Monday, December 28, 2015

Criteria for Saving The BEST Seed

Make that saving the 'best' seed.

It came to my attention recently that we have had a lot of talk about how to save seeds and how to store them and all sorts of hard data like that, but we have totally ignored any criteria for saving seeds, like which seeds from which plant versus a different plant. How do you decide which is the best plant to save seed from?

Luther Burbank's safe in his green house.
He was serious about saving his seeds!
This has been made all the more nerve-wracking when combined with a multitude of exhortations that all seed savers are plant breeders based on their selection of which seed to save. This needs to be demystified.

Yes, all seed savers are seed 'breeders.'  It is true that by saving any given seed over this other seed, you are choosing the pattern of the plants of the future  But this is not a one-shot deal, if you select for a specific trait – the criteria that is the basis for selection in one year will not make a difference in the big picture.

Selecting for one trait must occur over many generations in order to breed for that trait. Plants grown in Southern California and selected year after year for the biggest producer will become, after years of selecting, will become the variety of "bigger producers in Southern California."  But this is not a single year phenomenon.  It takes many generations to achieve this.  If you're not a patient sort, I might suggest a different hobby or vocation.

If you are just trying to keep a stable variety and not select for this or that, you need to save seed from a population of plants that will express many different genetic variations to gather as much of the natural diversity of the variety.  Population sizes (of different individual plants) differ according to species.  If you are saving seeds for the seed library, you don't have to be rigorous because we will combine your seeds with others of the same variety increasing the population size.  

For example, in broccoli, a minimum of thirty plants is supposed to be the absolute lowest number of plants to choose your seeds from.  But if you save seeds from 9 plants and someone else saves seeds from 8 plants and someone else saves seed from 13, you have the 30 plant minimum.  (Ideally we will go beyond the minimum population size.)  

This is one reason we think we'll always be buying in corn seed.  The minimum population for maintaining corn vigor is 200 plants.  If you have to grow 200 plants to save seed, how many must you grow to have something to eat????  In our urban gardens, that doesn't make sense. Unless SLOLA finds a field where we can plant corn and harvest from 200 plants (that's just for ONE variety - what if we want a popcorn, a yellow corn, a white corn and a grinding corn?  That would be 800 plants at the MINIMUM! Frowny face.)  

Most plants are somewhere in the middle as far as population size goes.  Don't worry about most of them too much - corn is the extreme example of a plant that absolutely goes bonkers if the population sizes are too low.  

Saving seeds from the self-pollinating plants (beans, tomatoes, lettuce, peas) is always very easy. You know, because they pollinated themselves, who 'mommy' and 'daddy' both are. In plants that are not self-pollinated you do not have the assurance who 'daddy' is. The squash you eat will come with Mom's genetics, but the seed in that squash will be a cross between the mother and the father plants.

That's why non-selfing plants are a bit harder, taking a bit more patience and some more observation.  However, it is not difficult or arduous.  The key is patience and observation and you can breed all kinds of plants - SLOLA, by the way, hopes to have a lot of one day workshops to show how to save seeds from diverse gardens - one plant, or one pollination method at a time - easy bite sized pieces.

Carrots, beets, chard, radishes and turnips are easy to save seeds from because they go to seed in their second year (now there's a drawback for you!).  They are biennials (take two years).  It's uncommonly rare that a plant stays alive to the second year in a cared-for garden; they form their roots in the first year and that's what we eat so a second year carrot or beet is a rare thing indeed. With carrots, the only drawback one must be concerned with is flowering Queen Anne's Lace which is also called 'wild carrot.' But without one of those around, you can save your carrot seed with abandon.

Which plants would you choose for seed or would you just try to save a bunch?

On a tour of Luther Burbank's garden, we were shown varieties of wheat.  He had one named Prolific and another named Delicious.  One produced a lot of wheat - and if that was your goal, you had your wheat - but if you were looking for quality over quantity, you took Delicious.  So you CAN select for more than one trait, just not in the same field!

What is the BEST seed?  You decide. There are some guidelines and you'll get them from a SLOLA member or a book; with some plants the first seeds are the most vigorous, in others not so much.  Do you want it to be an early or a late?  Of big beefy and juicy?  Or a  small and succulent edible part that holds for a long time?  

I'll repeat, when saving a variety save some seed from a bunch of different specimens that show the range of variation in the plants.  And for most of us, this is the point of our saving seeds - to keep a variety that we know and love and to preserve it for future generations.

The most important thing is to learn to save seeds.  If you save some seeds, no matter how you selected them, you have taken a gigantic step towards freedom for you, your family and your friends on what they eat and how it's grown.

There is nothing more important than that.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Varieties of Vegetable Seeds I Believe We* Should Save

*"We" means the Seed Library of Los Angeles 
Every year we revisit this list.  This is the list first promulgated in the waning hours of 2010, just after the very first SLOLA meeting on December 4th, 2010.  This is the list I first came up with as the minimum varieties of seeds we should always have in our inventory.  I invite anyone to add their selections they feel have to be saved.  I have changed this list, adding and subtracting.  

This list is never complete, nor is it ever done.  The attempt is to come up with those varieties that must be saved.  What varieties do you feel that I am missing?  I'd be happy to add some more.

I personally have dedicated myself to curate many of these varieties as far as I am able, those, I have marked in a different color.

Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus)

Green Globe
Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)

Aquadulce (Fava – Vicia faba)
Broad Windsor (Fava - Vicia faba)
Cannelini Bush Bean (Dry/Bush)
Christmas (Lima/Climbing - Phaseolus lunatus)
Envy (Soybean – Glycene max)
Golden Wax Bean (Wax/Bush)
Henderson (Lima/Bush)
Hutterite Soup
Pencil Pod (Wax/Bush)
Pineschi Family Bean (Vigna unguiculata)
Royal Burgundy Bean (Purple/Early)
Scarlet Runner (Phaseolus coccineus)
Beets (Beta vulgaris)

Bull's Blood
Crosby's Egyptian
Burpee's Golden
Detroit Dark Red
Yellow Cylindrical
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

Brussels Sprouts (Brassica oleracea)

Long Island Improved
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)

Copenhagen Market Cabbage
Early Jersey Wakefield
Glory of Einkhuizan
Mammoth Red Rock
Perfection Drumhead Savoy
Premium Late Flat Dutch
Carrot (Daucus carota)

Scarlet Nantes Carrot
Chantenay Red Core
Danvers Half Long
White Belgian
Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea)

Early Snowball
Chard (Beta vulgaris)

Five Color Silverbeet Chard (AKA Rainbow Chard)
Fordhook Giant
Celery and Celeriac (Apium graevolens)

Giant Prague (Celeriac)
Utah Tall (Celery)
Collard Greens (Brassica oleracea)

Corn (Zea mays)

Black Aztec
Country Gentleman Corn
Golden Bantam Corn
Oaxacan Green Dent
Stowells Evergreen

Corn (Popcorn) (Zea mays)



Armenian (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus)

(Cucumis sativus)

Eggplant (Solanum melongena)

Garbanzos (Cicer arietinum)

Grains (except corn and wheat)

Quinoa, Shelly 25 Black
Sesame, Light Seeded

Kale (Brassica oleracea)

Curled Scotch

Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var porrum)

Blue Solaise
King Richard
Lentils (Lens culinaris)

Black Beluga
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

Back Seeded Simpson
Brune d'Hiver
Drunken Woman Frizzy Head
Merveille des Quatre Saison
Parris Island Cos
Red Romaine
Rouge d'Hiver
Rouge Grenobloise
Tom Thumb
Webbs Wonderful
Yugoslavian Red
Melons (Cucumis melo)

Green Nutmeg
Hale's Best
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)

Clemson Spineless
Don't Knowcra
Star of David

Granex (Allium cepa)
I'itoi's (plants not seed, perennial, Allium cepa var. aggregatum)
Red of Florence (Allium cepa)
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

Harris Model

Peas (Pisum sativa)

Little Marvel
Tall Telephone
Oregon Sugar Pod
Sugar Snap
Pepper (Capsican annuum)

Corno di Toro
Italian Pepperoncini
Jalapeno Early
Jimmy Nardello Italian
Red Marconi
Squash – Summer (Cucurbita pepo)

Lebanese White Bush Marrow
Zucchini – Lungo Bianco
Squash - Winter

Black Futsu (Cucurbita moschata)
Delicata ( Cucurbita pepo)
Marina di Chioggia ( Cucurbita moschata)
Queensland Blue Squash (Cucurbita maxima)
Sweet Meat (Cucurbita moschata)
Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Amish Paste
Annie's Apricot
Big Rainbow
Black Cherry
Black From Tula
Black Icicle
Burbank's Slicer
Cherokee Purple
Cream Sausage
Juane Flammé
Orange Banana
Roman Candle
San Marzano
Striped Roman
Wapsipinicon Peach
Turnip (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa)

Purple Top White Globe
Wheat (Triticum spp)

Perennial Wheat
Sonoran White


Saturday, July 25, 2015

GMOs Won't Work In the Long Term

The problem we’re facing, however, is not about lack of sustainable solutions. The problem is that Big 6 pesticide companies like Monsanto — supported by USDA and backed by the U.S. government's export-driven trade agenda — have built up an agricultural economic system that puts multinational corporations' profits above people's well-being, and locks farmers into these unsustainable practices. – Marcia Ishii-Eiteman Apr 16, 2015  in GroundTruth (

It's tough these days to be against genetic engineering of our food. Articles in Slate and The New Yorker make us look like looney fringe nut cases and the House of Representatives voted by a large margin to ban labeling of food that have genetically altered ingredients in them. It's bleak. Science, they tell us, is against us and we are just paranoids.

However, I don't know if you've noticed, but a lot of this bad press seems to have rolled off the same printer – there is a remarkable consistency through all of this that seems to look like one source fed these writers – that their research was something akin to calling up Monsanto and saying, “Do your GMO crops produce more?” And publishing Monsanto's answer with Monsanto's test results and calling that science.

Just like calling up the tobacco companies and asking if their products caused cancer and getting their 'no' answer and quoting their studies that prove that their cigarettes did indeed not cause cancer. In other words, a lot of what we are reading about the success of GMO crops is paid for by the biotechies pushing the stuff. And when you get a study that proves them wrong, they go after that researcher, not by refuting the research, but by slandering the researcher and attempting to ruin his or her career. It takes more guts than most people have to see their careers ruined and their name dragged through the mud, ergo, not much research disparaging genetic alteration gets very far along.

Thank God, in recent months, glyphosate has come under scrutiny. That is a shining chance to thwart at least that segment of genetic engineering. Not only is it a carcinogen, as declared by the World Health Organization, but touted as appearing in such benign places as mothers' breast milk as reported by Moms Across America, who noted that their sample of women were aware of GMOs and had worked for some time to avoid GmOs. Of course, the herbicide has been used to dry out grains like wheat (which s not commercially genetically altered) after harvesting, so simply avoiding GMOs will not stop glyphosate in your diet. In addition, testing showed considerably more glyphosate in the mothers' urine samples – way over what was found in the urine of European mothers in a study conducted in 2013. Now several counter studies to the breast milk study have responded indicating that the MAA study was wrong, but of course, Monsanto can buy (and has bought) favorable test results in the past, so who to believe? When there is any question about research, I like to trust those who aren't benefiting financially from the results, but who is that? Please note the MAA study is only preliminary but the World Health Organization's findings have got to be accorded some significant weight.

Those of us familiar with the lying nature of Monsanto are not surprised that the biotech giant has lied (and continues to lie) about glyphosate, the main ingredient in their popular Round Up weed killer. Remember they told us it was not only benign once in the soil, but also that it did not persist in nature; both claims are obviously incorrect. Did they somehow just overlook these facts or did they consciously lie about them? Take your pick, with Monsanto's track record on DDT, PCBs and their lies about those and other products, I'll believe the latter. If corporations are people, Monsanto should be placed on a lie detector.

But honestly, we do not need to argue these facts with all the biotech apologists and paid off cronies. We have a bigger truth that they cannot assail.

GMOs will lead to inevitable starvation in those countries that use them as the primary source of their food..

That is the simple honest truth.

It is provable that we have far fewer varieties of plants on our store shelves today thanks to the GMO boom and it will only get worse. It is this loss of genetic diversity that will be the death of us. Instead of having a robust variety of different kinds of the same produce, there are only a few genetically altered varieties to work with. Our acres and acres of corn are all planted with very similar genetic varieties. This means a pathogen that can attack one field, can attack many fields and suddenly you have a destroyed corn (or soy or whatever) crop. Prices go up – poorer folks suffer disproportionately, hunger in America.

To the labs creating these 'new' varieties in their labs, this is seen as a boon. After all, they can find the flaw in the pathogen and GMO a new variety that resists it and have more products to sell. But in truth, that becomes a new marketing gimmick – a new variety every year making investors and the company richer.

Conventional breeding would breed a different way. First off, we'd have many varieties in the field and some would be resistant and would find more people planting it next year. Conventional breeders would attack the problem in a different way. Genetic alterations of a crop operate in a specific way called “vertical” breeding – one trait is changed for the crop to survive. The one gene variation is easy for a given pathogen to circumvent. Conventional breeding happens “horizontally” and is much harder to thwart by a given pathogen. These are generalizations and there are exceptions, but generalizations tend to become generalizations because they are more often than not (and by a margin) true.

This was the genesis of the Irish Potato Famine. The blight attacked the two kinds, genetically similar, of potatoes grown in Ireland and these potatoes were the only food that most of the Irish peasants depended upon. (Before some one calls to me task for oversimplifying it, I know the “God sent the blight but English brought the famine” but this is an article on crop diversity, so please forgive me, we can deal with the famine another time). The same thing could happen here in a heartbeat. We are one of the most food insecure societies on earth because of our current dependence on genetic engineering. This will only get worse if Congress continues to take the biotech money and biotech lies and allow our health, our environment's health and our food diversity to continue to deteriorate at the alarming rate it is currently.  

Mind you, this is only one of many reasons we need to move away from the genetic engineering option to the traditional way of breeding new plants and also move away from the massive amounts of pesticides we use to grow our food.  

It has felt lonely these last few days, fighting the genetic alterations of our food. But the end game of this is too big to loose!  If we do not save our varieties of seeds and continue the tradition of saving our seeds from the big bullies, we will find our food supply locked up by the corporations and then what do we have?  We all wish to eat.  

Let it be healthy food, not patented and laced with poison or contaminated with genetic engineering. 


Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Sad Day

Only minutes ago we learned that the US House of  Representatives voted to pass the ironically (or cynically) titled Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.  This measure has been called by people who really support accurate food labels called the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.   (The actually vote tally can be found at this site, which also tells which representatives voted for it and which did not.)

The discrepancies lie in whether or not you believe that people have a right to know what is in their food.  This act repeals all local laws on labeling in favor of a non-existent Federal law that will never be implemented by at least 275 representatives are bought and paid for by the bio-tech industry.  There is no other reason to deny Americans the rights enjoyed in most of the first world as regards the ingredients in our food. This is an outrage against the American process and a travesty against the American people.  In the past, pre-internet, perhaps such a vote could be swept under the rug, but hopefully today, we have enough people who understand the severity of the problem to push back - to make this vote too expensive to justify.

This was pretty discouraging news.  It was a blow to so many people who believe that genetically engineered food has already come too far, too fast, with too little oversight and find this race to stuff it down our throats without telling us about it is misguided and plain stupid.

"Well it's safe," we are told.  The only source for such assurance of safety are from the manufacturers who have a financial (big financial) stake in this stuff making back some of the millions of dollars they have invested in it.  The biggest player in this market is Monsanto.  You are aware, of course, that Monsanto made PCBs and lied about their safety.  You are aware, as well, that Monsanto created DDT and lied about it's safety.  They were complicit in Agent Orange - and you'll recall their were heinous side effects in that. So this is the company that is saying it's safe.  The US governmental agencies, when they say it's safe and only taking Monsanto (and the rest of them) at their word.  There is no independent US governmental testing here.  I'd like to point out, that even after poisoning the world with DDT and PCBs, Monsanto continued to do business and continued to make money and was not fined or aggressively prosecuted in any of those events. So "it's safe" to Monsanto doesn't mean a thing to us.  ALL those tests we hear about on genetically modified plants were done by scientists, directly or indirectly, on payrolls supplied by the biotech industry.  

And, if you'll allow a digression, in not one of the campaigns for labeling did you hear the anti-labeling forces say any good things about genetically engineered foods.  Their campaigns against labeling were frauds based on some study that said the labeling laws would raise the cost of food by $250 a year - then after the election we find out what we suspected was true - it was a phony think tank, a phony study and they paid the electoral fine for being a liar and walked away with a victory.  In campaigns through out the west, we say state's laws on campaign finance blatantly disregarded and flaunted without a flinch and the fines paid without a whimper as they walked away with another victory.  

You can easily see why one would think Congress was simply bought. Anyone who has taken an objective look at the process of genetically altered food and how it is grown does not think it's a solution to any real problem in the world - in fact, it actively contributes to the problems in the world.  Genetically altered plants, provably, use more water, more pesticides, more fertilizers (both of the latter are dependent on oil), create more groundwater pollution and are horrifically anti-environment (Iowa and other centers of farming will soon be rendered worthless for growing crops because of the abuse of industrial farming and adding in genetically engineered plants is simply "industrial farming on steroids").  

The problem is the whole world cannot be bought.  Our markets abroad will continue to shrink as America imports organic corn from abroad to sustain those of us who will not eat genetically altered food at all and other countries continue to oppose any genetically engineered product for their people.  

More Americans will read labels more closely and labels that simply say "corn, soy or sugar from beets" will not be purchased even if they don't have GMOs because those are the three crops that are mostly on the shelves of our super markets.  We already as a matter of habit avoid all food grown in Hawaii because of that states poor health record on GMOs and pesticide spraying.  

We believe that the only way to be food secure in any region is to be seed secure.  We believe that seeds should never be patented and "owned" by any one - certainly not by a rapacious corporation.  We believe that non-hybrid seeds should be saved by average citizens and these same citizens should be able to protect their seed from infection of genetically altered pollen.  We believe it is immoral to own life - and seeds are alive.  We believe we have to save the seeds that feed us and carry on the tradition of our ancestors in being keepers of the seed and allowing this diversity to persist and be passed on to our children.  

We move on now to fight the DARK act in the Senate.  There is little hope that, despite campaign pledges to the contrary, President Obama will veto this heinous crime of a bill against the American people.  Please contact your senators at once and ask them to please vote no on HR 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.  

Do it for yourself. Do it for your children.  Do it for the environment.  Do it for all of us.  


Monday, June 15, 2015

Shattering: Food Politics and The Loss of Genetic Diversity

I finished reading Shattering:  Food Politics and The Loss of Genetic Diversity early this morning.  It's not a long book, but it took longer to read than most 222 page books, NOT because it was difficult to read or not interesting.  On the contrary, it was extremely interesting...

It was a challenge to read and that wasn't the fault of the authors, but probably because the authors packed a lot of wallop into those 222 pages.  I found myself assured, frightened, enlightened, confused and despondent - and that was typically in the span of two or three pages at a time.  I was so relieved at the hopeful words at the end because I wasn't sure how we were going to end up. I found myself pausing to consider what I had read and the ramifications.  

The word 'shattering' in the title refers to what a head of grain - like wheat or barley, for example - does, scattering seeds to the ground - a useful process for a wild plant.  Human hunter/gatherers came along and harvested the seed heads that did NOT shatter as easily and when domestication of the plants began somewhat later, these were the seeds planted and thus the beginning of the agricultural revolution.

There is much to digest in this book on the seeds of our food plants, but the most clear message of all is we need local control over our seeds and we need back up our diversity to seed banks to help maintain that diversity of food crops and other species that benefit humans as well. There are agencies galore charged with different aspects of the problem but the bottom line becomes much more personal. I have seen Fowler speak twice and each time he urged folks to write their Congresspersons asking for more funding for the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, a US Government project nestled in the mountains near Fort Collins, CO. This book underscores why we need that center and why we need to appropriately fund it.

The diversity of our food plants has been plummeting.  From a plethora of varieties in the early 1900's, we are down to minuscule percentages that leave one aghast that we have squandered so much through simple neglect and corporate willfulness. The losses are a long way from a complete triage so far, especially from third world countries - who are of course, the most vulnerable.  

The story unfolds brilliantly, often with the tension of a novel.  Published in June 1990, I would like to see some updating and see how author Cary thinks we are progressing - some things for the good and for the bad have unfolded.  The most significant is, perhaps, that citizens in the Northern countries are seeing the reason for the alarm Fowler and Mooney raised over 25 years ago.  

In reading Shattering, a helpful ploy I wish I had would be a card handy with which to record which agency is referred to by which set of initials.  Maybe it's my own bad memory, but such a cheat sheet would have been useful especially when they come fast and furious in some sections of the book.  

This book is vital to understand where we are and how we got here and gives strategies for how to move forward - some of which enlightened individuals have begun. 

I am glad I read it and I believe you will be too.