For the gardener, seeds are everything. They are the beginning and the end. Seeds hold infinite possibilities and endless hope. They are simultaneously fresh and ancient. Seeds are stored energy waiting for release. A solitary bean seed can produce a hundred more. All you need is sunlight, soil, and water to bring about this potential. So why do we treat them like other commodities where price is king and who produces them doesn’t matter?
Much like everything else in the world, people appreciate the things they create and depreciate the items that magically appear at the store. This gardening off-season, you might pass the rack of commercially packaged seeds at the local big-box store and pick out a few packets of your favorite vegetables. Do you know where they came from? It might not seem like that is important but seeds are different from light bulbs or T-shirts. They are living breathing things held in stasis. Where and how they were grown will determine how they will flourish in your backyard.
Back in the day, people saved their seeds year after year, observing their plants and keeping the best specimens. These cream-of-the-crop seeds were traded with other nearby growers to keep the genetics robust. People also passed down these special family varieties to their children and grandchildren. These “heirloom” seeds usually have a story behind them which makes them not only something to grow but a history lesson too. “So what’s your point to all this?” you might be asking yourself. I’m getting to it already.
Even as a novice, you can save seeds. Like many things in life, you should begin small with maybe only a single variety to start. It wasn’t too many seasons ago that I started my seed saving journey. My recommendation is to save bean seeds, especially dry bush varieties. Dry beans are eaten in soup or chili. Bush beans grow only to a height of a foot or so while pole beans grow constantly throughout the season. I obtained my first dry bush bean at the indoor Haymaker’s Farmers Market. On Breakneck Acres’ table sat several one-pound bags of Jacobs Cattle beans. Looking upon the bright mottled burgundy and white beans, an inspirational flash hit me. Instead of eating them, I could plant them! I knew their parents had grown up locally, as Breakneck Acres was only a mile or two away from my house. Their clay soil was my clay soil. Their winters were my winters. Their rain was my rain. And now, their beans are my beans.
Here are my reasons I advise dry bush beans as your first saved seed:
So, you are probably thinking, “Where can I obtain these heirloom seeds you speak of?” I’m glad you asked. Kent just happens to have its very own seed library, The Kent Free Library. With the help of the Portage County Master Gardeners and Kent Ohio Food Not Lawns (my little old chapter), it opened in the spring of 2016. The idea is to have a central place to store our community’s seeds. These are seeds donated by either local gardeners or organizations like the Cleveland Seed Bank and the Seed Savers Exchange. Next, volunteers (like yours snarky) split them out into small packets (usually coin envelopes). A repurposed card catalog at the library is then filled with the labeled packets and organized by type (tomato, bean, lettuce, etc.) so people can check them out like a book. The hope is some of those checked out seeds are planted, saved, and returned to the library so the cycle can continue. I’ve personally donated the aforementioned Jacob’s Cattle beans, plus turnip, mustard, tomato, and pepper seeds.
Of course, instead of using the Kent Free Library’s Seed Library, you can also purchase seeds. Believe it or not, there are regional seed companies to take advantage of the local angle I mentioned earlier. One such grower is Fruition Seeds of Naples, New York, which just under 300 miles from Kent. Even if you can’t find local seeds, you can make them yours by saving seeds at the end of the season. Many of the seeds I purchase come from seed companies, including Johnny’s Selected Seed (of Maine) and Burpee’s. Obviously, these seeds are not Ohio-based, but after the first season, they magically are.
You might have noticed I didn’t discuss saving other types of seeds. This is because when starting out gardening, it’s best to take it slow. Tomato and pepper seed are easy to save, but to raise them properly, they must be started indoors under grow lights indoors during February and March. The expense of all the necessary equipment, though not extreme, is still money best spent elsewhere until you are ready to make the commitment of time and resources. Starting plants is like raising infants. They need constant care (especially daily watering and artificial light). There are many sad seed starting stories out there my friends. For the beginner, I recommend purchasing your starts from a local greenhouse (my favorite is the Garden Spot on Route 14 in Ravenna).
So, have I convinced you to save your own seeds? I hope so, as our seed library can only get better with your support (thus my reason for writing this article). Remember, I didn’t save seeds until several years into my gardening career, and since then I’ve been selective. In order, my favorites to save are beans, turnips (though you must leave turnip roots in the ground over the winter), garlic (which is really just planting cloves), tomatoes, peppers, mustard, lettuce, and peas. Also, if you are more experienced and are already saving seeds, the Seed Library would love your saved seed donations. The more the merrier.