There are few things southerners take more pride in our variety of produce. From heirloom tomatoes and juicy peaches to sweet Vidalia onions and sturdy collard greens, farmers’ markets and backyard gardens overflow with a delicious abundance. Over the last few generations, farming and gardening have become increasingly commercialized.
Large seed and plant companies have gobbled up smaller businesses, and with that, the region’s diversity of fruits, vegetables, and even flowers have become threatened. Planting time-honored heirloom varieties and saving seeds can help preserve our favorite flavors for years to come.
It’s this notion that inspired a revival of seed saving, the craft of harvesting and properly storing seeds from one variety of a crop for future planting. “Seed saving is broader than just growing your own vegetable or crop to an edible state or a beautiful plant to flower; it’s going through the process back completely to seed,” says Ira Wallace, the education and variety selection coordinator at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
“For some plants, that happens in one year, for biennials the second year, and for perennials the second year and thereafter. What’s fallen away from public knowledge is how to do this.”
In centuries past, when many families (especially in the rural South) depended on their garden for food, seed saving was quite common. But by the 1970s, when Ira began to get involved with the practice, the number of people participating in seed saving had dropped significantly—and even fewer people are familiar with the process now.
“But it’s still important today, because what all of this traditional seed saving did was maintain genetic diversity in our crops,” she says. “There are certain things that we select for flavor, or ripening time, and so forth. But there are other varieties that are inadvertently selected for a certain location that is producing well in that climactic area or under certain conditions.”
Without this genetic diversity, the flavor spectrum for Southern crops would slowly begin to wane. It’s a situation that is already easy to observe on a trip to any grocery store’s produce department. Rather than choosing from dozens of types of tomatoes or collard greens, only four or five of each are commercially available.
But through gardening and seed saving—and sourcing heirloom or regionally specific seeds from local seed banks—home gardeners can preserve those varied flavors for their table, help support the dwindling bee population by giving them plants to pollinate, and ultimately save money on future additions to their garden plot with seeds produced from their original plants (the parent plants).
It’s not necessary to be a full-time farmer, or even a gardening pro, to participate in saving seeds. All it takes is a little research and a watchful eye. “When is a green bean ripe enough that you can pick it so that it will have viable seeds that you can grow the next year?” Ira gives as an example.
“How do you store it so that you have high germination (regrowth of a plant from a seed) over several years? Seed saving is an art and a craft. There are things that you can learn scientifically, but there are other things that come with time and experience. You begin to learn that when the pod has started to turn yellow and is flaccid and not crisp anymore, you can probably dry down the seeds and you’ll have a reasonable germination.”
In addition to appearance and maturity, outside conditions are a key factor when caring for crops and harvesting at the right time for seed saving. “It’s a combination of both temperature and humidity that you begin to get a feel for,” Ira explains. “Take okra for example. In a dry year, you can leave it out there for a long time, and it’ll be fine.
But in a quite moist year, you might get really low ’ germination if you leave it out past the time it becomes ripe, or it could get a fungal infection.” When some vegetables are nearing maturity, they can also become susceptible to mold after rain, whereas younger plants have more protection. And for different varieties of plants, this time when seeds become viable varies. “Tomatoes have mature seeds when they’re fully ripe for eating,” Ira says. “On the other hand, beans are mature when they reach the dry bean stage.”
For home gardeners, the seed saving process starts with knowing which varieties of plants you are working with, what kind of soil and sunlight those plants need, and how they should be planted to prevent cross-pollination.
To save seeds, you need to ensure your seeds are pure (not cross-pollinated with another variety), so some plants need to be isolated, or planted a certain distance from others to prevent bees and other pollinators from carrying pollen from another plant. From there, learning the details of when to harvest is key.
But most importantly for new seed savers—start simple. Plant self-pollinating vegetables like tomatoes, peas, or beans that cut out the fear of cross-pollination almost entirely, and then branch into varieties that rely on insects or wind to pollinate, like squash or cucumbers. And, according to Ira, remember that any step toward seed saving is a positive one.
“We want people to experience it and to think, ‘Oh! This could be important, and I could be a small part of maintaining that seed saving hope,’” she says. “That’s why we do our workshops and agricultural events, and it’s why I write my articles (for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange)— because for someone to want to seed save, they need to know what’s special about this variety. So getting people to try growing and eating a variety of different vegetables, herbs, and flowers is one way to help them go into the future. Because if one person didn’t find a variety remarkable in the past, well, they wouldn’t be here for us.”