of the year’s most sought-after varieties may be scarce, there will be seed next year.
“Small seed companies like ours met extra demand by dipping into their second- or third-year supply early,” Greene said. Not every variety is grown out every year — and because seeds are a living thing, restocking can take a year or even two, in the case of biennials like onion, carrots, beets or kale.
“If we grew enough seed for two years of a particular kale, and sold twice as much as usual, that variety won’t be back right away,” he said. “But there will be other kales. Selling out doesn’t mean a variety disappears, just that it isn’t for sale now.”
Do it yourself
It’s a good time to start saving seed yourself — and then collaborating with others to share it.
Greene believes that we need not just the commercial seed system but also a community-based one. “Diversity is the insurance for seed access,” he said. “And the more different ways we have for accessing seed, the better.”
It was the variety now called Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean that propelled him into serious seed saving and then organic seed farming. It was 2004, and Greene was a librarian at the Gardiner Library in Ulster County, New York, where he began the first seed library in a public library in the United States.
“Seed libraries find ways to share seeds through the foundation of the public library system,” Greene said. “Models range from a swap box, where people leave leftover commercial seeds and take what they want, to formalized community seed grow-outs among gardeners who are seeking some form of local seed sovereignty.”
The Gardiner effort aimed to find delicious varieties with local history and adaptation to regional growing conditions, and then to cooperatively grow them to make sure the seeds, and their genetic and cultural stories, didn’t disappear from the community.
The public library’s director told him about an exceptional baking bean her father had grown. A dust-covered jar forgotten for many years was found in the cellar of the house he had lived in; some seeds were miraculously still viable.
The short version: Stock was built up, and the variety named for Hank lives on, to the delight of local chefs.
All because of neighbors sharing, and caring for, a seed.
A web search, or an inquiry to a local garden club or cooperative extension office, may yield a nearby seed library contact. Or try this: Plan a less-formal seed swap. It can be as simple as starting an email chain or posting to a neighborhood group to see what others are growing and whether they are interested in saving and eventually sharing.
A seed-saving legacy
As Greene put it, “We all come from a seed-saving legacy.”
Today, the stories that compel Greene are about seed justice. He runs the nonprofit Seedshed, an organization that supports Black, Indigenous, POC and LGBTQ communities in growing toward, or restoring, their own definition of seed sovereignty.
For five years, Seedshed has been working with the Mohawk Nation community of Akwesasne, growing traditional varieties of corn, beans, squash and sunflowers in the Akwesasne Seed Rematriation Garden, in partnership with the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, in Hurley, New York, with all seed harvests rematriated to the hands of the Akwesasne people. The project is named Kanenhaká:ion Tsiakwaiénthos, which translates as “old seed … we are planting again.”
Ready to start?
Greene recalls giving a talk a few winters ago, when a slide on the screen prompted someone in the audience to blurt out: “Oh, my God, peas are seeds!”
“I guess I’d glossed over that in the presentation up till then,” he said, laughing. Yes, peas are seeds — but they are not viable at the fresh-eating stage.
Most of us don’t know the entire life cycle of our food crops, just their edible moments.
“For me, gardening is being part of the full life cycle of the plant,” Greene said.
For beginning seed-savers, he recommended a few easy crops, including bush beans (“they cross-pollinate less than pole beans”) and peas; cilantro and dill; lettuce; and open-pollinated (non-hybrid) tomatoes.
With peas and beans, let the pods dry completely on the plant until they rattle when shaken. Harvest, open the pods and dry the seeds in a single layer on a screen in a well-ventilated place until thoroughly dry, which can take weeks.
How to tell they’re done? Whack one seed with a hammer. If it cracks, it’s ready. If it mashes, it’s not.
Likewise with dill and cilantro: Collect the nearly dry heads before they scatter their seeds and put them in a paper bag to finish drying.
Lettuce isn’t much harder, although the seeds have a chaff attached until they’re thoroughly dry. When the flowers start to puff out like tiny dandelions, snip them off into a paper bag. Or if you are saving a lot, cut down the seed-laden stalks and tip them upside-down into a bag or bucket.
Tomato seed benefits from an extra step: fermentation.
Tomato seed is saved when the fruits are at the edible stage, and all the leftover parts besides the seed can be made into sauce, salsa, gazpacho — or just eaten fresh. (By comparison, a cucumber or zucchini must go long past ripeness, until soft and turning orange, for the seeds inside to be mature.)
If you have a favorite heirloom tomato and it’s a popular one, Greene advised, save its seed, in case supply is short. And again: Be sure to save from open-pollinated varieties, not hybrids, whose offspring don’t reliably resemble their parents.
You could simply squeeze the seeds out, smearing the fruit’s innards onto a paper plate or paper towel. But the natural act of fermentation helps break down germination-inhibiting compounds such as the gel sac around tomato seeds and can reduce some seed-specific diseases.
Select tomatoes from a few of the healthiest, most disease-resistant and productive plants. Pick from a couple of plants if you have multiples of a variety, and don’t choose the first fruits that form.
Halve or quarter fruits and squeeze the seeds and pulp into a jar labeled with the variety name. Add an equal amount of water, and cover with a screen or cheesecloth. Then let the mixture sit out of the sun for several days, until a smelly surface mold forms. Skim that off and discard, then rinse the seeds in a strainer.
Spread the washed seeds on a paper plate and air-dry for two to five days, or until you can crack a seed between your nails. Run a fan if the room where you’re drying seeds is humid.
Stash your seed
For a deeper dive into seed-saving, Greene recommended Suzanne Ashworth’s “Seed to Seed,” or “The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving” from the Seed Savers Exchange and Organic Seed Alliance. (Seed Savers Exchange has online guides, too.)
Whether you’re working with leftover packets or homegrown seed, safe storage is key. Cool, dark and dry is the prescription, and thoroughly dry seed can be stashed in a jar or canister, perhaps in a closet on an exterior wall that stays cooler than the rest of the house.
Fluctuation in humidity, in particular, is damaging — so leaving those half-used paper packets in the garage? Not so good.
“Seeds are alive,” Greene said. “We need to still care for them — and the stories they carry inside them — even when they are not in the ground.”