Those of us who love heirlooms are either seed savers or obtain lots of our garden seeds from friends who are seed savers. In a way, all seed companies that specialize in non-hybrid (open pollinated, a category that contains all heirloom varieties) are also seed savers. The reason is that we have so many great varieties — so many wonderful heirloom varieties — to grow today that can be traced back to an organization that just celebrated its 40th anniversary: The Seed Savers Exchange.
I heard about, and soon after joined, Seed Savers Exchange when it was 11 years old back in 1986. To say that it changed not only my gardening life but my life in general, is no lie. My first half dozen years of gardening saw mainly easily obtained hybrids in our gardens, often purchased at a local garden center. Now, in 2016, planning my 36th garden, my choice of tomato seeds to grow is well over 5,000 (my personal collection – considering all companies and seed organizations’ offerings, the number is well over 10,000!). That’s a whole lotta time spent dreaming of summer tomatoes, and I’ve not even discussed my similar obsession with peppers and eggplant and so much more.
Seed swaps are fed by those who bring along seeds they’ve saved through the years – generous gardeners who are enthusiastic about their own particular discoveries, and have a great desire to add to their collections through the efforts of others. Swaps are fun – any time an opportunity to bring like-minded people sharing a great hobby together arises, it is a party; a celebration of this most wonderful pursuit – that of helping to maintain our genetic diversity.
The seeds shared at swaps need to be saved properly so that they are true to type, and germinate well. Though seed saving is not difficult, it is a skill that varies in technique from crop to crop. Nothing is easier than saving pepper seeds, but they can cross pollinate relatively easily. Tomatoes are usually subject to the extra step of fermentation (not hard, but certainly stinky!), but tend to cross pollinate far less.
In less than two weeks, those who are near Roanoake, Va., have a wonderful opportunity to experience both parts of this wonderful continuum – swapping seeds, and learning about seed saving. It is a free event, and all information – location, time, how to register – can be found by clicking the link here.
I wish I could attend, but will be otherwise occupied that day. If you attend, you will get to meet and learn from some superb folks: Tor Johnson from the SSE, noted author Rosalind Creasy, Ira Wallace from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Rowen White, Native American Seed Keeper of Sierra Seeds. It promises to be informative, fun, and will be a great way to charge you up for the gardening season to come!
Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. He is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato breeding project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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