Saving seeds preserves past

Friday, October 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:28 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Imagine a garden peach that is about 2 inches in diameter — yellow, with a red blush and fuzzy. It sounds like a normal peach, but this “garden peach” is actually a tomato, and it tastes like a tomato would be expected to taste.

Now picture a pole bean called a Christmas lima that is the size of a large lima bean but has red and white stripes.

The garden peach and the Christmas lima are two examples of unique vegetables grown by Ron Macher, editor and publisher of “Small Farm Today” magazine. Macher himself is a small-time farmer and is one of a growing number of people in the United States who save their own seeds.

“Basically, I do it — No. 1 — so I don’t have to spend money on seed,” Macher said. People who save seeds remove them from their own plants or flowers, save them for a period of time and replant them. Home gardeners and small-time farmers practice seed saving for a variety of reasons.

“One reason is that they want to have seed available for the next year,” said Mary Kroening, state master gardener coordinator. “If they have a plant that does extremely well, they want to carry its characteristics over to the next year.”

But one of the most popular reasons for seed saving is the preservation of heirloom varieties. Macher said an heirloom is something that has been around for at least 50 years.

Kroening said many people want to preserve heirloom varieties that were around when their grandparents were growing up. Often, these heirloom plants have been passed down from generation to generation.

One reason people save heirloom varieties is to preserve taste. Jeremiath Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., said a lot of varieties that used to exist in the United States were tasty but not shippable.

“Many modern things are good for shipping, but when they’re real hard, they’re not going to taste as good,” Gettle said. “Seed saving preserves history and preserves more taste.”

For example, tomatoes found in most grocery stores have been bred for shippable characteristics so they won’t be bruised and battered when they reach the shelves. But because there are fewer varieties sold today, taste has become more uniform.

Although growing such heirloom varieties would not be practical for commercial food varieties, Gettle said they can be grown by home gardeners and people who do not ship.

“Old-time varieties weren’t meant to ship well,” Macher said. “If you buy a vine-grown tomato at the farmer’s market, it may be shipped 5 or 6 miles. It’s not meant to ship a long way, but it tastes better. Things in stores ship several hundred miles.”

Gettle said that more than 90 percent of American varieties available in 1900 no longer exist.

The loss of diversity in the food supply is a concern for many seed savers.

“If we’re going to have secure food safety in the future, we need to save these seeds back so we can grow them and, if we need them, we can get them,” Macher said. “If nobody keeps these things going, we won’t have them when we need them.”

Macher alone grows 21 different kinds of tomatoes, more than can be found on the shelves of a typical grocery store.

Gettle travels to foreign countries with a goal of collecting and preserving varieties from different cultures.

“Other countries have old varieties that are unique and very tasty,” Gettle said. “A lot go back 1,000 years or more. Besides Indians, people have only been saving seeds here for 300 years.”

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. sells about 700 different varieties, including many from overseas.

As an example of diversity that isn’t found in the United States, Gettle said Thailand may have 100 kinds of eggplants that do not exist in the United States.

Although seed saving preserves taste, history and diversity, it can have one disadvantage, Kroening said.

“New varieties really work toward adapting plants to tolerate insects and disease, thus may have more disease and insect resistance than heirloom varieties,” she said. “Heirloom varieties can sometimes be attacked more heavily by insects and disease.”

David Trinklein, chairman of the MU department of horticulture, said the idea that heirloom varieties taste better than modern varieties is a subjective judgment.

“Honestly, a lot of heirloom varieties are probably not grown anymore because we have better ones available today,” Trinklein said. “I’m confident the yield of newer varieties is much better than that of heirloom varieties.”

But some people save seeds simply for their own enjoyment. Julie Barry is a hobbyist who enjoys plants and saves mostly perennial flower seeds.

“(Seed saving) has been in my family forever,” Barry said. “My mother, grandmother and great-grandfather did it. I guess I did it out of habit.”

People who are interested in seed saving but do not have any plants from which they want to save seeds can get started by purchasing anything that interests them from a company that has a catalog listing available varieties.

Many seed savers also participate in seed swapping, in which two or more people trade seeds. For example, if one person grows several varieties of corn but is looking for a particular type of squash, he or she may trade corn seed for someone else’s squash seed.

Seed Savers Exchange is an example of an organization that gives members opportunities to swap seeds with one another. Its focus is on heirloom garden varieties that were brought to North America by immigrants and traditional varieties grown by Native Americans, Mennonites and Amish.

Barry said a lot of seed swapping is done over the Internet on garden Web forums, where people not only swap with one another but also exchange information.

“If you have something they want and they have something you want, you can contact each other and then mail (the seeds) to each other,” Barry said.

She said the garden Web forums provide information about how to get started growing certain plants.

Debi Kelly of the Missouri Alternatives Center said associations for seed saving and swapping exist for almost everything imaginable. One example is the National Hot Pepper Association.

“Someone might say, ‘My pepper is hotter than yours. Let’s switch,’” Kelly said.

Regardless of whether they are interested in swapping seeds, for people who want to preserve diversity, taste and history, seed saving is a viable option.

“Anybody that wants to do it ought to try it,” Macher said.

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