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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Seeds to Change…For a Change…

Seductive seedsThis time of year they draw a gardener like a magnet. I can’t pass one by without stopping to browse. There’s something seductive about those gleaming packets, each filled with so much promise (or disappointment) for the summer season. I’m not the only one who stands in front of the racks and dreams, and I’m curious about those who browse with me, gardeners like myself, with garden dreams of their own. I want to share our dreams, compare notes, draw from others’ experiences, but I don’t want to intrude on their garden reveries. Besides, they don’t know me, nor I them, even though our proximities to the seed racks show we do have something in common…but still we’re strangers.

I’m talking about the racks of seed packets, of course—on display everywhere this time of year—a harbinger of spring for most--a mandate for the gardener. Row after row of vegetable and flower seeds: Ed Hume (Ed Humus, I like to call him), Lily Miller, Territorial Seed, Burpee, your  old standbys. Vegetable and flower packets, arranged in alphabetical order; luminous globes of radishes just begging to join the salad; carrots orange enough to make a gourmet—or rabbit swoon; tomatoes so red and plump, you’re almost afraid to lift a packet without a napkin in hand; snap beans green enough to make the Jolly Green Giant pale in comparison; zucchini and eggplant Simonized and spit shined to such a sheen they send you scurrying for your sunglasses; and the sweet pea blossoms seem to exude a heady ambience from each packet you lift. Nothing in your garden ever looks quite as good as the produce on seed packets, all of which I’m sure are carefully selected for the photo op and after a liberal application of vegetable or floral makeup certain to put their best root forward…and that’s before the airbrushing, of course. It’s just that each packet holds so much promise, each drab little seed a potential miracle for the table or the vase. Enough zucchini locked in that four inch envelope to fill the Valley with zucchini bread.The miracle of the loaves and fishes? Certainly those loaves were loaves of zucchini bread! Ah, the rapture of a seed rack….

In our household, seed packets accumulate over the years. Before you know it, you have partially used seed dating back five to ten years. (The same thing happens in your spice cabinet, where in the back recesses lurk metal tins of mace and nutmeg from the last millennium-- predating the mandatory “expiration date.” ) And, it seems, every spring I buy a new packet of some vegetable or other only to find an unopened packet of the same from the year before or two or more years before that! Mess of seedsFor one thing, it makes no sense to double your seed inventory; for that reason I know I should sort through my seed collection each spring before I’m drawn to those addictive seed displays. But there’s another thing to consider: the viability of the seed. It takes time and energy to prepare the seed beds for planting, and why do all that stooping only to sow “expired” seed into the furrows? Seed packets have their own expiration dates printed on the seal: “Packaged for” the season at hand. The Grande Dame of the Kitchen and Garden, Martha Stewart, suggested a two year window of time for seed viability, so when I do take the time to run a chronological inventory of my old packets, I discard those older than two years and replace them with new.

As are most things these days, seeds are expensive. My packet of Lilly Miller “Early Girl” tomatoes contained seventeen seeds; the packet $2.00, slightly more than ten cents apiece for a fuzzy little blip the size of the head of a straight pin. Burpee’s 2012 catalog boasts a  new “pop art”zinnia variety: six dollars for a packet of fifty seeds. The thrifty gardener can cut expenses considerably by saving his own seed from year to year. My old pioneer friend in Eastern Washington hasn’t bought a seed in years and yet raises a wonderful garden each season. Not only do you save money on seed, but your wintered over seeds are“packaged by you” for next summer. Lakota squash

Pick through the seed mass of your winter squash, select a few fat ones, convex and plump, from the goo and spread them to dry in a warm spot in the house (behind the woodstove, perhaps?). On a sheet of wax paper, spread a pom smear from a favorite tomato and when it’s dry, pop loose the pips and store them in a labeled envelope (coin envelopes are ideal). Do the same with peppers. Other seeds I save: sweet corn (throw a couple of mature ears in a basket behind the stove and by planting time, twist the kernels from the cob and head for the furrow), scarlet runner beans, shell beans, sweet pea seed. Years ago when Wolfkill’s had the little farm supply store, I used to buy small sacks of sweet pea seed there. Even back then, sweet peas were selling for $65 a pound (what a field of floral extravaganza a pound of sweet peas would yield!) No more relaxing way to soak up the last of summer’s evening sun than going out to the expired row of sweet peas and shelling a handful of seed from the crisp pods. Some plants save you the trouble of gathering seed and spread their own. Let a couple heads of dill seed escape and all that remains to do in subsequent seasons is decide which seedlings of the many volunteers that sprout here and there you’d like to save. Tomatillos are the same: come May hundreds of seedlings fur the ground in the shadow of last year’s plant. Nasturtiums are a good self-seeder, as are morning glories ( but watch out: a little “glory” goes a long way!) So save your seed: save your seed money….

But we gardeners are not the only ones saving seed these days. Near the village of Longyearbyen on one of the Svalbard Islands off the northwest coast of Norway is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). Bunkered deep in a mountainside, and looking like an atavistic fallout shelter from the 1950’s, the Svalbard vault is the world’s largest repository of seeds. SGSV’s mission is to preserve the biodiversity of food crops (agricultural biodiversity)worldwide by storing thousands of seed samples from the world’s vast inventory of crops. Should ever catastrophic natural events occur or geo-political crises arise and devastate a region’s agriculture, SGSV’s preserve of seed would serve as backup to restore like crops to those areas.

Entirely funded and constructed by Norway at a cost of 9 million dollars, the multi-chambered bunker is kept within a narrow temperature range of –14 to –18 C. by a special compressor system, a preservation process termed “cryopreservation.” While Norway also funds the annual maintenance of the facility, other expenses such as international transport of seeds is borne by the United Nations Foundation, a partnership funded in turn by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Geographically, the island is perfect for the mission: north of the Arctic Circle, permafrost soil, long hours of darkness. SGSV first “closed” its doors in 2008 on some 30,000 different seed samples from all over the world. That number has since grown to over 500,000 samples.

Global participation in and cooperation with SGSV would not have been possible without the ratification and adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources June 29, 2004. The Treaty is supported by 127 countries. Sole rights to the stored seed belong to the donating country or contributing gene bank but may be readily accessed by interested parties with permission from the donors. The seed samples are stored in special four-ply plastic bags which in turn are stored in plastic totes and shelved on metal racks. Once shelved, only the donating agent can access the seeds; Norway owns the “bank”; depositors own their deposits. SGSV is sometimes referred to as the foreboding “Doomsday Vault,” a rather severe appellation for a facility intended to preserve global agricultural biodiversity for generations to come. I much prefer the more benign “A Frozen Garden of Eden,” as one participant termed SGSV. Half a million seed samples! That’s a staggering amount to collate and curate; I’ll bet every sample is inventoried and recorded, too. And I can’t even keep track of the two plastic bags of seed I have hanging in my shed.

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Cryopreservation here in the Valley? Not an option, at least for me, due to the scarcity of permafrost, so again I address the issue of seed age and viability. Though I haven’t done a thorough scientific study, I’m throwing it out there that “good seed” and “bad seed” has more to do with the specific vegetable variety rather than the age of the seed. I do think Martha Stewart (or her crew of consultants, rather) may have missed the mark on the “two year” rule, especially where corn seed is concerned. Again, I have no personal research to back this up, but I venture to say I could plant seed from the “Indian corn”door hanging we’ve displayed year after year as fall decoration and it would sprout and grow. A half dozen years ago we took a road trip to Colorado and among the sites we visited was Mesa Verde and the cliff dwellings there. On display in the visitor’s museum at Cliff Palace, one of the many dwellings on the Mesa, was an earthenware pot, tightly sealed, that contained corn seed, stored and preserved nearly a thousand years ago.Cliff Palace Sample kernels were tested for edibility and viability, and it seems to me some of that seed, when planted, actually sprouted! Apparently the extreme aridity of the Mesa preserved the kernels…; Svalbard Seed Vault biologists hope cryopreservation will do the same for its seed samples.

So here in the Valley year after year in a random, haphazard fashion, I’m building my own seed repository, and before this post itself goes to seed, that’s it from the Valley for now.

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  1. This makes me regret not doing a garden this year (is it too late?!). However, I do have some more of my original wedding sweet pea seeds...perhaps I should test ol' Martha's theory!

  2. Don't you remember: "Come into the garden, it's the early month of May/Come into the garden and I know you'll want to stay...?" Too late to put in a garden? Too early in the maritime NW might be a better question. Soak those wedding sweets overnight on a paper towel. You know, if I were a country, I'd send some of your wedding bouquet seeds to the Svalbard Seed Vault. Dad