Monthly Archives: August 2011

global scale seed saving

seeds from garlic scapes

My younger daughter and I are both seized by the compulsion to save seeds whenever we can. She’s a huge fan of collecting cherry, peach, and apricot pits and has amassed quite the collection so far this year. She might have to start saving up her pennies for some land, if she wants to plant them all! In the photo above she’s helping me gather garlic bulbils from the scapes that I allowed to grow on a few of my garlic plants. Bulbils take a few years, once you plant them in the ground, to form the garlic bulbs that we are accustomed to seeing. I’d like to try it, though, so I’m saving them.

Among my friends and neighbours I might be slightly eccentric and obsessive about seeds, but among seed savers I’m barely a beginner. Many people go to great lengths to squirrel away extra seeds, or unique varieties of seeds. I remember a long time ago, hearing about a woman who had saved so many seeds. Her family, when they were cleaning out her house, found them in every conceivable nook and cranny. She was saving them up, just in case.

Today there are organizations dedicated to the preservation of seeds, like Seeds of Diversity in Canada, and Seed Savers Exchange in the United States. If you become a member, you are then entitled to buy seeds from other members. All these different varieties are listed in the main catalogue that gets printed once per year. Thousands upon thousands of different seed varieties. Heaven!

It was good to see an article in the National Geographic this past month that brought the importance of seed saving and genetic diversity to light. I’d like to touch on and expand a few points they brought up.

national geographic article july 2011

The availability of our food may be in danger, by our own doing. Today we have so little variety, compared to variety 100 years ago, among the different types of vegetables and fruits we grow. Obviously we didn’t intend to threaten our food supply. Originally, certain varieties and hybrids were created and bred in order to help increase food yields and thus support a growing population. Intentions were noble; however, lack of genetic variability is now the problem. Most of the wheat in the world is defenceless against a stem rust fungus called Ug99, due to lack of genetic variability among the wheat.

This is how diversity protects us: it allows most of the crop to survive while a smaller portion fails due to disease or pest. Many of us have heard about the great Irish potato famine in 1845. The reason most of the potatoes in the country were destroyed by blight is lack of variability, or diversity. Everyone was growing the ‘Lumper’ potato. Lumper couldn’t handle the fungus, and so everyone in the country suffered. Millions died or were displaced by famine. That’s why it’s a good idea to mix things up, and grow many different varieties of the same type of vegetable. The more diversity we have, the better. In my opinion, if Lumper was only one of, say, ten varieties grown, there’s a good chance that most of the crop would have been saved.

The article discusses a food bank in Norway, in the permafrost of a mountain 400 feet above sea level and 700 miles from the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of 1,400 seed banks in the world, and it serves as a backup vault to preserve the varieties that could potentially contain any number of genes resistant to future diseases and pests. I think this is a great idea, but I also think it’s important to grow the seeds as well, to keep them viable. That’s what organizations like Seeds of Diversity and Seed Savers Exchange are promoting with their member catalogues. The more people grow the unique and heirloom varieties, the deeper the gene pool. Increased diversity means a greater chance that we won’t all starve.

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So what can you do? Well, you already know that I think everyone should be growing something edible if they can. Trying some heirloom varieties is one way to help out. If you have the space to grow a few varieties, that’s good too. Then, if you’re really into it, save the seeds for next year.

If you can’t do these things, then support farmers who are growing heirloom varieties and buy their produce. The food ark is funny that way – if we want to save varieties, we need to eat them. Seeds can only be stored for so long until they are no longer viable. If people want to eat the heirlooms, they will be grown by farmers. Your vote is counted when you buy the food. Or the seeds/seedlings to grow it.

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carding wool

This is part 2 in my wool series. I’ll just say again, this is my first time managing a fleece raw from the sheep. It’s a documentary, or a journal of sorts, intended to inspire those who might be interested in giving it a try, but think that this kind of thing is out of reach in their experience. It’s really not out of reach. If you want to try it, go for it! I’m having a fun time with it so far. I have to thank my few spinning friends for their help along the way, particularly Erin for this part, since she graciously allowed me to borrow her carders for awhile to get my rolags done.

On to the photos:

loading the carder

Carders come in pairs. This is one of them, loaded up with washed fleece and ready to begin the carding process. It’s hard to see, but it kind of looks like a huge dog brush. Except that the pins are all bent in the same direction. They hold the wool in place.

carded fleece

Basically what carding does is comb the wool fibres so they are all lined up in the same direction. This makes it possible to spin fine yarn. In the photo above, you can see what the wool looks like after it’s been combed using the carders. It’s hard to show exactly how to use the carders without video. (hmm, maybe next time…)

making the rolag

In order to get the wool off the carder you roll it into a big wooly sausage. This is known as a rolag.

rolag funnies

Next, you amuse yourself by thinking of all sorts of alternative uses for these crazy fluffy things, since you’ve never seen them before and you’ll hardly be able to keep your hands off them!

rolag pile

And repeat.

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I’m so looking forward to spinning! You’ll hear more about that too when I finally get started with it. For now there are some other things I need to make sure I get done, like canning delicious relish (yesterday’s project) and other yummy things for the winter.

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garlic harvest

garlic harvest

The weather has been so incredibly dry this year, that my garlic has almost cured itself already in the ground. I dug it up on Tuesday evening, in the dark, because the weather forecast was calling for more rain and I was afraid it might rot, being already cured and not really much alive. The photo was taken the next morning. See how dry it is? The only green stuff is the bindweed.

I’ll still leave it in the greenhouse to dry out more, to be sure it’s cured before storing it.

I have to say, I’m happy with how it turned out, even if it is being harvested a bit early. I thought it would stay in the ground until fall, but I think this crazy heat and lack of rain has sped up the process a bit. Some of the bulbs are a good size, and some are small.

I will definitely grow it again. I’d like to try a few varieties, too – see if I can distinguish flavours of garlic! There are many to choose from, if you look in the right places.

If you want to grow garlic, you should be thinking about it in the next few months. Garlic is planted in the fall – October or November – and stays dormant during the winter. In the spring it’s one of the first things to poke through the soil in the garden, and grows well during the summer. When the scapes start to form, they should be cut off in order to encourage a larger bulb growth. I actually left the scapes on a few bulbs, to see what would happen.

garlic scape, close to mature

Looks like it formed a mix of bulbils and flower buds. The bulbils will be genetically identical to the garlic bulbs I planted, while the flowers provide opportunity for some genetic variation, should there be opportunity to cross with other garlic plants. We’ll see if this plant survives long enough to produce seed. But if it doesn’t, I’ll save the bulbils for sure.

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If anyone wants seed garlic, the small bulbs are $1 and the larger ones are $1.50. Limited supply, though, because I want to eat some of these beauties too! Let me know! They were grown organically by me in my herb garden. They have a good strong flavour. White/cream flesh with a few purple streaks in the skin.

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tomato seed purity

covered tomato plants

Last week, it was time to take the mesh covers off of my selected tomato plants. As you can see in the photo, many plants were becoming cramped under the light fabric. I felt it was important to cover them, though, in order to prevent any accidental cross-pollination of the tomatoes I wanted to save for seed.

In reading more about tomato plants and saving their seeds, I discovered that the idea of tomatoes cross-pollinating is controversial. Or has been, at least. People’s experiences vary, depending on the type of tomatoes they grow. Basically, the likelihood of crossing has to do with the length of the style. The style is the female part of the plant: it accepts the pollen. If it’s long and extends out past the male parts of the same flower, then it’s more likely to be cross-pollinated. If it’s shorter than the male anthers, it’s not very likely that any pollen other than its own will do the job.

In order to determine whether your tomatoes are more or less likely to cross-pollinate, you’ll need a magnifying glass to investigate the physical properties of the flowers. Or, you could do as I did and just cover the plants to be sure. Or, grow only one kind of heirloom or open pollinated tomato. <gasp!>

I noticed last week that tomatoes were forming under the covers, so I took off the mesh and marked the tomatoes that were formed so I would know later which ones to save the seeds from.

marked tomato

I am so looking forward to harvesting these seeds. Almost as much as I’m looking forward to trying all 22 varieties of tomato in my garden!!!

When the time comes, you can expect another post about the various methods of saving tomato seeds – there’s some wonderful controversy about that, too.

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