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Seeds, Saving for the Future

By: Anna Lindquist, Garden Lead and Native Plant Specialist | 09/09/2018

While flowers and fruits typically get all the glory in the garden, seeds are the real heroes. Without seeds, we would have no delicious tomatoes, no beautiful sunflowers humming with bees, no peaceful trees to find shade under. Seeds are the culmination of a plant’s life work, ensuring their genes are passed on for another season, and that we can continue propagating our favorite plants. Yet, because seeds are so readily accessible from stores, catalogs, and online, we often take these amazing packages of genetic diversity for granted and have forgotten the art of saving seeds. Instead of saving our seeds year after year, as our ancestors did, we deadhead flowers and harvest the fruit, denying the plants their full potential, and losing the genetic material encoded in their potential seeds.

While all the gardens at IBG are filled with plants working towards producing seeds, perhaps one of the best places to see seeds in action is the Vegetable Garden. For the second year in a row, we are growing seed for Snake River Seed Cooperative, a local seed company. This year we are saving French Breakfast Radish seeds in our Seed Saving Bed and Shoshone Tomato seeds in our Born in Idaho Bed. The process of saving these seeds requires restraint—we cannot harvest the radishes, but instead must let them continue to grow in the ground until they send up their tall flower stalks. After being pollinated, the radish flower’s ovaries develop into seed pods, which are then allowed to dry on the stalk. Once the pods turn brown and rattle, we cut the stalks, break open the seed pods, and clean the chaff from the seeds. Similarly, the tomatoes cannot be eaten, but must ripen on the vine; once they are plump, we cut them open and squeeze out the seeds, which if you have ever looked carefully at a tomato seed you may have noticed is covered in a gelatinous sack. We let the seeds soak in their own juices for three days which breaks down their gooey covering, then add water, pouring off immature seeds, which float, and saving the good seeds which sink to the bottom. After drying, the seeds are ready to be packaged up and saved in a cool dry place for next year! These are just two of the many varieties of regionally-adapted seeds that Snake River Seed Cooperative offers, and each requires similar time and love to grow and process. Working with regionally-adapted seeds is key, however, to the success of our garden. Plants that are grown in our region, season after season, become adjusted to the unique growing conditions and climate of the Intermountain West, meaning they have fewer pests and diseases, require less water, and can withstand our scorching Idaho heat. Some of our favorite varieties from Snake River Seeds include: Forellenschluss Lettuce, Listada di Gandia Eggplant, Hopi Blue Corn, Blacktail Mountain Watermelon, Red Giant West Indian Mustard, Early Jalapeno Peppers, and Costata Romanesco Zucchini.

Another seed saving project you can see in the Vegetable Garden is our Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance Heritage Grain Trial Bed. Ten different heritage grains, from Hell’s Canyon Foxtail Millet, to Spokane Oats, to Golden Flax and Chia are being observed over the course of the growing season. In addition to saving seeds from these plants, we will also submit our observations on how well they grew to the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. The purpose of this project is to preserve the diversity of grains, as well as to increase the amount of seed available to growers.

To learn more about the wonder of seeds and how to save them, the IBG Horticulture Staff recommend the following books:

  • The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, by Thor Hanson
  • The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, by Janisse Ray
  • Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, by Suzanne Ashworth