Seed Swaps! Info to get you started [From Feb. 2011]

Posted on Feb 5, 2012 | Comments Off on Seed Swaps! Info to get you started [From Feb. 2011]

Snow, Snow, More Snow at Larrapin...

Snow, Snow, More Snow at Larrapin...

[Encore post from 2/2011] It’s the time of year I start to see announcements of community seed exchanges.  (See end of post for details.)  There are few things more fun for a gardener to do during winter than to get to explore a new seed stash. Especially when the weather has looked like the photo above  for days and days!

Seed exchanges can range from large scale community free for alls to invitation-only swaps for specialty plant geeks! But there are a few things to keep in mind during seed exchanges—or even when you are shopping seed catalogs—that will greatly increase your chances at success with the seeds you bring home.

You know you can’t save seed from grocery produce, but not everyone understands this.

At a seed exchange, it’s vital to know the person who is sharing the seeds. There are many well-intentioned folks who will save seeds from a particularly good melon or tomato from the store. “But I got it from the co-op…it was organic,” someone once told me. Most produce, even at the crunchiest co-op, are from hybrids unless they are explicitly labeled “heirloom” or similar. This includes much of the produce at farmers’ markets too. Market growers—including totally organic growers—often need the reliability, production and disease resistance that hybrids provide. Even “heirloom” produce from a store is unlikely to produce true to type (i.e. like the parent plant) because if it was grown for produce (vs. seed production) then it’s likely there were open-pollinated varieties nearby and in all likelihood they cross-pollinated! (And thus have created a hybrid, but with unknown attributes…)

Similarly, if you save seed from a great plant you bought as a seedling at most stores, it was likely a hybrid and there’s no point in saving seeds. The exception would be an heirloom (open-pollinated) seedling you bought, then followed plant isolation guidelines to keep the seed pure.

Heirloom and Open-Pollinated seeds may not produce as abundantly or reliably as hybrids.

I’ve seen folks avoid hybrids (usually labeled F1) in the seed catalogs as if they were kryptonite. Right now heirlooms (old-fashioned, open-pollinated varieties from which you can save seed to plant the next year if you follow basic seed-saving rules) are so popular that many folks forget why hybrids were developed in the first place: to accentuate certain aspects of the plant or to overcome weaknesses.

Many of us are returning to heirlooms to capture amazing flavors that, for example, are too delicate to ship. But hybrids are not some scary GMO thing. If you have say, a tomato that is wonderfully tasty but takes many months to bear, a grower might cross it with another tomato that bears early, hoping to combine the two desirable qualities. This is something you can do in your own backyard. We’re not talking crossing that tomato with a…fish, which is the level that GMO manipulation can stoop too.

Hybrids are not bad things, they just don’t produce true to type if you save the seed. So, while that does open them up to economic control such as that hybrid being “owned” by a seed producer (including the truly unsavory types, like Monsanto, who is also hard at work on particularly noxious GMOs) but hybrids are not scary. Sometimes they are very useful for specific purposes. For example, if you are growing a tomato in a northern climate, you may want the earliness some hybrids produce rather than the heirlooms, which tend to require a longer season.

Open-Pollinated Seeds may have cross pollinated and not turn out true to type if they were not isolated for seed production.

It is pretty astounding how much space is required to isolate wind or insect pollinated vegetables, like beets or squash. For beets it’s five miles and for squash it’s a half a mile! So that means, if you are growing one type of squash to save seed, and you are sure there are no other gardens within a half mile that are growing squash, then when you save the seed, they will grow true to type. The other option is an amazing dance between you and the squash that involves taping the flower shut after you’ve hand pollinated it, then monitoring to make sure bees don’t chew through the bloom to undo your work!

So before you use valuable space in your garden to grow out some free seeds you picked up at a seed exchange, find out if the seeds are going to be what you hope by talking to the gardener sharing them! Maybe the seeds were extra from a seed pack they bought. Maybe they carefully save seeds every year using isolation techniques. Maybe those seeds have been in their family for years. Or maybe not. Find out before you spend a season hoping for a cool veggies, only to be disappointed.

How on earth, you may wonder, did our grandparents manage to save seed that grew true year to year? From the older gardeners in my family, they tended to pick one type of bean, or one type of pea, and grow it year after year in the family garden…which used to be a lot farther away from neighboring gardens! But you don’t have to settle for one variety in your isolated valley or holler! Seed saving is an amazing art and skill, one well worth learning. In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you about some seed saving techniques I’ve just recently learned. In the meantime, here are some seed saving links to get you started, here, here and here. [Encore post from 2/2011]

My Seed Stash...

My Seed Stash...

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Dig In Food & Farming Festival

Are you in the Northwest Arkansas region? Please join us for the 2nd annual Dig In! on March 2nd & 3rd. It’s going to be great fun with films, an info-fair, free seed swap, and classes on gardening, backyard chickens and more. Please check out the website at for more info and sign up for email updates there.

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