Colleen: How often in your day to day life do you get to contribute to the effort of preventing something from becoming extinct? It's a lot different from sending your money off to like save the pandas. It's happening in your backyard. It's what you can do with your own hands that you're contributing to sustaining life and the genetics of a crop, a food crop. We're talking about extinction of food.
Leah: This is Hothouse, a podcast about design, ecology, and the way we garden now. I’m your host, Leah Churner, a landscape designer in Austin, Texas. On this episode, I’m talking to Colleen Dieter about seed saving. What it is, how to do it, and why it is ecologically important.
Colleen is one of the founders of the Central Texas Seed Library (CTSL), coming soon to Austin’s brand new public library downtown.
Colleen: And the idea is that anybody in Austin can go to the library and take out seeds just the same way that you would take out a book and that you could bring seeds back if you want to save the seeds from your garden.
Those seeds will all be for plants that are known to perform well in Central Texas, you know, and that do well in the weird soil here with the weird climate.
Leah: Seed libraries have been sprouting up all over the country since around 2000. Texas has at least three already, at public libraries in Dallas, El Paso, and Houston.
Libraries make good places to keep seeds because they are climate controlled. Seeds need to be stored in cool, dark and dry conditions to prevent them from germinating.
Of course, the spirit of the lending library is perfectly aligned with people who want to freely share, swap, and exchange seeds.
Colleen: They have an infrastructure that's already set up for lending and borrowing things. Plus there's information that goes along with the seeds, right? So they're keepers of community empowerment.
Leah: So let’s talk about the CTSL!
A few housekeeping things before we start: This episode is coming out in conjunction with a couple episodes of Central Texas Gardener of KLRU, Austin’s PBS station. Colleen and I are going to be on CTG to talk about saving seeds and planting seeds in two short “Backyard Basics” segments. Find that here:
You may recognize the name Central Texas Gardener because the producer of that show, Linda Lehmusvirta, was a guest on episode three of this podcast. Colleen is now a repeat guest — she was on episode one.
Also, mark your calendars if you are interested in today’s topic. The CTSL is having an event at the Austin Public Library on October 20 at 1pm.
Colleen will be teaching a seed-saving class and there will be a seed swap as well. So bring your seeds, bring your friends, bring whoever because this event is free and open to the public!
Now onto the show. I started by asking Colleen about how this seed library thing is going to work.
Colleen: On the sixth floor of the library there's a card catalog, an old-timey card catalog. It's just sitting there and there's nothing in it. And at so many other libraries all over the world — Austin is way behind the times on this — there’s libraries all over the country that have card catalogs full of seeds, so basically you’d go up to the sixth floor, start looking through the card catalogs. There's probably going to be at the beginning, some kind of binder with the seed information in it, so you can flip through and kind of browse and see what seeds are in there.
And then you would just make a note that you took some seeds. There'd be little envelopes full of seeds in there. And it will be somewhat curated by the reference librarians, but also by Central Texas Seed Library volunteers who will help process the seeds and make sure that it's stocked and the things are labeled properly and stuff like that.
Leah: In addition to the card catalog, there will be a mobile seed library.
Colleen: Which is going to be a box on wheels. There’s other cities that have mobile seed libraries and what we're hoping some day is that maybe we could have a truck, kind of like a bookmobile type of thing where we could show up at events and give out seeds at farmer's markets in some kind of cool vehicle or maybe a bike or something like that.
Leah: I'm thinking more of like an ice cream cart.
Colleen: You could fit a lot of seeds in there, seeds are really small.
But we're going to have swaps pretty regularly. We're going to try to partner with garden clubs and community gardens to bring the seed library, the mobile seed library, to them and hold seed swaps at those events where people can exchange seeds and then donate leftover seeds to be included in the stationary library.
Colleen: The other thing that we're working on is what you would call more of a seed bank, where we would be collecting seeds and probably also other plant materials like cuttings from fruit trees with the intention of saving them. So that means rare species, rare varieties of plants, focusing on those. But we'll probably be open to saving all kinds of seeds that do really well and are really particular to Central Texas. So for example, there's a type of okra called Hill Country Red that's available through, Seed Savers Exchange right now, but it's not available many other places. That’s a Texas specific variety of okra. So things like that we would be purposely setting aside for preservation purposes to make sure that they don't get lost, that there's always a reserve of those seeds somewhere and we're going to coordinate with local farmers and certain growers to occasionally grow them out so the seeds don't expire and then get new seeds to keep in perpetuity.
Seeds are alive, that's what you have to remember. They're alive, they have life inside of them and they do have an expiration date, you know, they do have a lifespan.
Leah: And so will the Seed Bank and the Seed Library, will they both be housed at the library?
Colleen: The seed bank will probably be housed elsewhere and it will probably be kept mostly for research purposes and not necessarily open to the public. But we would have seeds in both places. There'd be overlap of the types of seeds in both places, the Library and the Bank.
Leah: So now let's talk about why. Why save seeds?
Colleen: Well, there's a lot of reasons. One reason, like I was just talking about, is to preserve genetic diversity. So here's the deal.
Colleen: Home gardeners have this opportunity to grow all these really unusual types of foods and plants that you can't get at the store. With large scale agriculture, farmers that are producing food for grocery stores, they are going to grow just a limited number of varieties and they're going to choose those varieties based on certain criteria that suits them and that suits their profitability. So those criteria would be things like shelf life, right? They want stuff that's not going to rot right away because they have to ship it from California to Texas or Anywhere, USA.
Colleen: So it has to have a long shelf life. They will choose varieties based on the plant's ability to ripen uniformly because they have to hire crews of workers to harvest. Or they're going to machine-harvest stuff; they need everything to be ripe at the same time. So if you plant a thousand pepper plants, you want to be relatively sure that all of those peppers are gonna be harvested at about the same time because that's going to be the week when the workers show up to harvest them. And if it's late, you might not have people available to harvest for you. They're also going to breed for disease and pest resistance too. For a particular pest or disease that's prevalent in their area.
Now, for us as home gardeners, very little of that is relevant, right? We may have different pests and diseases here in Texas and we need species and varieties that are resistant to those particular pests and diseases that we have that they don't have in California. We're not concerned about uniform ripening as home gardeners because we're just hop right out there and harvest stuff whenever it's ready.
Leah: Yeah. That's actually kind of inconvenient if everything ripens at the same time.
Colleen: Yeah. What are you going to do with a tub full of tomatoes? You got to make sauce or something. It's actually better if you've got it staggered to some degree. Tomatoes are a good example of that because there's different types of tomatoes. Some [varieties] that ripen all at one time and others that have a more staggered harvest and are always blooming and always ripening.
And then shelf life. It's nice to have a pepper or something last in your fridge for a week, but it doesn't need to last three weeks the way it does if it gets picked, shipped in a truck from California to Texas, sits at the grocery store, at the distributor, actually sits at the distributor for a couple of days, goes to the grocery store, sits at the grocery store, gets stocked on the shelf, and then couple days later you come into the store and you buy it and then you take it home and it's in your fridge for a couple of days. We don't need that.
Colleen: What do you, what do you look for, Leah, when you are picking vegetables out to grow in your garden? How do you make those choices?
Leah: Well, whatever I would like the most. Whatever will be the most tasty, the least fussy to grow for my particular location. And something a little unusual, I might choose that.
Colleen: Yeah. I think that most home gardeners, those are similar criteria, right? You want something that's adapted to your climate and your soil that has some pest and disease resistance in some shape or form. And something that tastes good. That's really important because, what’s the point of having a garden and if you don't like the stuff that's coming out of it? Everybody knows garden tomatoes are so much better [than store-bought tomatoes]. That's the whole point, right? So if it weren't for home gardeners, those varieties that are a little bit unusual, that are well adapted to areas where there isn't large scale agricultural farming going on. The ones that look funky, you know, like purple peppers or tigger melons, a striped melon or something like that, all of those special varieties would go extinct if home gardeners weren't growing them. And a lot of them have already.
Colleen: And so I've been reading over some statistics about how in the past 200 years, like 75 percent of plant vegetable varieties have gone extinct basically because of large scale agriculture and because of ordinary people just not growing their own food anymore basically. And so large scale agriculture is going to grow these particular varieties and that suits their needs and that's what they want. But home gardeners want something different and smaller scale farmers who sell at farmer's markets and stuff, they want something different too. These particular varieties would go extinct otherwise.
Colleen: So we’re hoping to reach out to all different community groups to organize seed saving classes because there’s not a whole lot of information about it on how to save seeds. People are a little bit intimidated by it, you know, and there is some important information about how to do it right. It is a little bit, in some cases a little bit more of an advanced gardener skill, but it's not that hard. The plants kind of do the work for you, you just have to know when and how to harvest the seeds for each different crop. So it's easier than people think. It sounds intimidating to some folks, but it's actually pretty easy.
Leah: So how do you save seeds? To start you need to know a little bit of plant biology.
Leah: Why don't we just get really basic and just talk about quickly the life cycle of a plant, and what seed saving is in that process.
Colleen: Okay. So what happens with most plants that we grow in our gardens, there's some exceptions, but for the most part a seed gets put in the ground and it starts to grow roots first and then it grows a stem and leaves and it grows up to become mature and then it will have a flower of some sort on it and the types and shapes and sizes and colors of flowers are wildly different from one another. Runs the gamut. So they'll bloom and then they go through some kind of process of pollination and there's different ways that plants do that depending on what family they're in. And that is where pollen from the flower, which is the male part, ends up on the female part. It. And sometimes the pollen is carried by wind. Sometimes the pollen is carried by insects, especially bees. That's what honeybees are famous for.
Colleen: And then sometimes it happens just on its own within the plant. And that's how the plant is designed, where the parts are so close together, the male and female parts of the flower so close together that they're able to pollinate themselves. So it depends on the plant family and the type of plant.
Colleen: Then once it's pollinated, the flower usually falls off or dries up. And a fruit of some sort is created. Okay. So there'll be some kind of fruit structure. So an example of a fruiting structure would be like a pod with peas in it, in the peas are the seeds. Right? But it has a pod around it or it could be like a tomato is the fruit and the seed's inside the tomato.
So this is the detail that I always forget to go over with people. There's a plant and then it makes a flower and then it makes a fruit in, and there are seeds inside the fruit. And then you have to allow the fruit to mature completely. Which is hard for a lot of gardeners.
And this part is always funny to me because I'm a really messy gardener and I often let my plants go untended and it's just my style. [For] many gardeners who are very, very tidy, this is the hardest part of seed saving for them is that you have to leave some of the fruits on the plant in order to become completely mature. So for example, beans. Most of the time when we pick green beans, you're supposed to pick them when they're really small and tender and that's when they're the most delicious. And you're eating the pod and that's before the seeds, which are the beans themselves, before they really mature and become big and fat. So if you're going to harvest bean seeds, you have to leave some of the green beans on the plant to develop the seeds inside and you have to let the plant dry out and you have to let the fruit dry out on the vine. And then the pod sort of starts to split open and the mature finished seeds are on the inside.
Now, for me as a messy kind of neglectful gardener, that happens without me thinking about it. But for somebody who's really more on top of it as a gardener, they're gonna want to harvest all the beans, you know. And so it can be hard to ignore that compulsion to want to harvest every single last been to eat it before it gets too fat and to purposely leave some on the plant so that you can harvest the seeds later.
Leah: I think another reason that it's hard for very tidy, very conscientious gardeners is because once a plant set seed creates seed and once the seeds are starting to mature and the fruit, you know, getting fully mature, it will look kind of ratty and ugly.
Colleen: We have a saying in our culture, "gone to seed." Like, "Well that idea has gone to seed," you know, it's when something's too old and expired and no good anymore. So it's really deeply ingrained in us that the plants ought to look good all the time and they don't have value if they are getting old and worn out and starting to die, but that's the part that you have to live with. If you're gonna be saving seeds.
For instance, with bluebonnets. People who have wildflower meadows, once the bluebonnets have finished blooming and start to turn brown and look kind of ratty, you know, they want to immediately mow or pull those out. But you really have to wait until the seed pod -- and it is a bean, a bluebonnet is a legume -- has actually completely dried up and the seeds are no longer green anymore, because that is when it's going to be viable seed to produce more plants.
Leah: You know, some fruits like tomatoes, you can pick them when they're green and they'll ripen. Or bananas or avocados, of course. But as I understand, the same is not true for the, for the seeds to become viable. They have to stay on the plant?
Colleen: Yeah. You'd want for a tomato, you would want it to be mostly ripe. You know, if you're going to save the seeds from it to know that the seeds inside are mature. And I found actually that the tomatoes that get pecked by birds, those actually can sometimes be the best ones to sacrifice to seed saving. You know, you just cut off the bird-pecked part. If it was almost ripe and then a bird came and ate part of it, then you can get the seeds out of that one, you know. So it's also timing, you know.
I just want people to know that they should try it. It's like once you start doing it, it all makes more sense. We could sit here and describe it all day and you'd get confused, but for sure, at least trying makes it register for people.
Leah: And so with this process, so okay. So your beans that you've grown and you've let you've, you've harvested some of them and you've left some of them on the vine until they can kind of dry up. Right? And then you say, "I'm going to save some of these seeds."
Colleen: Yeah. And optimally --- this is also counterintuitive -- in a perfect world, you would choose the best-looking plant with the best looking-pods or the best-looking fruit to harvest the seeds from. So that's kind of even the worst part is that you would choose the very best plant that's doing awesome to let those pods go to seed and those are usually the ones you want to eat the most.
Leah: And why would you choose the best looking ones?
Colleen: So the idea is that that best looking plant has got slightly different genetics from the other plants that are growing with it.
That one plant that just looks really awesome, if you harvest the seeds from that plant, you're getting those particular genetics for next year, for next season when you plant them. So every season when you plant beans, if you take the seeds from the best bean plant and replant them, you're basically honing the genetics to get a really strong gene package . It's just really, really well adapted to your particular garden. And year after year after year, if you keep doing that, the crop's going to get better every year because you're just getting stronger and stronger genetics every year. Right.
And you're kind of creating your own variety for your own yard and your own garden and that is called a "land race." There's a word for that. It's a land race. So, I like to grow Romano pole beans, that's my favorite variety of beans. So they're still Romano pole beans, but over a few years, the genetics have gotten honed so that they're just really, really strong and really well adapted to my particular garden in central Texas with my particular soil and those particular conditions. And that's, that would be my own little land race of Romano pole beans.
It's a really subtle, this kind of seed saving and this practice of creating a land race is a really subtle type of plant breeding. It's almost passive. It's an almost passive way of breeding plants and that you're not really breeding because you're not like crossing two different kinds. It's still just the one same variety or just taking the one that strongest and keeping that in perpetuity.
Leah: So once the seeds are ready and you think they're mature, then what happens?
Colleen: Okay. So for which we can use beans as an example. With the bean, the plant will be mostly dead and there'll be a dried bean pod stuck to the plant that will be starting to open up a little bit. So you just pick that bean pod and then you can, depending on the type of bean, you can usually just crack open the bean pod and take the seeds out and you need to do it when the weather is dry, relatively dry and not dewey because you want the seeds to be really dry. If you have to do it when it's real humid or do we outside just bring the seeds inside and set them on a towel and let them dry out inside at room temperature. They need to be totally dry before you can package them and save them.
Leah: So they don't get mold?
Colleen: Yeah. Yeah. Because they can get moldy and that will kill them. They'll kill the seed. You can extend that lifespan by keeping them dry and cool. So you would take them and put them in an envelope of paper envelopes, really the best thing or a jar, a glass jar, and you would optimally stick some dried rice, uncooked rice, in the jar with them, or in a little storage box. Or you can use silicone that comes, you know, when you buy a purse or you buy shoes, it'll have a silicone packet in there.
Colleen: Put that in there with your seeds. And that'll help keep them dry.
Leah: As a dessicant.
Colleen: Yeah. To absorb the moisture out of the air and then seal them up, like I said, in a jar or if you have envelopes you can put them in a tupperware box, something like that. And then stick them in your crisper in the fridge.
Colleen: Even if you just keep them at room temperature, they'll still last for years. So if you don't want to give up fridge space to your seed collection, so long as you're keeping them inside of your house and they're dry and at room temperature they'll still last a long time. Just not as long as if you put them in the fridge. So don't keep them in your shed or in the garage where it's not temperature controlled because they won't live as long and they'll get moldy and stuff.
They'll stay in your fridge for several years. They'll still be viable. And with larger seeds like pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Like bigger seeds. They'll last. They can last for 10 years in your fridge. Smaller seeds don't last as long in general. So it's a good idea, when you're packaging up the seeds to go ahead and label them right down the variety, you know, the type of plant, the variety and the date that you packed them. And where it came from. If it was your own garden or someone gave them to you, you know, so that way you'll remember their provenance.
Leah: Some seeds need an extra step of processing before storage.
Colleen: There's different processes for the different types of seeds. So I gave, bean as an example because it's like a dried pod, but with other plants, like a tomato, tomato seeds are suspended and jelly and if you just took tomato seeds and you just dried them, they would have that dried up jelly stuck to the seeds. That jelly for whatever reason, I don't know why, it inhibits the seed from sprouting.
So if you took even when it's dry. So if you took the dried tomato seed with the dried goo all over it and he tried to plant it, it won't sprout. So with seeds that are suspended and jelly, like a tomato or certain cucumbers, you basically scoop out the goo and you put it in a jar of water and put the lid on it and let it sit until all the goo has risen to the top and all the seeds have collected on the bottom and they start to ferment. The fermentation process separates the seed from the goo which would happen outside, in nature on its own.
Colleen: You know what I mean? Like if a tomato fell on the ground and started rotting, the rotting is fermentation. It's basically the same thing and all those little microorganisms that are rotting the tomato fruit are gonna eat up all that goo off of the seeds to make them viable. So that's why it's important to processes the seeds that way. And then you basically strain them, scoop all the goo off the top of the jar. It's so gross. And then you strain the seeds out and rinse them real good. And then you have to let them dry real well, that's crucial. So you dump the seeds out onto a towel, with a fan, if you can have your ceiling fan blowing above, above the towel to dry the seeds out overnight. Let them sit overnight till they're super dry and then package them up however you're going to do it in envelopes or in jars and stick them in the fridge.
Leah: Would that be the same way with okra since okra is gooey?
Colleen: No, that's a good question. Okra, if you leave it on the plant long enough, it dries like a bean so the pod will grow and grow and grow and it'll get woody. It'll turn into wood almost. And then it too, just like a bean, will start to split open and you'll see it. The pod will start to split open. Okra is one of the easiest ones to save. Because of that, it doesn't really need any processing. You just pop open the pod. The pod is the part that you would eat normally with very small seeds inside. But if you let it mature on the plant, it's going to get big and woody and it's going to start to split open and you just pop it open and all the seeds come out. Okra was one of the first ones that I ever saved. The Hill Country okra inspired me to do that, to start seed saving. That was one of the ones that I knew was going to be hard to find again.
Leah: What are some of the easiest plants for saving seeds? You mentioned okra. Beans seem to be pretty straightforward.
Colleen: Yeah. Those are really good ones for beginners. Arugula is a really good one. I always encourage people to grow arugula anyway because it's really expensive at the store, but it grows like a weed. So easy to grow. And if you like it, you know, for your fancy salad. I think it's delicious and it's so easy to grow and that's one that's really easy to collect the seeds on. Because it makes a little pod. And you just crack the pod open and the seeds come out. It looks like mustard seeds, little round seeds, you know. So that one's real easy. And then melon seeds are super easy.
Colleen: So watermelon, cantaloupe and stuff like that, where basically you're eating the fruit and spitting the seeds out. It's the easiest way to save them.
Leah: With a pumpkin seed, do you have to do that fermenting process?
Colleen: No. Pumpkin seeds -- you have to try to get the strings off of them. You don't have to let them ferment, but you just have to kind of rinse them. Scoop the seeds out of the pumpkin, at jack-o-lantern time, for Halloween, or you're going to make a pie and you have to scoop out the seeds. Right. So scoop out the seeds and they have all little stringy things stuck to them and then put the seeds into water, a bowl of water. Just swish them around a few times and usually most of the stringy stuff comes off and then set them out to dry. If there's a little bit of stringy stuff, it's okay. I don't think they're as inhibited by the stringy stuff as the tomatoes are. But you want them to be as clean as possible, without making yourself into a crazy person.
Leah: And then for someone who is, maybe they want to get into this, but they didn't let their stuff go to seed, are there any things that you could buy at the grocery store and save seed from?
Colleen: Yes. Definitely, I have done that with melons and pumpkins and winter squash. I even know people that have done that with black beans, dried beans. If you buy a bag of dried beans that you , try growing them. The problem with that is, you don't know for sure what you're going to get. And this is different with each plant and this is where it starts to get muddy for people.
Leah: I’m going to take a stab at explaining this. I’m learning as we go here so we’ll see how I do!
Remember when Colleen was describing the different ways plants can be pollinated?
Colleen: Sometimes the pollen is carried by wind. Sometimes the pollen is carried by insects, especially bees. And then sometimes it happens just on its own within the plant. Where the parts are so close together, the male and female parts of the flower so close together that they're able to pollinate themselves.
Leah: That kind of pollination that occurs naturally is called open-pollination. Open-pollenated seeds are seeds that have parent plants of the same variety, that sexually reproduce, and the offspring they produce will be very similar to the parent plants. The fruit will look and taste the same, and the seed that grows in the next generation will be something that you can save and plant and take to the seed library and expect, with confidence, that what’s going to come from that seed is the same delicious thing you enjoyed last year. And that’s really the easiest-case scenario for seed-saving.
However, there is another scenario that can also happen, and is more likely to happen if you save seeds from the grocery store.
Colleen: Here's the deal. Let's say it's Halloween time and you're getting into it, right? And you're like, "Oh my God, I love this time of year and I'm going to buy all these pumpkins and gourds and winter squashes and decorate my house is gonna be so awesome." And let's say there's one that you really liked, a white pumpkin for example, and you're like, "I really want to grow this white pumpkin, this is going to be rad." So you scoop out the seeds and save them. Then you plant the next summer. You get your seeds out and it says on your label, "White Pumpkin from grocery store." And you plant it and it starts to grow in the garden and it looks awesome and then it starts making fruit and lo and behold, it's actually an acorn squash or something totally different than what you thought.
Colleen: That is entirely possible that that could happen. And that is because plants hybridize. When your white pumpkin was growing out in the farmer's field, it wasn't isolated from other kinds of pumpkins and other kinds of squash that they're closely related to. And so a bee flew from like an acorn squash plant to the white pumpkin plant and took pollen from one plant to another and that pollen matched up with the ova in that flower and it made a seed and the seed contains the genetics of both parent plants. So the white pumpkin grew, which is the fruit that you thought is really cool to decorate your house but the seed also contains the acorn squash genetics. And so when you planted the seed it had that genetics and that's the plant that grew.
Leah: The problem here isn’t quite that the pumpkin came from the grocery store and it was like a bad “grocery pumpkin” or something; the problem is that you don’t have any information about the previous generation of gourds that that pumpkin came from.
It may be a hybrid — the offspring of a pumpkin and a squash. Hybrids are not genetically stable. So think about, like, a mule. A mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. That is a hybrid animal. And as a result, mules are genetically unstable. They are sterile. Mules can’t give birth to baby mules.
So there’s a similar situation in the plant world. Hybrids aren’t necessarily sterile (though they could be), but the offspring of a hybrid will unstable — that is, it will generally not have the same traits as its parent plant.
Colleen: And I have a story like that from my own garden that I like to tell. So I used to work at a community garden and I had a lot of space to grow all kinds of stuff. And on the hillside, there were a bunch of fruit trees and I grew perennial plants underneath.
Leah: What kind of perennial food crops where they?
Colleen: There were artichokes, strawberries, I can’t remember. And then I had these little tiny cucumbers. They're called mouse melons. They're so cute. They're like the size of grapes. You gotta look up mouse melon. They taste like cucumbers but they look like grapes. And they grow on these little vines that creep across the ground and they're really cute. And they're native here. They're native to Texas and Mexico and Central America. They're delicious.
And they turn black when they ripen. So you eat them when they're underripe, but if you wanted to save the seeds you have to let them turn black and you can't eat them when they turn black; they will give you diarrhea. But when they're green and they look like tiny little watermelons, they're delicious. They're great with cherry tomatoes, a little salt on them. So I had those growing on the hillside and then in one of the garden beds I was growing up an heirloom type of melon called tigger.
Tigger was this little melon, kind of like a honeydew, similar to a honeydew on the inside with a thick skin. The way a honeydew melon skin is thick, you wouldn't eat the skin of it, you know? And it's orange and green striped on the outside. It's really cool. I got It from Seed Savers Exchange. So I saved the seeds from the tigger melon that year and I thought that'll be good. I'll plant them again next year. So I did. And also they came up on their own, all over the garden too. Because we had rats. And the rats loved the tigger melons and would steal them and eat them and other parts of the garden and all the seeds would fall in the ground over there. So they came up here and there. Which. Okay. For your listeners, community gardens in Texas always have rats. Don't judge.
So there were seeds all over the garden. They started coming up everywhere and I thought, Oh wow, there's tigger melons everywhere. But when they started making fruit, the fruits were teeny tiny. They were like the size of an egg and they were yellow and bright green striped, and when they ripened, they naturally detached themselves from the plant, which the tigger melons didn't do and you could eat the skin. The skin was very thin and the flesh was light green and a lot more mild. And I was like, what happened? And then I realized that I had created a hybrid accidentally between the mouse melon and the tigger melons where we got this little egg shaped fruit that was kind of sweet, but also kind of like a cucumber with skin that you could eat like a cucumber, real thin skin.
So it was like this cross between the two and the mouse melons detach themselves from the plant when they ripen. So they just fall off the plant and I ate a whole bunch of them. They were delicious. I actually liked him better than the tigger melons. And so I just got a total kick out of that that they accidentally crossed. And I had this little second generation, which is what we call a hybrid when you have two different types. Now I never had the opportunity to plant the seeds from the little egg shaped melons to find out what the next generation would have been. But a lot of times the generation after that the third generation, ends up reverting back to the parents. Or if it crosses with something else, it could've crossed with another kind of honeydew or something that someone else's growing in the garden, it could have been something totally different.
Colleen: Okay. So it's a little confusing.
Leah: The reason that Colleen keeps giving examples of pumpkins and squash and melons is that all these plants are closely related, and they are all pollinated by insects, rather than self pollinated, like tomatoes and beans are self pollinated. The insects that carry pollen from one plant to another can spread a lot of genetics around, and that creates a challenge for seed savers.
Leah: So how will you control for that with the seed library? How do you deal with the chance that whatever someone brings back might be a hybrid, might be something totally totally different?
Colleen: Yeah. So there's two things that we're gonna try to do. Number one is we're going to try to educate people about preventing the cross-breeding and there's ways that you can do that. And some plants, like beans, beans tend to be self-fertile so they're probably not going to cross. And then with a plant like melons, we'll just ask them to try to only grow one kind of melon that year, or to stagger their plantings so that they're not blooming at the same time. So you could have one kind of watermelon that already has fruit on it, in the garden, in another kind of watermelon that's just starting to bloom later so that they won't be blooming at the same time to cross.
So we can educate people that way. But it's never going to be perfect. Because especially for bee-pollinated plants. Bees can fly three miles, right? So it's really hard to isolate your crops. Because someone in three miles away might be growing watermelon. There's a possibility that you could get crossing with your melons and that's a bummer, but it's not a disaster.
What's a disaster is if we're growing this rare kind of watermelon that would go extinct if we weren't growing it — which is a thing, and we'll probably talk about why we're doing this — and that rare watermelon comes back crossed and we lost the original genetics of the original variety. That's a problem. And that's why we're starting the Seed Bank in addition to the seed library where we're going to have people like growing the plants under more controlled conditions to be extra sure that they're not crossing.
So, growing the plants under cover, like in a greenhouse or under a row cover fabric and then hand pollinating. So to make sure that the bees aren't coming in and carrying pollen from the other varieties would be a way to protect that particular genetics and variety so that we don't lose it. So that's why the seed bank part of it is going to be important too, in addition to the library, that's very much about sharing and people bringing seeds back. The hybridization can be really fun. You can get stuff that really works well. That's really cool. Those are fun to share too, but we also want to make sure that we're protecting the original genetics of some of these rare varieties that work really well for us in Central Texas.
Leah: Now you might say at this point, Hey, this seems like a lot of work! We are a civilized, modern people with sophisticated agricultural systems, and the companies that grow our food supply have a vested financial stake in keeping the global food supply resilient and stable, right?
As is often the case with industrial agriculture, what is economically expedient is often ecologically a disaster.
Consider the banana.
Colleen: The cavendish banana. So all bananas, every banana you've ever eaten from the store, it's genetically identical to every other banana from the store. They're all the exact same plant. They're clones. Okay? So every banana you've ever eaten is exactly the same genetically. And they do that because you might notice that you've never eaten a banana with seeds in it before, right? So if they let the bananas get pollinated, they would have seeds in them like that. Those weird black lines in the middle of the banana, those are rudimentary seeds that, had they been exposed to a male banana plant with pollen, those seeds would have developed and the fruit would have seeds in it, right? But there are never exposed to the male pollen. And in addition to making seeds, one of the ways that bananas reproduce is by making pups, what we call pups, where they can asexually reproduce by growing another little banana plant off of it, off of its roots.
Colleen: And a lot of plants do that, you know like bulbs do that or ginger, there's lots of plants that do that.
Colleen: Yeah, I you live in central Texas or you live anywhere in the southwest, yuccas and agaves, they grow little baby plants next to them. So with the banana plantations, they just take one banana plant and they replant all the pups and they never let any of the pollen, you know, come onto the banana plantation so that they always get fruit that doesn't have seeds because nobody wants to eat a seedy banana. Those seedy bananas.
Colleen: So anyway, since they're all genetically identical, all the banana plants are susceptible to the same pests and diseases. So if a new disease comes on the scene, which happens a thing that happens, it threatens the entire crop. There's no resistance. Elsewhere, there are home gardeners and people growing all kinds of other bananas like red bananas. And the red bandana might have disease resistance built into its genetics and if they were across the Cavendish banana with the red Bandana than maybe that would save all the bananas. So it's important for us to save as much genetic material as we can. It sounds so sterile to call it "genetic material," but that's why we're seed saving. We're keeping the genetics, that's the valuable part of it, and it could potentially prevent large scale extinction someday. But in the meantime we're preventing smaller scale extinction by still growing these varieties that aren't being grown anywhere else.
Leah: Through seed saving, we can reclaim knowledge that we have lost, in just a few generations, since industrial agriculture replaced small-scale farming for most people.
We are also exercising individual liberty, rejecting the status quo of corporate ownership of the global food supply. And that’s really not hyperbole. Seeds that are not open-pollinated, that are commercially-created hybrids or GMOs, those seeds are protected under patent law. If Monsanto sells patented seeds to a farmer, it is illegal for that farmer to save seeds from those plants, as humans have done since the dawn of agriculture. Furthermore, those seeds are often engineered to produce sterile plants so that the farmer can’t save seeds, has to go back to the company and buy them year after year.
Planned obsolescence is but into our food supply, and that is disturbing. The more industrialized our agriculture, the more vulnerable our food supply seems to be.
But unlike so many other things in this scary time we’re living in, you can actually do something about this: save seeds!
Colleen: How often in your day to day life do you get to contribute to the effort of preventing something from becoming extinct? I mean that's exciting and empowering, right? And fun. Like oh you can grow this funky red okra and also that way it won't go extinct because if you didn't grow it, it probably would.
Colleen: Or if somebody else wasn't saving it in a seed bank somewhere, it's going to go extinct. Because it's just not going to be cultivated. So that's so exciting and empowering. It's a lot different from sending your money off to like save the pandas. It's happening in your backyard. It's what you can do with your own hands that you're contributing to sustaining life and the genetics of a crop, a food crop. We're talking about extinction of food, right?
Colleen: So why is it that you are doing this as a library, a free thing, rather than saying, “Oh, I'm going to start a seed company and I'm going to sell seeds that are rare and unusual…”?
Colleen: A lot of people have. And that, you know, is a thing. There's a lot of, I mean, not a ton, but many rare seed companies. Some of them are nonprofits and some of them are privately owned and for profit and that's fine. But it's the sustainability part of it. I really believe that it's sort of a philosophical question, isn't it? Of whether or not you think you can own a living thing. If you can own life. To me seeds are something that belong to everyone. And access to food is a right that everyone deserves. Access to food isn't a privilege. It's a right to delicious healthy food too. And ownership of that is dodgy in some cases. Right? And that's playing out in the real world now and we're seeing that with farmers being forced to buy seeds, especially in developing countries where they'd always saved seeds year after a year and then they're constantly in debt to seed companies and banks and having to buy seeds year after a year. It's disempowering for them to have to pay for seed that I sort of think belongs to everyone.
Colleen: Certain varieties belong to everyone. There's other varieties that have been purposely bred and developed by private companies that, to be fair, they put years and years and years of research and development into developing these seeds. And some of those scientists certainly have good intentions and I don't want to glaze over that or gloss over that. That's important. People dedicate their lives to developing better seeds for farmers, other people profit from that to the detriment of farmers in some cases. So it's a complicated issue. Um, and to me it's important to make it free with these rare varieties. If they weren't free, I don't know, it just be more likely that they could go extinct, you know, they just need to be out there in the world for all of us. They belong to all of us.
Colleen: That philosophical question is played out in Texas with our tree ordinances recently where, the City of Austin and many other cities have ordinances, city ordinances that protect trees. That's based on the belief that everyone benefits from trees. And that trees don't belong to people per se. And that trees have inherent value, right? That all of us benefit from. And you don't have the right to just cut down a tree for whatever reason because it's on your property, right? That's one philosophy. But there are other people who believe that if that trees on your property, you own it and you can do whatever want with it. It was just two different ways of looking at the world, you know? And um, I know how I feel about it and I know that there's other people that disagree. And in this case we're talking about food. And we're talking about extinction of food. So why should I profit off of that? And I don't blame other people who want to start a fun business, a little mom and pop business hawking their cool little seeds that they've saved or their little hybrids and land races that they've developed more power to them. That's fine, you know, but it's when it becomes so hyper-profitable and you start disempowering other people to save their own seeds, that it becomes more problematic.
Leah: It also seems like it's the library, the public library is the perfect place for the seed library because much like a community garden and a library, a seed exchange is a community, a community resource and way to build community.
Colleen: Yeah, for sure. I mean it's the same spirit of the library. Free information. Empowering people through free information. And the spirit of lending, borrowing, sharing, spirit of sharing. They have an infrastructure that's already set up for lending and borrowing things. So the seeds, it's the same spirit plus there's information that goes along with the seeds, right? So they're keepers of community empowerment and you know, that's what I mean when I think about the founding of our country and I think about the founders of libraries and how much Ben Franklin frigging was crazy about libraries and free information for everyone to empower the public. That's how I feel about food. Like, here's what you need to be empowered to grow your own food and at the same time you're growing your own food.
It's really fun and you're getting all the benefits. Exercise, being outside, experiencing nature, eating healthy food, and at the same time you're helping prevent extinction on multiple levels, right? And creating community too. Coming to a central library and meeting other gardeners and having swaps and checking stuff out. And the thing that's really exciting to me too, that we haven't even talked about yet. It's one of the reasons I'm passionate about seed saving is to meet people from other walks of life, people from other countries who brought seeds with them.
Colleen: That's what really gets to me is when you hear people talk about stories of people who are refugees and that's what they brought. I'm getting choked up talking about I can't talk about seeds without crying. This always happens to me when I teach seed saving classes, I always cry. That's what they brought, you know, that's what they knew they would need and there's going to be varieties that have those stories attached to them, that came over from other places and that happened to do really well here. That's how we got okra, right? That's what the slaves brought when they were being taken. That's so important to people. It's just powerful and we're getting separated from that history, in our lives. And so I'm looking forward to meeting new people who are growing things I've never heard of before and having those new experiences because that's what makes my life richer and more enjoyable as trying new things and uh, having diversity in my life. And um, I think it's really neat. I think that gardening just really bridges a lot of gaps in people's lives and really is so powerful at bringing people together. I always have something in common with people when I tell them that I'm a gardener, you know, we always have something to talk about even if they're way younger than me or way older than me or from a totally different race or a different country and we have something we can bond over. And seed saving is one of the more powerful ways that, that happens that you can share those experiences.
Leah: Will you tell me about some of the different people who have joined you in this project? Who's getting involved in this and what are their motivations?
Colleen: This is a crazy thing that happened. I had been trying to teach seed saving classes for a long time and talking to people about it and nothing had ever really landed. And then, you know, like so many people post-Trump-election, it just lit a fire under people's butts to really become even more engaged. And so I got invited last January by the Grow Local staff at Sustainable Food Center [SFC] to teach a seed saving mini-class at the downtown farmer's market in. I said, sure, I'll do that. That'll be great. And how come SFC isn't starting a seed bank? And they were like, yeah, yeah, yeah, we're, we're kind of trying to do that and it hasn't come together and we're stretched a little thin. I'm said okay. And so we had the little mini-class at the farmer's market and a seed swap at the same time. And it was just the weirdest thing because the people who came that day just happened to be the right people who were super motivated and I'm just one guy, Vit, who used to be an extension agent in the Valley, brought a huge, rubbermaid container full of seeds that he saved.
Colleen: And he's starting a community garden now too. And so there's all this overlap there with him and his community and he has all these incredible seeds and loves talking about them and he's so knowledgeable. And at the same time there was a woman there named Serene who's from California and she was like, "I moved here from California and every little town in California has a seed library. How come we don't have a seed library? What can we do?" And then there's a woman named Emma who said, "I'm the landscaper at the new library," and I was like, "Well, you're the person." And she said, "Why don't I go talk to librarians?" She goes to talk to the librarians. The librarians go, "We've just been waiting for someone from the public to ask for this. We've been wanting to do this, but we can't just start doing stuff. We have to have public interest."
Colleen: So here we are and we all got together and more and more we get together and more and more people started coming who are at all different stages of gardening. Some of them are beginning gardeners and they just want to learn more about seed saving. And, and so we're just like gaining this momentum now with this dedicated group of folks that are just really into it and hoping to add more people as we go along to help donate seeds, collect seeds, help organize the library seeds and organize seed swaps and it's just really fun.
Colleen: I feel like when I hold a packet of seeds, it's just like magic. It's just all hope it's a packet of hope because it's just like, this is, this is what I'm saying about the future is that these little seeds are gonna grow into something and they're going to perpetuate over generations and that's really special. That you're holding creation in your hand.
Colleen: So I'm hoping that we'll get a lot more people involved to help out and we're going gonna have a seed swap at the library, the downtown Austin [Central] Library on October 20th and I'm really looking forward to meeting more gardeners, seed collectors and seed swappers there. But that's how it happened. It was just right place, right time. And I feel like we have enough momentum now to actually make this a reality.
Leah: Sounds like seed serendipity.
Colleen: Serendipity, yep. And it's long overdue for Austin for a place like Austin, a progressive city with a lot of gardeners and a crazy climate and bad pests and diseases. It is long overdue, so yeah, we're doing it well. It's very exciting. Yeah. I'm super excited. I know.
Leah: Thank you, Colleen.
Colleen: Thank you, Leah. Thanks for having me on.
Leah: Thanks for listening to Hothouse. Learn more about the CTSL by visiting them on Facebook @CentralTexasSeedLibrary. Find Colleen Dieter, landscape consultant and certified arborist, at www.redwheelbarrowplants.com
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