Smile Politely

To the End and Beginning of the Growing Season

“I dwell in possibility.” – Emily Dickinson

As I write, the overnight forecast for Champaign-Urbana is calling for a hard freeze — outdoor air temperature of 32 degrees or below for a period of several hours — that will destroy all tender vegetation and will officially herald the end of the 2008 growing season for east central Illinois (and nearly all of the Midwest). Waaah.

It also heralds, in a way, the beginning of the 2009 growing season. Putting the garden to bed for winter, which at our place is usually done sometime after the first frost, also means going through the garden carnage and seeing what’s left to save for planting the following spring — that is, if I haven’t saved it already or if the birds haven’t gotten to the garden first. It’s been a busy eight months chez B-K, so my usually aggressive seed-saving has given way to a more relaxed seed “salvaging.”

Maybe you’re saying, “Who cares? I mean, can’t you just buy seeds at the store? For a dime a pack or something? Why save seeds?”

Because by saving seeds, we’re literally saving the world. Food for humans comes from plants or from animals that eat plants; no seeds = no food. Over the course of millennia, we humans managed to figure this out; we began saving seeds not just to ensure the ability to eat the following year, but also to preserve regional (and planetary) biodiversity. Biodiversity in agriculture is crucial, but most importantly for eaters — that’s you and me — it helps prevent starvation. If only one or two types of crops are grown and the crops fail due to bad weather, pests, or disease (disease is much more likely when biodiversity is lacking), everyone goes hungry.

Saving seed from all over the world is important enough that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault referred to as the Doomsday Vault) was established in Norway to preserve seeds from seed banks all over the world, just in case we try but fail to completely annihilate ourselves. (Kidding!)

Seriously, though — this endeavor, funded in large part by the Norwegian government, is a valiant effort to catalog and preserve what we grow on Earth in case of global catastrophe or, more likely, the need to refer to obscure varieties for genetic material in case of disease or blight. Svalbard is hardly the only seed bank, however — there are organizations all over the world dedicated to protecting and perpetuating the seed supply, and governments often keep their own seed stores (which unfortunately can be destroyed in times of conflict).

So. Let’s talk about the seeds in your neighborhood.

Every plant wants to make more of itself, which is why it makes seeds. Propagation of seed is accomplished in several different ways: a) self-seeding via wind, water, birds, and b) cultivation by humans. Different plants do different things — lettuce and spinach produce leaves (food) and later, flowers, which form seeds that drop to the ground or blow away. Fruiting plants (like tomatoes) flower, then fruit, and the fruit containing the seeds eventually drops to the ground. Some seeds are food (beans and peas and tubers like potatoes — though potatoes make seeds, but it gets complicated). If you spend a season watching a garden grow and follow it to its logical conclusion without rip-it-out interventions, you’re going to end up with seeds. We’re surrounded by them.

Gardening, even on the tiniest of scales, is a popular pastime here in C-U, so seeds for foods you eat are being produced by the billions all season long and are totally saveable. It’s easily done if you have your own garden, but even if you don’t have your own garden, you probably know someone who does, and if they’re willing to let some things go to seed and/or take the time to collect a few seeds, you can help out and probably get some seeds out of the deal. If you were with me this morning, for example, you could have hung out with me and my high-tech seed-salvaging equipment (my hands and some old yogurt cups) and walked off with seeds for:

  • 3 different types of bean
  • Calendula (medicinal/culinary)
  • Basil (culinary herb)
  • Torch sunflowers (much loved by hummingbirds)

They’ll be labeled with type and date and stored in a cool, dry place until it’s time to plant. Voila!

Seriously. Get to know your gardening neighbors. See what they’re growing, and ask them if they collect seeds. If you’re already a gardener, try saving some seeds (Suzanne Ashworth’s is a great resource, and online you can’t beat The International Seed Saving Institute). Also, see what kind of seeds you can get in trade. There’s even talk of setting up a blogger seed network here. A JanuFeb seed swap with your neighbors is an excellent way to prepare for the approaching growing season (and the perfect way to unload some of your extra bean seeds). If you’re interested in knowing more about seeds and growing food and maybe getting in on early ’09 swapping activities, come by Garage and Garden on Friday, October 31 from 7–11:30 a.m. at 706 East Fairlawn Drive in Urbana and commune with some like minds wondering about the same stuff.

Just remember: you don’t need a garden to save seeds… or to plant them.

Until next time…

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