In which we talk seed saving and the abolition of intellectual property
You can find our plants every Thursday and Sunday at the Crescent City Farmers Market, on the Greenway and in City Park, respectively, as well as at the nursery itself every Saturday from 9am-3pm, at 2817 N Roman
October, baby! We’ve had a few cool evenings, worn long pants once or twice, and the cool season crops are comin on strong. Now, I said that I’d do more technical, how-to type info for this newsletter, and I really did try. I think there’s some real good stuff in here, but it got away from me a little bit and ended up a bit long. There’s a lot more that I wanted to say, too, so we may do another followup and I intend also to put all my various disparate notes on the topic together in a Seed Saving Zine.
So! I won’t take up any more of your time with descriptions of what’s blooming and what’s dying or what cool bugs I’ve found or whatever. Without any further adieu, our absolutely to-the-point intro to Seed Saving and why you oughta do it:
The Saving of Seed
Throughout many thousands of years of human history, human societies have variously invented, adopted or declined to engage in agriculture. Whether or not they chose to practice anything that we might deem Agriculture proper, cultures everywhere developed some relationship with the seeds and propagation of plants and an appreciation for their cycles of reproduction. In some cases people domesticated edible plants through intentional selective breeding, whereas in others they merely encouraged the growth and proliferation of desirable plants by providing space and the conditions for them to thrive. Often, it is the seed itself, the very germ of life, that we eat, further stoking a profound respect for the co-mingling cycles of human and plant life.
Saving and replanting seed from our own garden is one of the biggest leaps we can take in our journey toward a revolutionary garden practice. It represents a fundamental break from a dependence on state and market forces, and a refusal of the commodification of — and alienation from — the food that we eat. It is a cost-saving measure, to be sure, but it is oh-so-much more than that.
With every generation of seed saved and replanted within a given garden or region, we are further adapting a crop to our local climate and environmental conditions. This happens naturally without any particular direction on our part, since the plants most ill-suited to their environment will often simply not survive to maturity and will thus not contribute their genes to our collection of seeds.
But with even the most minimal understanding of the processes at play, we can take it a step further. We can cull any struggling or anemic plants from the garden before they flower, leaving only the heartiest and most productive specimens to set seed. From there we might dive a little deeper still, and start selecting for specific traits: maybe we want a sweeter lettuce, or an earlier watermelon, or a tomato less vulnerable to the pests common to our region.
And here is where we really step on the gas: by creating crosses between various cultivars or even species, we can expand the gene pool and allow for new and exciting traits to emerge, as well as greatly increased adaptability. The simplest way to do this is just to plant the various varieties all mixed up together to encourage cross-pollination, but some crops may require hand pollination (which we may choose to do anyway if we wish to have tighter control of our crosses).
We are already allowing for a higher degree of diversity than that of store-bought seeds simply by open-pollinating our gardens (i.e. growing our plants out in the open, without cover or massive isolation distances). By intentionally crossing with other, chosen varieties however, we can select for and combine specific desirable traits in our crops. Some traits and behaviors will remain latent in the plant’s genome, able to emerge in some future recombination further down the line, better allowing for future generations to adapt to changing conditions and new environments. In this way, we can breed crops both highly attuned to our own region and highly adaptable to new environments as we share and trade our seeds.
This is the ultimate expression of the revolutionary garden practice —
We will have understood at this point in our practice that plants are no one’s property, intellectual or otherwise. Our society tends to treat the ownership of private property as if it is reflective of a relationship between the person and the thing, but this is a lie. Property is an agreement between a person and their community about the thing. I agree to let you act as if you own that house; you agree not to take my toothbrush, etc. But we as gardeners must refuse to participate in or acknowledge any claims to the private ownership of living things or their genomes.
In this way, by sharing our seeds and breeding projects, we are engaging not only in some friendly gesture but indeed in the very work of overturning unjust and rapacious norms and giving life to a new and better world, informed by love, respect and reciprocity, rather than by greed and alienation.
All of the vegetables that we know and love today were initially brought into being in this manner. It takes no special schooling to come intuitively to the prerequisite conclusions for such a process. We might do well in fact to unlearn some of the mitigating and overcomplicating ideas that can, if anything, further obscure the forces at work.
Plants grow and change in terms of whole populations rather than of individual specimens. They learn from one another. The more we facilitate the growth and reproduction of those plants with desirable characteristics, the more prominent those traits will become over time.
Until only a matter of decades ago, this was largely still how things worked. Seeds were saved and sowed in kind, in the field and garden, and each crop was particularly suited to its region. Only with the capture and enclosure of seeds by agro-chemical companies did they begin to be centralized and tinkered with and sold back to growers in all regions as one-size-fits-all wundercrops, complete with catchy names and dubious claims.
A huge portion of seeds sold today are what are called F1 hybrids, meaning that they are the first generation of seed saved from a cross between two (usually proprietary) varieties. As such, any seed that we in turn save from F1 stock will not be “true to type,” but will have a wild mish-mash of characteristics from those two initial varieties from which the hybrid sprung. This is not the bad news it may seem.
By propagating a second generation from a hybrid seed, we are immediately presented with a diverse range of phenotypes to select from, and can far more quickly breed novel and exciting varieties, which then will stabilize and adapt to our conditions within just a few generations of purposeful selections.
Now, this is not an argument against heirloom varieties, many of which have rich histories and incredible cultural importance. But the fact remains that the future lies in adaptability and diversity. All gardeners and revolutionaries should adapt to their own regional conditions, and so too should our seed.
And besides, even heirloom vegetables are grown for seed somewhere under some conditions, and usually not in the regions and climates that they evolved to suit. So the least we can do, if we have an affinity or affection for certain heirlooms, is to save our own Blue Hubbard or Cherokee Purple or whatever seeds and simply select for those defined characteristics for each respective variety while also allowing them to acclimate to our region.
Annual plants, which include most of the vegetables familiar to a western diet, will produce seeds once a year at the end of their life cycle. The production of seed, and thus the furthering of its genes, is the ultimate goal from the perspective of an annual plant, and it will often go to seed when stressed, diverting all resources to that project. This is why many plants will “bolt” in the brutal heat of our summers. We can sometimes use this to our advantage by withholding water e.g. from a plant that we want to hurry to seed.
The seed of many plants is encased in a fruit or berry structure, which is often the part of the plant that we eat as food. The primordial purpose of these structures is to protect the seed, encourage animals to eat and distribute it, and/or to provide a lovely and nutritious chamber wherein the seed will germinate as the fruit rots. In plants that have been heavily bred for human palatability however, it is likely that the processes of flowering, pollination and seed production have gone enough out of sync with “nature” that they will no longer occur on their own, without human intervention. Corn, or maize, is the classic example of an agricultural plant that has long since lost entirely its ability to proliferate without some assistance from a human gardener.
Now, having said all that about seed, we should note that many of the plants in our gardens are generally propagated vegetatively rather than sexually, meaning that instead of saving the seed, an gardener will ordinarily remove some other part of the plant and will then grow that piece in some medium into another instance of that same plant, genetically identical to its “parent.” The part of the plant from which we propagate can be anything really: roots, rhizomes, tubers, corms, stems, leaves, branches etc. Even these plants, however, can mostly still be started from seed, and really they ought to be every so often, as a gambit to just maybe get something new and beautiful and better suited to our environment. Remember, because vegetative (or “clonal”) propagation produces identical offspring, the plant cannot adapt to its environment in the same way as in sexual propagation.
If we were to save the seed of, say, a granny smith apple or a ruby red grapefruit, we would end up with a tree who produces quite a different (and probably much less appetizing) fruit. These varieties were once upon a time the happy accidents of a seed-grown tree, and have been grown through generations of cuttings from that same tree ever since. But of course most such accidents don’t strike the double jackpot of being both delicious and a vigorous grower. The way that nursery growers get around this is to graft a cutting from the desired variety onto a more robust “root stock.” This is why the lower branches of your orange tree, say, may have thorns and trifoliate leaves and produce a bitter fruit. Such branches are simply growing from the root stock, below the grafting line.
Then there are, as mentioned, the plants reproduced by corms, such as taro and bananas; tubers, such as potatoes, sunchokes and yams; and rhizomes, such as ginger, turmeric and asparagus. In some cases we wait for the herbaceous, annual, above-ground part of the plant to die back in the fall or winter, and then dig the whole thing up, both to eat and to save as “seed.” In others, we can separate the “suckers,” or small instances of the plant that come up around the base of the mother plant, severing their connection and moving the offspring to our desired location. Sometimes, as with corms, a piece or lobe can be sliced or broken off of the base of its mother without disturbing her at all.
There are many other means of vegetative propagation, such as taking leaf, stem or root cuttings, and often it is the practical course of action even for those crops which are true-to-seed and could be reproduced sexually. This is perfectly fine to do, but still I will advocate that we “refresh” our plants every so often at least by growing them out from seed and allowing for mutations and new phenotypes.
These are all things that we’ve been thinking about a lot over here at Too Tall. In addition to our own rinky-dink personal experiments, we intend in the near future to begin some larger projects to breed and proliferate locally adapted vegetable and herb varieties here in the New Orleans area. We’ll bring other friends’ farms in on the projects. We’ll grow out the plants, take notes, save and share seeds, and ask for feedback. And, most importantly, we’ll loop you in as well. What I’d love above all is to produce some varieties we’re at least moderately pleased with, provide you with those plants, and ask that you save some of the seed to share with us as we will share with you. We don’t know exactly what this will look like, and we will need to put some serious thought into what infrastructure such projects will require, but we know that it should be done. And doggonit we’re gonna do it.
I really hope that someone somewhere has read this and feels even a fraction of the excitement and urgency that i feel. Cause that’s a whole hell of a lot.
Thanks, friends. See you at market.