Saving Seed, Saving Culture

Posted: February 11, 2010

What is in a seed? Some may answer germ or starch; but others, such as Tim Mountz, president of Happy Cat Farm, would answer culture.
The beans that were handed down by Tim Mountz's grandfather.

The beans that were handed down by Tim Mountz's grandfather.

Mountz inherited a mason jar filled with beans of every color from his grandfather. “It was just that last little connection with my grandfather that I had,” Mountz recalls. Mountz’s grandfather had grown the beans, saved them, and now years later his grandson would attempt to grow the same beans his grandfather had sown. Mountz didn’t have experience with gardening like his grandfather had, but he did have determination to not lose his cultural link.

Seeds, such as Mountz’s beans, are called landraces. These used to exist in vast quantities. Landraces are varieties similar to one another, but genetically a little different. (Think of chili. We all know what it is, but the chili I make is a little different than yours.) The variation in genes allows a variety to preserveir against climate change, diseases, and pests. However, many landraces do not produce as much food as a genetically modified or hybrid variety. And, landraces consume time. They cannot be mass produced. However, they are steeped in culture and potential. With each landrace lost, Mountz says, “I’m losing my grandfather…those five beans [from my grandpa], that’s why I exist.”

Saving seed is not that difficult. Mountz advises, “If you’re gonna save seeds, save what you love. That’s why I save over 200 varieties of tomatoes…that’s why I do it – I love tomatoes… They just make me go crazy.” You might be lucky enough to have a seed culture around you already. Mountz advises asking family members, neighbors, and others in your area to see if someone is saving seeds. Or try the Seed Saver’s Exchange or Organic Alliance. You can also order seed through a magazine. Mountz advises ordering through Hudson, J. L., Baker’s Creek, Highmowing, Johnny’s, or Sandhill Preserve. Be sure to pick non-patented and non-hybrid to begin your new landrace. There are specific laws about saving patented seed (© after a seed name means the plant is patented; ‘sm’ ‘tm’ ‘R’ mean the name or marketing of the plant cannot be reused. For example, Zahara® zinnia seed saved cannot be sold as ‘Zahara’.) Hybrid seeds are made from a cross between plants. Seed saved from hybrids is unpredictable; the next generation of plants look nothing like their hybrid parents, and often seed saved from hybrids won’t grow.

You should also consider what kind of space you have for growing, and whether or not you want crops primarily for seed or primarily for use. Crops primarily for seed take more garden space and time than crops for primarily use. This is because some plants, like onions and carrots, take two years to fully mature and produce seed – naturally you can’t eat the crop in the meantime. Additionally, crops for seed must be separated from similar varieties to prevent cross-pollination. Flowers and saving seed, say Mountz, “is all about the sex.” Some plants, like gourds and corn, easily cross-breed and produce hybrids. Hybrid seed is not “true to form,” it will be a cross between the two varieties that mixed. So if you’re planning on saving bell pepper seed, don’t plant your bell peppers near your hot peppers. Based on experience, you’ll get hot bell peppers. Mountz plants his tomatoes in different areas around his property so that they don’t produce hybrids. If you’re short on space, just stick with one variety of a flower or vegetable. “We should be growing corn in every vacant lot of Philadelphia” say Mountz. Urban settings are perfect for isolating crops. Seed saving books such as Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy’s Seed to Seed are good manuals for specific questions

Seed saving is split into two categories: dry and wet crops. Dry crops are plants like corn, beans, and most flowers. These plants have seed heads or seed pods.  Their seeds mature on the plant. Wet crops are fruits: tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. The seeds are part of the fruit. If you’re uncertain if a crop is a wet or dry variety, consult a seed saving book. Whether you plan on saving seed from wet crops or dry crops, or both, pick plants that have qualities you want to retain such as early producing or beautiful. Single these out for collecting your seed.

Dry Process

Dry seeds turn from green to black as they ripen on the plant. Mountz advises waiting as long as you can before harvesting, and not before the seeds are brown. Some plants are hardy annuals, like flowers, “When it comes to annuals, I give ‘em a good kick and say ‘see you next year!’” The seed head shatters and volunteers grow the following year. For crops, Mountz gathers the raw seed heads or pods in linen bags, and over the winter threshes them out. Sometimes this is as fancy as stepping on the seed pods in a bucket to loosen the seed from the pod, or using a rolling pin to pulverize the seed heads but leave the seed. Mountz uses antique riddles, or different gauges of wire, to sift the seed from the chaff. Sometimes he uses a hairdryer to blow the chaff from the seed, “but not in a plastic bucket…the static cling gets awful.”

Wet Process

Allow the fruit or “fleshy part” to fully ripen on the plant. For peppers, this is when the skin has turned the darkest red. For other plants such as pumpkins, this is when the stem dries. Next harvest the fruit and fill a bucket half-full with water. Hold the fruit under the water and squeeze the seeds out. In the case of harder fruits like cucumber, scoop the seeds out with a spoon. Good seeds will sink to the bottom and bad seed will float. Throw away any that float.

Tim Mountz decants a batch of fermenting seeds.

Next comes fermentation: “do this outside, it stinks” advises Mountz, “If you spill fermented tomato juice in the house, your wife will kill you. It’s the most rotten fowl thing, but it’s a beautiful process.” Bacteria and yeast will naturally remove the seed coating from the seeds and kill diseases. After two days of sitting outside in the sun, the water with the seed and pulp in it should have “white fuzzies” on top. This is the bacteria working. Decant the top slime by tipping the bucket and allowing the floating sediment and bad seeds to flow out. Once you reach good seed, the ones on the bottom, stop and add a bit more water to the bucket so that the seeds are fully covered. Allow the bucket to sit for another two days outside in the sun, and decant again. Now it is time to wash the seeds with clean water and to strain them out. Try to get them as clean as you can for storage. Allow the seed to dry on plates or drying racks around the house until they are fully dry. Mountz doesn’t advise setting them on paper towels because the seed will stick to the paper.

Storing and Selling

Once the seeds are dry and clean, store them in glass jars or plastic bags away from sunlight, humidity, and in an area with little temperature change. Mountz places his in plastic bags inside of hanging file folders “with a couple of silica packs – like you get in new shoes” in the bottom for good measure. Storing them in envelopes in a closest works too.

Seed saving can actually be profitable. Mountz sells his tomatoes at farmers’ markets and uses bruised and rotting tomatoes for seeds; “raccoons can bite it [the tomato] and I’m still good. I’m like, okay, just go ahead and bite it, the seeds are still in there…and the seeds are worth more than the fruit.” To sell seeds in Pennsylvania, you must have a germination license. To obtain this license, consult the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website about the Seed Program.  The license costs about $25 per crop variety and is good for one year. Mountz advises people who produce small amounts of seed to work in co-ops to sell, or skip the selling part and just trade seed.

The preserved seeds are good to plant the growing season. You are preserving not just seed, but the cultural stories associated with your variety of seed; just as Mountz is preserving the memory of his grandfather in their shared beans. By increase genetic diversity, your children’s children will still enjoy a wide range of vegetable varieties. Going to seed shows and seeing the new landraces is worth it, Mountz adds, “It’s like touring the Grateful Dead again!” Admittedly, seed saving is a little crazy, “but you know we’re all crazy; We’re just a little wing in a crazy bunch of people.”

By Whitney Prose, Rural Sociology Masters Candidate

Information in this article is from Tim Mountz’s presentation “Small Scale Seed Production: From Plant to Seed to Profit” given at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference. For more information, visit Happy Cat Farm.