|An unopened male squash flower, sacrificed for study|
I looked at many different models of seed libraries before I undertook the first meeting to form the organization that has become SLOLA. They seemed to coalesce into two camps: something that bordered on anarchy and some thing that resembled Big Government. I didn't resonate with either.
In one camp, seeds are returned, but other than mostly self-education, there was not really much control on the genetic purity of the returned seed. For tomatoes, lettuce and some of the bean family, their seed would remain 'true to type,' others like squash could be quickly derailed into the unknown with second generation seed coming up as 'zuccicorns' or 'azinis.' In the other model, professional growers kept the library supplied with seed grown out in controlled standards but library members were no more involved in active preservation than they could be with Seed Savers Exchange purchases.
There are advantages to both, but I wanted a library that was really 'of the people, by the people and for the people.' Genetic purity was (and is) important to me as it has been for the SLOLA Best Practices Committee . This group of dedicated volunteers who have studied vegetable purity and how to keep it pure, has spent many hours wrestling with this issue and still find it fraught with uncertainty.
If people are to bring back seeds, how do we, as a seed library, ensure it is genetically what we say it is?
First off, what is this 'genetic purity?' When you buy a packet of Trail of Tears bean seed, the beans you get are descendants of those beans carried by Cherokee Native Americans as they were forcibly moved from their homeland to 'reservations' decreed by the United States government in one of our more ugly actions. You are getting seeds that are remarkably similar to the very seeds carried by those being relocated. If you purchase Acorn Squash, the company that packaged that seed would be shocked if you did not harvest acorn squash from that packet. I wanted a seed library where participants borrowed seed and brought back seed that was genetically like the seed they had taken. I did not want to loose the stories and heritage of our seed varieties.
SLOLA members are asked to self identify their level of competence at seed saving. Those with limited seed saving skills are asked to return only the easy seeds and eschew the more complicated ones. Failure to bring back seed you have borrowed from the library nets you a $1 fine although we can mitigate that charge in other ways.
First off, we are going to assume that beans, peas, tomatoes and lettuce are true to what we think they are; these flowers, containing both male and female flower parts actually pollinate themselves prior to opening. The probability that they are is so high we are willing to assume purity even though a desperate bee might have opened a flower or two and accidentally pollinated with something from another tomato. This would be more likely if nothing else was flowering nearby forcing bees into desperate acts of violence upon flowers. When these plants are flowering in Los Angeles (and anywhere else I can think of) there are plenty of other flowers blooming so this scenario becomes less likely. We have few desperate bees now and for the foreseeable future (at least not desperate for forage).
Everything else provides some challenges, but they parse out into different levels. Before we start, lets more or less trash the guidelines that everyone has been using here-to-fore: those guidelines were written using agricultural station test plots which look nothing like our urban gardens. We have many more and more active insects because we are gardening without chemical insecticides and fertilizers and we are keeping flowers in bloom in and around our gardens. Secondly, we are not planting in wide open fields without wind breaks and channeling of the wind. We need to do our own research, but until that day I am willing to allow for the following assumptions in how we arrive at a safe and sane way to keep our seed varieties pure.
Next in difficulty are species that CAN cross but can be easily controlled. Beets will cross with chard and other beets (of course, that means chard seed can be contaminated with beet genes too) and they are wind pollinated. These two different vegetables are actually the same species. However, it is rare in any one's garden that beets are left to go to seed, so all one has to look out for is chard that is flowering. All a seed saver needs to do, is to make certain there are not flowers on other plants nearby. If you can't see a flowering chard (or beet) along line of site, you have a good chance of not getting unwanted pollen.
Corn is also wind-pollinated, but corn pollen is especially light and has a viable possible distance of 20 miles! Ouch. Corn also challenges a home gardener because of the space needed to plant enough plants to achieve a minimum population. I don't want to get into deeper here, but let it be said, we need about 200 corn plants to keep the genetics of our seed viable, it's just built into corn to need large populations. This is one of our unresolved seed saving dilemmas. How do we save corn seed and certify purity? I don't know yet, except to ask our seed be grown out for us by a grower. I could see SLOLA buying the seed and the grower planting it out – selling a portion of the crop for his or her efforts and returning a supply of seed to the library for loaning out.
Squash, peppers, eggplants and cucumbers are insect, primarily bee, pollinated and can pose specific problems to saving seeds that is going to grow true.
'Isolation' is given as the answer, however, that isolation is almost always considered as isolating the plants in space; like, so many feet or miles between plants of one variety from another variety. Like, keeping White Lebanese Zucchini one mile away from Yellow Crookneck summer squash. These are both the same species, Cuburbita pepo, which is why you see our seed library always referring to these funny Latinized names, same Latin name means they will cross. Acorn, spaghetti, and other summer squashes are C. pepo and all will cross. The distance of 'one mile' is, of course, absolutely absurd in an urban setting – although if you have a garden space over one mile, I want to talk to you!
Isolate your seed purity by time. Have your White Lebanese flowering earlier than the Yellow Crookneck squash – or later. It doesn't have to be a great deal of time, in fact the flowers of White Lebanese could be just a few weeks ahead of Yellow Crookneck and you save only seeds from the first few fruit. You can also hand pollinate, but that's a whole other chapter. Squashes and cucumbers are difficult. Right now, I am saving seeds of a South African squash that is it's own species and the Armenian cucumber that is also it's own species and neither will cross with anything else so I can save seeds of these. I also have one squash that is a C. moschata; it is a lot easier to control for this group because no one else in my garden grows from this group. In this way I feel I have controlled enough for crossing. If you are in a community garden where plants of the same species are just feet apart, you cannot successfully save seeds from your plants without hand pollinating.
Eggplants and peppers are fairly easy to save seeds. A simple cage surrounding them will prevent bees from pollinating the plants. This leaves you to hand pollinate, or if you have control over what is planted nearby, you can save seeds from several varieties of pepper. Let's say you, like me, want to save seeds from a hot and a sweet pepper. They will cross. In my plan, I can have up to four plants of each – I have four cages. As flowers begin to form on the peppers, I place cages around all four plants of one variety. The next week, I move the cages to be over the other variety and I alternate exposed varieties over the flowering period that way. Pollen survives only for a short time and if you make the switch, late in the day, the bees have all gone back to the hive – in the morning, they will start fresh. Week one, cover the Jalapeños. Week two, move the cages to the Anaheim peppers. Week three, back to the Jalapeños, week four, back to the Anaheims.... Same procedure for eggplants.
Any structure that will cover your plants will do – I use some wooden ones a friend built for me, can cover them with 'spun fabric' called a 'floating row cover' stapled to my frames. They allow sun and water in, but obstruct the pollinators while they cover the plant, allowing pollination to occur in the weeks they are not covered.
SLOLA members are taught these procedures in regular monthly meetings and we are in the process of putting videos up on our site, slola.org. It is a massive undertaking and there will be errors and there will be genetic foul ups. However, we need to learn to do this now. There will come a time when we will need to know how to do this, so now is the time to learn!
I am aware I have not covered all seeds. If you have specific questions, write to me (use the comments section below) or refer to Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners or Carol Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving, both available from any online store or from your local book monger.
I hope you will come learn with us at our next meeting (that will be this August 18th at 2:30 PM as this is written). There is much to do and there is little time. Please join us and become a master seed saver and preserve this legacy of diversity we now have.