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Seed saving is an art, not to mention fun and empowering. Plus, it’s a valuable contribution on a deeper level: agricultural biodiversity matters, and seed saving in home gardens is mainstream conservation of biodiversity!

PHOTO: John Withee bean collection.

A highlight of our 2013 Seed Swap was the John Withee bean collection. A family tradition of “beanhole” cooking led John Withee to collect and organize 1,267 bean varieties. He donated the collection—and its handcrafted case—to Seed Savers Exchange before he passed away.

Here’s why you, the home gardener, should start a seed collection:

Seed saving promotes self-reliance, and swapping seeds connects and builds community. It connects us to our agricultural roots. Additionally, it helps conserve our agricultural resources. Preservation matters. Once varieties are lost, they cannot be recovered. A century ago, seed houses had hundreds of varieties, and now just a few remain. Think about this vegetable fact: In 1903, 544 varieties of cabbage were listed by seed houses across the United States. By 1983, just 28 of those varieties were represented in our national seed bank at the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation).

Saving seeds encourages adventurous eaters. Growing heirloom varieties holds culinary appeal because it offers the opportunity to grow interesting vegetables that aren’t readily available in grocery stores.

Thrifty seed collectors save money because there is no seed to buy each spring. They maintain a personal seed collection.

Seed savers are lifelong learners, and home gardeners play an important role in helping to preserve our diverse seed histories. Home gardens become living laboratories to learn about plants. Seed saving builds observation skills, and there is a need for more seed growers to evaluate varieties for disease resistance and variety. 

Finally, saving and sharing seed just feels good. 

PHOTO: Broccoli seedlings

Broccoli seedlings

Which seeds should be saved (and are the easiest to save)? 

Deciding which seeds to save requires a working knowledge of several definitions:

Hybrid varieties (F1) produce seeds that, when grown the next year, are unlikely to resemble the original plant. Don’t save seeds from a hybrid vegetable. Seeds should be saved from open-pollinated plants (OP), those stable varieties that can reliably reproduce themselves generation after generation. As long as open-pollinated plants don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same species, their offspring will carry the distinguishing characteristics of the variety. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated plants that produce seeds passed down from one generation to another, often with historical connections and stories. Heirlooms carry special value and are usually old varieties.

Deciding which seeds to save requires a basic understanding of how plants reproduce:

Very simply, plants either mate with themselves or they mate with other plants. Self-pollinating plants have all the flower parts (anther and stigma) to transfer pollen within their own flowers (achieved by physical contact of male and female parts), or between separate flowers on the same plant (helped by wind or insects). In other words, they mate with themselves. Cross pollination takes place when pollen is transferred from one plant to another plant by insects, birds, or wind. Crossers can’t move pollen without help as the selfers do. Offspring of plants that cross pollinate may have different characteristics than the original variety unless they are isolated from plants of the same species.

Seed packet with description designating F1 seed.

If a package is labeled F1, seeds should not be saved, as they are unlikely to reliably reproduce the same plant as the parent.

A couple of tips on planning a garden for seed saving:

  • Start small and keep it simple.
  • Balance the many factors that comprise the art and practice of seed saving.
  • Begin by choosing a couple of self-pollinating annuals. Peas, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are easiest to save. Insect- and wind-pollinated annuals may require isolation distances so they don’t cross pollinate.
  • Thoughtfully map out the garden to make efficient use of space. Growing plants for seed may take up more room for a longer period of time. While radish may be harvest-ready after growing 30 days, it may take much longer for your radish crop to produce its seeds.  

Take our classes during the Super Seed Weekend to learn more about planning a garden for seed saving.

Seed savers contribute! Come to learn, swap seeds, and share stories at Super Seed Weekend and experience the satisfaction that comes along with being a seed saver. A broad community of seed savers (new friends) awaits!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There are heirloom seeds from corn grown by Native Americans in Pennsylvania, and seeds from a marigold grown in the Andes for the spice of its leaves, along with some 4,500 other varieties in the collection of William Woys Weaver, Ph.D.

Hear William Woys Weaver in person at 1:30 p.m. on January 22. Register for his free lecture here.

PHOTO: William Woys Weaver

William Woys Weaver

Every heirloom plant seed grown for food has a story, according to Dr. Weaver. Where it came from, who it was grown by, and why it was grown all are pieces of that history. It has a past and a future. The food historian will share the story of these seeds, and of the collection his grandfather began in about 1932 that he now oversees, on Sunday, January 22, during Super Seed Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Weaver’s collection is housed in a seed room in a historic home in Pennsylvania. Built around 1805, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sits on a two-acre kitchen garden that Weaver and his collaborators task with growing and testing seeds from the collection. They employ an artisanal process, doing everything by hand. If the seeds look successful, they are moved on to a university or qualified farm to expand the process.

“People are beginning to realize these heirlooms, organically raised, are much more nutritionally rich than seeds grown commercially,” Weaver said. “We are right at the cusp of a lot of ideas.”

The Roughwood Seed Collection is now home to the largest privately held collection of its kind in the state. The collection is part of the Roughwood Seed Archive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with a working board. Weaver and his team are making big plans to grow and customize their endeavor to better serve the demand from local chefs and the growing list of those who are tuned in to the origins of their food. “A collection like this is very important because this is a source of food locally and farmers can get seed from us. It has a value far beyond its monetary cost,” Weaver said.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes—just one of the many heirlooms worth saving and sharing

Learn more with a class at our expanded Super Seed Weekend. Receive free parking with your paid class registration.

Start Your Own Kitchen Garden

Weaver encourages home kitchen gardeners to start small when growing heirloom seeds for food, and see where their talents are strongest. He suggests joining a seed exchange to gain access to a wide variety of options, but focusing on growing only what seems to do well and obtaining the rest of their produce from other growers.

Weaver hopes that people who participate in community gardens or seed exchanges enjoy the connectedness that comes with the process. “The seed exchanges and the seed networks help build a sense of community, so it’s very important from a social aspect, and also the heirlooms are good teaching tools for kids,” he said. It’s helpful to teach and learn about where our food comes from and what resources—including a grower’s time—go into each fruit or vegetable produced. When we understand those elements, Weaver said, we are more likely to appreciate each bite on our plate, and less likely to waste or toss edible food.

Weaver is eager to establish new systems and opportunities for the Roughwood Seed Collection in the very near future. The ambitious food advocate is also a professor and an author, with a new book on pickling that is due out in 2018, and a forthcoming update to his popular book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Don’t miss the exciting conclusion of Super Seed Weekend. The Seed Swap begins at 3 p.m., right after Weaver’s 1:30 p.m. lecture, “Our Kitchen Garden for Culinary and Cultural Research: The Roughwood Seed Collection,” on Sunday, January 22.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Come to the Seed Swap on February 28, and see a demonstration of the Lenhardt Library’s new seed library, set to launch next month.

Seed sharing is a resource for the community, just as libraries are a community resource for books. A seed library is where one may “borrow” seeds to sow, and if successful, harvest, save, and return some to the library for others to borrow the following season. We aim to cultivate an interest in home gardening and seed saving.

PHOTO: Seed packets.Many are familiar with planting seeds, so we’ll focus on seed saving—a less familiar aspect of the food cycle. The Lenhardt Library’s seed library will be geared toward the novice who has little experience with seeds, but all are welcome to participate. We’ll provide horticultural assistance and step-by-step instructions as part of our program.

Seeds in this seed library are primarily heirlooms (varieties that have been in cultivation for 50 years or more), and/or open-pollinated (pollinated by bees or wind), so that the next generation seed retains the identical characteristics of the parent. Seed companies Renee’s Garden and Seed Savers Exchange have generously donated seeds to get us started; tomato, beans, lettuce, and more await you.

In 2015, the Illinois Seed Law was amended, making noncommercial seed libraries such as this one legally exempt from commercial requirements such as testing and labeling. Now we’re ready to get started!

We hope you’ll visit and borrow seeds for your home garden, whether it’s a large plot or a terra cotta pot on a windowsill.

PHOTO: peas.Get more tips for starting seed in our Smart Gardener series, and consider starting some early spring crops.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Seed Swap is timed perfectly. As I type this blog, there is snow covering the ground. We’ve not had our mail delivered in days (this is, after all, Raleigh, N.C., where snow is a dirty word). But indoors, armed with seed catalogs, vials, and notebooks, gardeners everywhere are immersed in planning and planting.

That’s why I am so excited to be bringing my tomato stories and seeds to the Seed Swap.

As always, I hope to learn as much from the audience, fellow bloggers, and swap participants. One of my favorite things about gardening is the ability for all who partake to learn new and exciting things to share. It is one of those unique pursuits that no one can do perfectly or predictably. The renewal of each season fires up hope and optimism, and helps us to keep going year after year.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomato harvest, with cultivars labeled.

January: the time when we dream of heirloom tomatoes.


Sign up for my free lecture at the Garden on February 28. Don’t live in the Chicago area? Find more National Seed Swap Day events nationwide in January and February.

Seed swaps are just marvelous events which represent far more than just entering into a fun, interactive way to build seed collections. Seeds are the future—as in flowers, vegetables, or herbs for your garden. Seeds, perhaps even more significantly, are the past. They are a direct way to pass on a bit of history, as well as a bit of your own effort, if the seeds happen to be those that you saved yourself. When passing on seeds, be sure to also pass on whatever history and information that you’ve accumulated along the way.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomato seed collection.

Part of the Craig LeHoullier heirloom tomato seed collection housed with my go-to books.

I’ve got a “small” collection of seeds saved and sent through my 35 years of gardening (if you call more than 5,000 samples of seeds small, that is). There will be some fun, interesting, historic varieties among the packets that I will bring to share at the swap event. I like to tell people that it recently came to me that heirloom tomatoes chose me to be one of their ambassadors. How else can I explain the unsolicited gifts, in the form of letters with packets of seeds, which populated my mailbox in and around 1990? Among them are Anna Russian, Mexico Midget, and two varieties that came to me unnamed—Cherokee Purple and Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom. It is a role I relish, and serve gladly and enthusiastically. I am joined in this by so many—Carolyn Male, Amy Goldman, Bill Minkey, and Calvin Wait, just to name a few of those whose books and/or seed-saving efforts have been but a small part of making this perhaps the very best time for tomato enthusiasts to paint their gardens with such an array of colors, shapes, and sizes.

PHOTO: LeHoullier's garden, covered in snow.

The LeHoullier backyard tomato garden—it doesn’t look like much now, but wait until August!

The challenge of planning is that there is always more to grow than can reasonably fit. Some succeed better than others at narrowing things down. It is a good thing that tomato seeds will keep germination for at least a decade; it helps to ease the pressure of over buying. Hey—how about swapping for some of those extras! Whoops—that means I will then have even more to choose from. Great!

Sources for Craig’s seeds:

As far as what to grow, how does one navigate the confounding waters of tomato choices? Part of that answer lies in the intent of the garden—primary food source, tomato playground for testing or projects, or just one part of a greater whole with many other types of crops. There are choices of heirloom or hybrid, indeterminate or dwarf, and then the more fun projections such as colors and flavors. It all adds up to some pretty intense dreams—both during the day, and for me, occasionally while I sleep.

And so, Chicago, here I come. From lunching with bloggers and sharing gardening ideas and battle scars to my main talk where I can entice you with pictures of my conquests (and challenges, because they are unavoidable), and finally some time to swap seeds and stories, ask and answer questions. I will be happy to share the list of my favorite varieties and why. And stories—lots of stories, because many of the tomatoes I cherish, most have wonderful stories. Each summer, as I cast my eyes over my garden, I envision the faces and names of those who sent me seeds just as much as the appearance of the plants and the excitement of the tomatoes to come.

PHOTO: Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier.

Purchase Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier in the Garden Shop!

In the meantime, come on along on my journey by checking out my website at craiglehoullier.com. I will soon be blogging about seed starting, making choices, and anything else that pops into my mind. There is info about my books, my upcoming events, and the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, from which some swap samples will be made available.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Guest blogger Dan Bussey is Orchard Manager at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm, where he maintains the nearly 900 different varieties of apple trees in their Historic Orchard.

 

John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed—the legendary character of somewhat skewed Disney lore—was a real figure whose story has captivated generations.

Learn more about apple varieties from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at our Seed Swap lecture, “Forgotten Tastes: Our Apple Heritage.” The seed swap follows from 3 to 5 p.m.

PHOTO: Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depict apple cultivars Baxter and Stark (1909).

Illustrations of apple cultivars. Photo by Alois Lunzer (Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalog 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chapman was a complicated man who was driven to be at the edge of the frontier as settlers moved westward. His passion was a deep appreciation of nature, which prompted him to raise apple trees for settlers to buy in order to stake their homestead claims. He collected apple seeds from cider mills back east, then spread these seeds in nursery plots up and down the land along the Ohio River. Chapman was not concerned about what varieties these seedlings became, as they always had a use—whether for eating, cooking, or making hard cider if the apples  were unpalatable. But his methods of propagation were important for those who ended up with his trees. 

Grafting keeps apples true to the original plant.

While Chapman may not have been concerned with flavor, it is a concern for orchardists growing apples for public consumption. Seedling apples are the product of the hybridization of the parent tree and whatever apple variety pollinated it. The old adage “every apple plants an orchard” is quite true. Take the seeds of any apple you find today and plant them; when they grow and finally bear fruit, you will occasionally find apples similar to the apple you took seeds from, but more than likely, you’ll find very different fruit, with different colors, different flavors, and smaller or larger sizes. Most will be of poorer quality than the parent, but for the thousands of seedlings grown, every once in a while, a really special apple tree comes along. In order to keep this variety true and to produce more trees of it, the tree has to be vegatatively propagated—in other words, grafted.

PHOTO: Apple tree trunk, showing long-healed graft of cultivar on to rootstock.

Alkemene apple tree grafted on to rootstock. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Grafting has been known for centuries, and was a common skill for farmers and orchardists until modern times. Today, many fruit growers have never grafted a single tree and instead buy them from nurseries. However, grafting is making a comeback, and it is satisfying for home orchardists to know they have a choice of what fruit they can grow for their family using this traditional method of propagation.

Cider apples have a diverse heritage.

Cider (and what we’re talking about here is hard cider or cyder) has made an epic comeback in the past ten years in the beverage industry. Cideries (as opposed to breweries) are springing up in nearly every state and are all the rage. What has happened to bring this quaint, nearly forgotten beverage of colonial America to a point where conventions across the country celebrate the amazing diversity of cider styles? In truth, cider has never disappeared from our culture completely, and the rebirth of its popularity was long overdue.

In colonial America, the tradition of cidermaking arrived from Europe, as did the apple that could make cider. Cider was popular in early America as it could be made by almost anyone—it didn’t require lots of land to grow grain, as beer did. Find a tree to harvest apples from and you could make your own cider. Any apple variety would work—including those homesteaded, seedling-grown apples that weren’t good for eating. (Thank you, Johnny Appleseed!)

PHOTO: An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses.

An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses. By Red58bill (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you need special apples to make hard cider? Yes and no. Traditional cider varieties from Europe are those that have good flavor, but more importantly, have tannins that give cider character and body when fermented. Tannins, part of the chemical group known as phenolics, are commonly found in red wines, and cause that feeling of dryness in the mouth, a pleasant sensation to many. Tannins can be added to the juice of fresh cider when fermented, and improve the flavor.

Cider styles vary greatly from sweet to dry and sparkling to still, and many now have added flavors such as oak, hops, maple sugar, fruit of all kinds, yeasts of all kinds, and a wide variety of fermentation styles—each distinctly different. Whatever your preference, true artisanal cider is a natural product made from only apple juice and natural or added yeast to ferment it. Mass-marketed cider is generally made from juice concentrates, added sweeteners, and forced carbonation (to make it sparkle). Both forms of cider have fewer carbohydrates (and calories) than beer and lower alcohol content than wine. Cider was a refreshing drink for colonial settlers and remains so for today’s connoisseurs.

Regardless of your preferred apple tastes, Johnny Appleseed’s 200-year-old legacy is alive and well, from Albemarle Pippin to Zill. You can even find some heritage varieties at Seed Savers Exchange.

Mr. Bussey will return in 2016 to teach a cider-making workshop. Don’t miss him at Harvest Weekend, September 19–20, 2015. 


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org