Wednesday, December 28, 2011

seed saving: reasons

The saving of seed is a fundamental activity for Ginkgo’s gardeners, with appeals that range from the refined to the primal. We can state clearly and quickly some of the reasons why we go to the trouble of extracting, cleaning, drying, and storing seeds each year; other reasons, because they spring from deeper within us, often are not articulated.

We save seed because it is economical. A back of the envelope calculation: we can buy a pack of 50 tomato seeds from Seed Savers Exchange for $2.75; we can also purchase seed in bulk (a relative term here) at a price of $27.50 for a half ounce (containing around 6000 seeds). This works out to a price range from 6 cents a seed per small packet to half a cent per seed in bulk. When one considers that the plant from a single tomato seed might produce anywhere from 1-10 pounds of tomatoes with a market value of around $4.00 per pound, a nickel per seed is a tiny investment; however, when one of those tomatoes produces around a seed packet’s worth of seeds that you can save for no cost, it seems silly to buy new seed packets each year, especially if you plan to grow next year the same varieties that you grew this year.

The economic argument is weak, to be honest: many of us spend more than the cost of a packet of tomato seeds for the coffee that we buy on the way to the garden on a Saturday morning, and we do not have a problem supporting seed vendors financially. A stronger argument is agricultural: we support open pollinated, true-breeding, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. We want everyone to understand the superiority of produce that has been grown for flavor and nutrition instead of for uniformity of appearance and shelf life. We want plants with stable genotypes that have adapted to the growing conditions in our garden. We want to participate in alternatives to an agriculture that relies on commodity monocultures.

Related to our agricultural motivations are our ecological concerns. The $2.75 that we might pay for a packet of seeds is not the packet’s only cost; a Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, of our purchase would identify additional, often hidden, external costs. As discussed in Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, a LCA is “…a method that allows us to systematically tear apart any manufactured item into its components and their subsidiary industrial products, and measure…their impacts on nature from the beginning of their production through their final disposal”. When attempting the LCA of a seed packet, we would consider the environmental costs that arise from the packaging that encloses the packet for shipping and the oil required to power the vehicle that shipped the packaged packet. We might be overthinking things with regards to seed packets, of course: a seed packet delivered through the mail will have relatively small external costs compared to those of a cell phone or a burger in a Styrofoam clamshell package. On the other hand, a tomato grown using organic methods from saved seed—itself a seed packet—will have minimal external costs. (Plus, you can put that seed packet in a salad.)

A sense of community also motivates our seed-saving. We like supporting organizations that work to preserve plant heritage, such as Seed Savers Exchange. When we plant a storied variety such as the Wapsipinicon Peach tomato or the Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean, we feel linked to earlier horticulturalists. We recognize that much of this connection is sentimental, based on romantic visions of wizened gardeners puttering in small plots. Many plant varieties were built painstakingly by experienced professional agronomists like Luther Burbank—but not every variety: the Mortgage Lifter tomato was developed by the owner of a radiator shop. One day, we might even be able to contribute to that heritage by giving seeds saved from our own garden, perhaps even from a new cross-pollinated variety—a Ginkgo Volunteer Cherry maybe, or an Old Ginkgo German.
Wapsipinicon Peach

We can usually marshal the above arguments when asked to explain the appeal of seed saving. A deeper reason often goes unsaid: the feeling of magic. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Seeds are the product of eons of advanced organic technology: of emergent statistical methods applied by plant species to develop means to store the minimal amount of information necessary to replicate particular structures and activities. A seed is a vegetable program—a capsule  containing a set of genetic instructions powered by a small amount of stored energy. When activated by immersion into a specific configuration of inputs that include electromagnetic energy and water, a seed will follow a complex chemical algorithm to convert a relatively undifferentiated mass of surrounding organic material and minerals into a highly differentiated plant. I can understand this, intellectually, to a degree; however, when I stand in late summer in the shade of a seven foot tall tomato plant and consider a single seed from a fruit of that plant, I have trouble believing that that the green leafy tower next to me could result from something small enough to fit under my thumbnail. The fact that I can grow an entirely new plant next year from a tiny bit taken from a plant this year feels like magic. Saving seed seems like casting a spell.