Monday, September 13, 2010

Walking the Walk: Improving our Connection with the Earth

The Italians have a word, arrangiarsi, which means the art of making do. It seems fitting that a culture with such a long and often disrupted history could turn a survival skill into an art form. Along with re-purposing, recycling, and repairing, one basic skill that fits the category is the saving and replanting of seeds. Until the large scale development of hybridized and genetically modified plants, nearly everyone who planted saved their own seeds. These handed-down or "heirloom" seeds, tested in the laboratory of real world necessity, are in fact the backbone of agriculture. Unfortunately, large agribusiness interests, and corporations such as Monsanto are making it very difficult for farmers to do what they have always done.
As gardeners, our best response to this pressure is to plant only open-pollinated, unhybridized seeds that will be true to type for the next year. Thankfully, there are many good companies, such as Territorial Seeds selling heirloom varieties. Our favorite source is The Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit group based in Decorah, Iowa. These dedicated folks manage one of the most extensive international seed networks in the world. Membership is easy, and includes discounts on seeds from their catalogue, access to thousands of fellow member listings, plus information packed, seasonal publications. Check them out at
Here at home, the lettuces are bolting and a few over-looked zucchini have gone way past the eating stage. Great! Let them go as long as possible and save the seeds. For lettuce, once the flowers have completed their cycle and started to dry, I pull up the entire plant, cut off the root, and hang it upside down in a paper bag. Once completely dry, sift out the small black (or white) seeds. Winnowing, or gently tossing in a windy spot can help to separate seeds from chaff. Use a flat plastic bin or large bowl for this operation and be careful how you toss. Full grown zukes can be huge, often more than two feet long. Allow them to ripen until until the vines have wilted back, keeping an eye out for vole or rat bites that can cause rot. Mature seeds will be plump and easy to separate from the pulp. Dry them in a paper lined plate or basket and store in paper, not plastic. Be sure to mark type and date on each package. I've had way too many "mystery squash" seed end up in my collection. The best book I've found on the subject is "Seed to Seed", by Suzanne Ashworth, available from The Seed Savers Exchange online bookstore.
Winter squash, such as butternut, acorn, hubbard, and pie pumpkins, can be stored for months if carefully rinsed with a diluted beach solution and stored in a cool dry space. A large blue Hubbard squash once sat unaffected on my piano for nine months. We planted in May, harvested in November, and ate it the following August.
Happy September and good harvest!

George Wright