This story first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Edible Idaho South magazine
I never used to save seeds from my gardens. For years, I dutifully pulled the bolted plants, wiping the slate clean for the next season. I’d then pour over seed catalogues, snuggled up against my heater with a steaming mug of tea, and make my selections for next year’s garden. Plucking seed varieties trucked from here and there across the country, a smorgasbord would arrive in a box seemingly far too tiny to hold the hundreds of miracles housed within.
Then, in 2005, I visited a farm in Sooke, BC, that changed my life. ALM farm was a tiny farm much like mine, but with one major difference—instead of working against each plant’s biological predisposition to survive by setting seed, owner Mary Alice Johnson embraced it, allowing it to flower, to have sex, to make babies in the form of hundreds of seeds. Looking around her exuberant, wild farm, full of flowers and buzzing pollinators, I clearly grasped the faux pas I had been committing by doing what I had, until that very moment, chalked up to a good gardener’s duty. I was killing my beloved vegetables before they had a chance to reproduce and die on their own. That’s a fate fit for a weed, not a prized garden treasure. Further, I was spending hundreds of dollars each year to let some other farm like ALM’s (or worse, Monsanto’s) have the fun of growing my seeds.
I’d always revered the fall garlic planting as the bridge between the seasons—the last thing you do for the current season and the first thing you do for the next—since garlic is, if not technically at least practically, a seed. As I began saving other seeds, I extended this bridge over the seasons to include many crops that I used to chop short and jump start to life again the next season via a long, petroleum-soaked chain from seed producer to packing company to me.
What’s better, I am adapting varieties that love my soil and my system, plants suited to this valley that have a traceable story and a tactile history and help preserve our rapidly shrinking culinary biodiversity. The farm is feeding more pollinators now, more bees and flying things of all types, who come to drink the flowers’ nectar and unwittingly aid otherwise stationary plants in copulation by bringing pollen from one to another. In short, the farm is sexier now because there is literally more sex happening there year after year!
And perhaps the best part is, as the days get shorter and colder, I do still snuggle up with my seed catalogs, but now it’s with an eye on open-pollinated varieties that I can buy once and save forever after. Though this cuts down on my vegetable porn intake, I get instead the visceral experiences of fermenting and decanting wet seeds, of threshing and winnowing dry ones, of giant piles of stalks giving way to small handfuls of life-giving seeds, of nearly incomprehensible abundance.
In a way, seeds are like infinity, each holding the potential to multiply itself indefinitely. As farmer Eliot Coleman says, “At 1,000:1, you can’t get a better return than a tomato.” Each tomato seed can grow a plant that will produce dozens or hundreds of fruits, each housing hundreds more seeds. And it’s all there, right inside the little shell, tucked away for safe keeping until the time is right to burst to life again.
Real, tangible, life-sustaining wealth is borne out of a seed. The mind-boggling institutions that create and control money are in the business of making sure it’s kept scarce so it remains valuable, but a plant has the opposite agenda. The more seeds it produces, the better chance it has of surviving, and I survive, too, simply by stewarding its generous gifts. I can’t eat a dollar bill or a debit card, but I can eat like a queen from the seeds I grow, and I have hundreds extra to share with neighbors and friends, creating a culture of delicious abundance that makes our system of monetary scarcity irrelevant.
And to think I waited so long.
Common Wealth Seed Library opens in Boise
Since the dawn of agriculture, seeds have been a vital part of the public commons. They’ve been passed down for generations, shared between neighbors and tribes, brought by countless immigrants through untold hardships to new lives in new lands. Yet seeds, like many other things, are increasingly becoming big business, the property of multinational corporations rather than the gardeners who have lovingly kept them alive for generations. Our global seed supply is at risk. Contamination from Genetically Modified crops threatens it, as does shrinking biodiversity.
Luckily, around the country a movement is afoot to return seeds to their rightful place as a part of the public commons, using the elegant model of a public library. Members “check out” seeds at the beginning of the season, use them to grow their gardens setting a few plants aside to save seed from, and return seeds at the end.
Members of the Common Wealth Seed Library, opening in Boise this spring, will have access to dozens of locally-grown seed varieties that do well in our unique soils and climate, as well as education on how to save and return healthy seeds from them. This pay-it-forward system creates a community of empowerment, abundance and generosity, and increases local resilience.
More information can be found at www.commonwealthseedlibrary.com.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” -Cicero