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The Magic of Seed Saving

We invite you to rejoin a ritual as old as civilization, a ritual in many ways responsible for civilization. Eons ago, a tribal farmer found a corn cob slightly larger than a fingernail. This farmer took care to save the seeds from the largest and best ears, plant them and harvest anew. There is no way to count the number of times this ritual took place before corn was harvested in its modern sizes, shapes and colors. When a gardener plants his own open-pollinated seeds, he is passing on the ageless, priceless gift bestowed upon him.

The Rewards of Seed Saving

Anyone, with little more work and attention than it takes to grow a home garden, can begin to re-elevate the gardening experience to a sustainable level. My wife and I were inspired by our trip to Siberia where thousands if not millions of people from all walks of life save all their own garden seed. In fact, seed saving in Siberia is an integral part of the gardening experience. In common with gardeners everywhere, competition for the best garden harvest is intense. The difference is that the best varieties we saw resulted from years of selective seed saving and not from packets of purchased seeds.

Without any background in genetics, Siberian gardeners tap into the rewards of seed saving by "selecting" seeds from only those plants or flowers that exhibit desirable characteristics. This selection process is a powerful technique used to create new varieties. Gardeners design simple selection experiments by planting the same variety in different environmental conditions or by planting different varieties in the same environmental conditions.

Our friend Dima who lives in Novosibirsk, Siberia grows watermelons. Al though most knowledgeable agricultural experts in Siberia will tell you that water melons do not grow in Siberia, Dima, after several years, produced a single, small, tennis ball-sized fruit. He carefully saved the only two seeds produced by the melon and planted them the following spring. Success again. Dima saved several seeds from the largest fruit. When we met Dima ten years into his "melon adventure" his garden was consistently producing kilo-sized melons.

Dima simply saved seeds from the melons that survived in his garden. He created a unique, new treasure. He contributed to genetic diversity. And important to Dima, fresh watermelons are his to enjoy each short, Siberian summer.

The Importance of Seed Saving

We are on the verge of losing in one generation, much of the agricultural diversity it took humankind 10,000 years to create. As late as 1900, food for the planet's hungry was provided by as many as 1,500 different plants, each further represented by thousands of different cultivated varieties. Today over 90% of the world's nutrition is provided by 30 different plants and only four (wheat, rice, corn and soybeans) provide 75% of the calories consumed by man. Where once diverse strains strengthened each local ecosystem, currently, a handful of "green revolution", super-hybrid varieties are "mono-cropping" farms and gardens worldwide.

Because diseases or pests eventually attack individual varieties, the strength of any ecosystem is a function of its diversity. If one variety of potato is planted, as was done in Ireland in the early 1800's, the result is likely to be its loss. The Irish potato famine could have been averted if many different varieties of potatoes had been planted. In 1970, 50% of a genetically uniform corn crop in the Southern United States worth more than a billion dollars was lost to a single disease.

Today, potatoes are grown in Ireland and corn in the Southern United States because disease resistant varieties were found and planted. Botanists often look for varieties resistant to new diseases in the "Vavilov centers" or "centers of genetic diversity" where our food crops once originated. These centers around the world are now being planted with the same handful of "green revolution" hybrids. For example, the genetic center for wheat found in Turkey is in danger of being planted completely with hybrids by the end of the decade. Thousands of native and heirloom wheat varieties are disappearing and will be unavailable to botanists looking for varieties resistant to the plant diseases of the future. The modern world is facing the prospect of feeding hungry billions with a genetically uniform agriculture and little or no diversity to sustain it.

For approximately 10,000 years, individual gardeners and farmers created and sustained our rich genetic heritage. Now gardeners and farmers can play an important role in saving it by learning to save their own seeds from varieties that perform best in their own mini-ecosystems. This will assure diversity in the same the way that diversity was promoted and protected instinctively throughout the history of agriculture.

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