Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Joining In The Dance

Recent headlines, it seems to me, put an interesting slant on the much-ballyhooed claim that we live in an information society. I’m thinking here especially of the slow-motion train wreck of the US banking system now under way, courtesy of the very same system of slicing and packaging real estate debt that was praised to the skies as a brilliant financial innovation a few short years ago.

Now of course, as John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out long before the phrase “mortgage-backed securities” found its way onto any up-to-date list of popular oxymorons, innovation in the world of finance almost always refers to the rediscovery of one of a handful of very bad ideas that resulted in economic disaster every other time they’ve been used, and can be counted on to do the same thing this time, too. Still, there’s another dimension to the current mess, which is that a large fraction of the trouble that’s sent stock prices of a dozen large banks into a crash dive is the result of simple sloppiness in information handling.

The laws governing mortgages in the US sensibly require a paper trail showing all transfers of the right to collect from the mortgage, and they also require the people who process foreclosure paperwork to at least glance through the stacks of papers they’re signing. In millions of cases in America alone, these very simple steps weren’t done, the relevant information wasn’t kept or wasn’t read, and an economy that’s still staggering from the body blow it received from the implosion of the housing bubble has just taken another hit.

You might think that an information society would do better than that, but this is par for the course these days. In the modern industrial world, most of the time, the only phases of information’s life cycle that get more than cursory attention are its production and distribution, and then only in terms of raw quantities – the sort of measure that doesn’t differentiate between cures for cancer and Lady Gaga’s latest round of failed attempts to make herself look interesting. Those who insist that producing ever larger volumes of information will somehow lead us to Utopia tend to pass over the fate of all that information once it comes sluicing out the business end of our society’s information factories, and they tend to pay even less attention, if that’s possible, to the origins and destiny of the information that isn’t produced in digital form by the busy labor of human beings.

It’s this other kind of information that I’d like to place at the center of this week’s discussion, because it’s central to many aspects of the Green Wizards project. The natural world contains and circulates a vast amount of information. We can read a very small fraction of it, but that doesn’t mean we can do without it; most of what keeps human beings alive on this planet just now is a function of the information economy of nature.

There are any number of examples, but the one that comes to mind just at the moment is the wealth of information to be found in the seeds of any open-pollinated plant. Seeds can be understood in several different ways, but one of the most useful is to think of them as a medium for information storage. Like other media, they will reproduce the information they contain under some specific set of conditions; just as a DVD stores information in one form but will present it in another – for example, a movie – when you put it in a DVD player and press the start button, a seed stores information in the form of DNA, and will present it in another – a plant – when you put it in appropriate soil and add sun and water. What sets seeds apart from DVDs as a far more sophisticated information technology, of course, is that when you play a movie, the movie doesn’t manufacture new DVDs for all your friends, much less shuffle the movie just a bit in every generation, in a way that tends to produce a better plot and snappier jokes as time goes on.

Seeds, by contrast, do an exact equivalent of this. This is why when you tap a seed envelope against your hand and send a single seed rolling out onto your palm, you’re holding two billion years of stored information. That’s how long, according to current paleontology, the process of evolution has been shaping the genetic code of living things related to the ones we encounter today, and every generation across that unimaginable length of time has contributed something to the shaping of the little packet of genetic material, nutrition, and protective layers we call a plant seed.

It would be helpful if more people kept this in mind. It would also be helpful if people noticed that the different varieties of any cultivated plant very often contain hundreds or thousands of years of human-derived information on top of the two billion year collection handed over by nature. Instead, we’ve got a world in which this extraordinary wealth of information is treated even more cavalierly than big US banks treat mortgage paperwork, and in particular, where most commercial seed companies sell a handful of bland varieties aimed at the lowest common denominator, producing them each year by hybridizing processes that normally keep them from breeding true from seed in the next generation. It’s very much as though all the more interesting books in most of the nation’s libraries were to be replaced by stacks of identical copies of some gaudy journalistic volume about Lady Gaga’s cleavage.

This would be bad enough if those of us who farm or garden could count on an uninterrupted supply of Gagaesque hybrid seeds for the foreseeable future. For a range of reasons, starting with the end of the age of cheap energy, we can’t. The seed industry is one of the world’s most monopolistic; the vast majority of all seeds produced and sold in the industrial world come from a tiny handful of vast conglomerates, and their production, transport and marketing requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. It’s sobering to realize that the bankruptcy of one of the big seed corporations just before the Northern Hemisphere’s planting season could leave millions of farmers with no access to seed stock. It’s even more sobering to consider the far more likely impact of assorted financial and energy bottlenecks on seed availability as an economy in prolonged crisis intersects with spikes in energy, transport, and agricultural chemical costs as we stumble down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.

Fortunately there are other options, and I would encourage green wizards in training to explore them. The place to start, unless you happen to have a thriving garden and plenty of heirloom seed stock in place already, is one or more of the seed exchanges and small seed companies that make it their work to keep old, non-hybrid varieties of cultivated plants available. You’ll want to look for a source of this kind that carries old varieties from the area where you’re living and growing your garden, because – surprise – the varieties that do best in an organic garden in any given area are very often the varieties that did best in that area before chemical agriculture was invented. Finding a relatively local seed source is also helpful if transport becomes problematic, since your chances of being able to access seeds is a good deal better when the source is two counties away than when it’s on the far side of a continent.

The ultimate in short supply chains, of course, is to save seeds from the plants you grow. This is definitely a goal for any organic gardener to have in mind, but in my experience, at least, it’s not something to take up immediately unless you have no other choice or already have quite a bit of skill in gardening. Every species of plant has its own life cycle, every variety of plant rings its own changes on that life cycle, and the seed – the vehicle by which the plant sends its information on to the future – is often exquisitely sensitive to subtle cues you may not notice if you’re not watching. To save seed with any kind of reliable success, you need to know the life cycle, habits, and needs of the plant with which you’re working, so that you can give the seed the conditions it needs.

Some of those conditions can be very unexpected to the novice. The seeds of quite a few plants, for example, need to go through a period of fairly intense cold before they will sprout. Keep the seeds of ome of these plants in a heated basement and plant them out in spring, and you’ll get no results that year, because the seeds are waiting for the signal that tells them that winter has come and gone and it’s safe to start growing. You can give them the signal they need by storing them in an unheated space or, in the case of seeds that need a good strong chill, sticking them in the refrigerator for a couple of months. Others have a waterproof coating on the surface, and may need to be scuffed on a sheet of fine grit sandpaper. Still others have unique requirements of their own.

There are also plants that can’t be grown from seed at all, or that are best propagated in other ways. Potatoes, for example, don’t breed true from seeds – if you let yours go to seed and they set seed that’s viable, which is by no means certain, you’re as likely as not to get a half-wild Andean tuber that may or may not be edible at all. For a good many centuries, instead, potatoes have been propagated by chopping a potato into pieces, each one with its own eye, and burying the chunks in the soil. You need to know that if you want to grow potatoes – and you need to know similar lessons if you want to grow a fair number of other plants.

What this means is that you can’t save seeds or propagate plants in other ways without learning a fair amount about the plants you grow, and participating in their ecology and their life cycle. Seeds are not machines; you can’t make them do what you want them to do, unless it’s what they’ve spent the last few million years evolving to do. You have to meet them more than halfway. You can’t stand back and wrap yourself in the fraying rags of the failed myth that still convinces too many people that humanity is some kind of alien force, separate from Nature and reduced to poking her with a stick in place of any deeper communion; you have to take your seeds by the hand and join them in the dance.

Now of course this is what I’d hope to see any prospective green wizard doing, in one way or another. All our work in this project can be seen from one perspective as learning how to make sense of the information provided us by nature, rather than restricting our diet of information to the often far less nourishing fare served up in horse doctor’s doses by the various mass production and dissemination schemes of human society. Using solar energy on a small scale, for example, can’t be done successfully unless you shake off the assumptions that three hundred years of ever more abundant fossil fuel supplies have taught those of us who live in the world’s industrial nations, and learn how to think about energy from sunlight; that’s what will show you what you can do with the sun’s diffuse heat, and how to orient yourself in space and time to make the best use of it. Choose some other piece of appropriate technology or green living and you’ll find yourself in the same place, learning what you need to know from a teacher who doesn’t happen to be human and doesn’t speak the language you do, but is more than willing to lead you in the dance we call Nature.

Next week we’ll be talking about another way to participate in that dance. For now, I’d like to encourage students of green wizardry to put some time into locating sources of heirloom and non-hybrid seeds in their own regions, and get themselves on mailing lists for a few local seed catalogs; if you have any way of putting in a garden this coming spring, you should plan on doing so, and in that case you’ll want the catalogs this winter. If the seed sources you find are nonprofits, send a few dollars their way as a donation to help cover the cost of the catalog – many of them operate on shoestring budgets, and the collapsing economy has left the shoestring even more frayed than usual. A book or two on saving seeds might also be a good purchase at this time, if your organic gardening library doesn’t already contain ample information on that subject.


The two books I’ve always used as information sources for saving seeds and propagating plants are Marc Rogers’ Saving Seeds -- an expanded version of the Seventies classic Growing and Saving Vegetable Seeds -- and Lewis Hill’s Secrets of Plant Propagation. Both books give a fair amount of space to garden ornamentals, and Hill likes to use chemical pesticides, which has always seemed unnecessary to me; still, both books contain a wealth of practical information. Many general books on organic gardening also include a chapter on saving your own seeds, or include this and other propagation instructions in the sections that cover specific food plants.


CM said...

Yeah local seeds!

When I looked closely at the sustainability of my location one hole I noticed was seeds. I am in an agricultural area but every year we all order seeds from afar. A bump in the suply chain would be horrific!

So my contribution to local sustainability is learning seed saving and starting a small seed business. I was already saving tomato seeds for my husband's market garden; my goal, to learn to save one more type of seed every year.

Last year I added beans, this year I'm learning lettuce :o) Somehow I ended up with pumpkins, dill, and chives too. It is so satisfying!

I plan to sell at the local seedy Saturday and maybe to go to communities nearby as well.

The Onion said...

When you start thinking about the storage of information over time or the energy efficiency of systems, and how most of what we've done is simply not going to stand the test of time, then the elegance with which nature does those things fills you with wonder.

John Powers said...

Your caveats about seed saving are important, still it's easy to save many seeds. Doing so provides some hands on knowledge.

Having plenty of annual flower seeds collected is a nice luxury. Many annual flowers are easy to collect seeds from.

Aurthur Magazine has a wonderful post about J.L. Hudson Seedsman catalog. I've been growing Austrian pumpkins and collecting seeds. I started from Hudson's but they haven't been offered since. It's nice to collect a few seeds from plants that do well for you because often they won't be available next year.

Janne said...

Also a great resource is Carol Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving: The Gardener's and Farmers Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving (whew what a title..).

Thanks JMG!

between-the-lines said...

A very inspiring post.

Thank-you for indicating the crucial point that seeds encapsulate the embodied knowledge of many generations of farmers and gardeners.

This heritage is now being stolen by the rich and powerful and turned to their ends of 'conquering' their fellows, while the people whose ancestors danced with nature to produce this wealth of diversity are being ground into the dust.

So saving and using our own seed is vital. 'Seed to Seed' by Suzanne Ashworth is a very handy book and it focuses on food plants.

I'm still at the beginners' stage, with easy species plants (often self-sowers as well) that won't make unwanted crosses with closely related plants growing nearby, like American land cress, Greek cress, mizuna, parsley, nasturtium, spinach, French marigold, borage, asparagus pea and the like, as well as the vegetative reproducers like salad potato varieties, strawberries and raspberries that tend to go wild. Some kinds of bean can be saved pretty easily too.

Dancing with nature, as you so aptly put it, is really wonderful fun.

22 Youth said...

Seed to Seed is a good, thorough resource.

Here in NZ we have quite a strong heirloom seed network, with the Koanga Institute leading the noble charge.

I suggest the most important action Green Wizards can be taking in industrialised countries, especially those with a very low agrarian population, is large scale soil regeneration. A healthy post on this would be welcome, JMG!

Robin Datta said...

A deeply insightful post: yes, the seeds - and even plants, animals - and the human animal have an embedded 2 billion year history. Viewing from the longer perspective offers an advantage that many miss.

john said...

Dear JMG,

I've not read it all yet but I have to disagree with a point the you made near the beginning of the post,and just to see if I could be 'FIRST!'.

Remixing the genes in sexual reproduction doesn't necessarily lead to a better genome,it could just as easily lead to a worse outcome,i.e. a less 'fit' individual.But,I liked the poetry of the metaphor.The'fitness'of the human species at this stage in our evolution(I would postulate)is much ,much worse than it was 100 years ago.Less intelligent people tend to have more offspring than more intelligent and 'weak'members of our species now survive because of vaccination and antibiotics.I would argue that in developed countries with static or falling populations that we as a species are in fact 'devolving'.

Don't mean to sound facist or anything,just making an observation.

flute said...

Very good advice.
However, The Powers That Be (after lobbying from multinational seed companies) are trying to make it harder for us here in the European Union to purchase heirloom seeds.
The EU directive 2002/55/EC forbids the sale of any vegetable seeds not on the EU list of standard varieties. And getting a variety registered costs both money and time.
Now there has come a second EU directive 2009/145/EC, which actually allows more types of heirloom seeds to be sold after a simpler registration procedure. But still registration is needed. And a fee is to be paid for each registered variety. And bureaucratic requirements must be met.
Over the last few days there has been an outrage in Sweden over this with our department of agriculture at the center of the anger.
So make sure the legislation in your country is not changed to make it more difficult to get heirloom seeds. Big seed companies are constantly lobbying for this. If such legislation is proposed, immediately start a movement to oppose it.

between-the-lines said...

I agree John, glad someone raised that little niggle.

Evolution is not teleological: there is no goal, just random genetic mutation worked upon by the selective pressures in the environment that any given organism is inhabiting at a particular time.

However, the phrase "survival of the fittest", a term first coined by Spencer is, in fact, a tautology, in other words, it is saying the same thing twice. That which survives is inherently, by the biological definition of the term, the fittest.

What is the fittest to survive in one environment may not survive in a different place and time.

Life is very much a game of "The Admirable Crichton", and the richest bankers today may have to go begging to the Green Wizards of the future ...

John Michael Greer said...

CM, excellent! This is good to hear.

Onion, and that wonder is perhaps the best of all starting places for the real work ahead of us, which is (re)learning to participate in Nature rather than simply ignoring or bullying her.

John, no argument there. My point is simply that you need to know what you're doing.

Janne, thank you! If you haven't already, please be sure to post this on the Green Wizards forum as well.

Between, thank you for the book recommendation.

Youth, likewise. As for large scale soil restoration, remember that the focus of this project is on things that individuals can do in their own time and with resources readily available to them. If you've got some references for ways to manage large scale soil restoration on that basis, I'd welcome hearing about them.

Robin, good. That's exactly the advantage the perspective of deep time brings with it.

John, I should probably have drawn the metaphor in more detail. The viewers who prefer one version of the DVD because it has a better plot, and so play it more often and give it more chances to reproduce itself, provide the (un)natural selection that moves in the direction of greater fitness over time. By the way, if I may note a pet peeve of mine: that's "fascist," not "facist." "Facist" sounds like somebody who goes around making faces at people he doesn't like.

Flute, true enough. Thanks for a useful reminder.

Between, er, I never said that evolution was teleological, just that it works to improve fitness over time. You're reading a great deal into an offhand metaphor.

Janette said...

Norman Deno's complete Seed Germination Theory & Practice is now available for free download from the USDA.

john said...


Had to giggle when you corrected my spelling and pointed out the absurdity of the face-pulling image.Spelling never was my strong point!

However,From a human point of view only,at this stage,evolution is finished.Though I understand your point as opposed to our food plants.

Slightly embarrassing,funny though...GOL!

Blindweb said...

Evolution theory is an amazingly powerful theory to me. It's fairly simple and straightforward yet can be applied to wide swaths of decisions made in our daily lives. I was just watching a video on the hazards of GMO seeds. While learning about the multitude of scientific studies proving the hazards is interesting, one shouldn't need to spend that much time to come to that conclusion. With a decent understanding of evolution one should realize instantly, with a high degree of certainty, that GMO seeds are dangerous to humans and the environment. As JMG stated seeds have evolved over billions of years to fit an environment with millions of variables, and humans have evolved to digest foods with specific attributes. Changing the genetic code of seeds, and then releasing mass amounts of it into the wild without the most extreme testing is insane.

@ZenMouser from last week
Emptying their minds,
Filling their bellies,
Weakening their ambitions,
And strengthening their bones

The mass media bombards people with scary stories all day. Progressive education fill their heads with impossible eutopian fantasies that are an absolute impossiblity, akin to arranging everything up. The person with a full belly and lacking in ambition, has clarity of thought, and lives their lives with a fullness the former never will. That person is not driven by emotion and can actually achieve a 'higher' level of thought and living.

There's a Mark Twain quote about how there's plenty of smart people out there, but the successful one's are the ones that are organized in their lives. You have to meet your primal needs before you can move on to other things.

If people lack knowledge and desire
Then they can not act;
If no action is taken
Harmony remains.

You'd have to study some Zen... or Taoism to understand that part properly; but it's just a deeper continuation of the previous part.

Wendy said...

I was talking to a friend today and I told her that I often allow my plants - especially the herbs - go to seed, because the birds eat those seeds over the winter.

The unexpected benefit has been garden volunteers, including the 180 lbs of Hubbard squash that grew in my garden this past summer as a volunteer ;).

I will admit that conscious seed-saving is still daunting to me, and while I do save things like beans, I'm still a little intimidated by it, and VERY thankful that Johnny's Seeds is just up the way from where I live :).

Mark said...

I love a good old seedy post...

My favorite book on seed saving is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. She covers practically all cultivated annual plants.

If you're really into the idea of seed saving, check out the more in-depth Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. That's a very encouraging look at how even gardener's with small plots can grow and breed their own veggies -- in fact that's how many, many varieties have been bred!

Seeds are the most lucrative investments that can be had. One basil seed, which costs about $.01 to $.03 each, can yield well over $100 in fresh basil over it's lifetime! If you grow your own seed, you're talking profits in the 100's of percentile!

Here's a great video that ties into this topic. It's with one of my favorite farmer's and plant breeders Frank Morton:

Also, JMG and all, if you aren't already on their list, Fedco Seeds seems like one of the nicest seed sources for open-pollinated, Northern temperate climate adapted varieties (they're based in Maine and source many of their seeds from small farms) that I've used -- and of course very entertaining seed catalog. I love it!:

Kevin said...

I've been part of our Seedy Saturday organising committee since it began: 2011 will be our 6th. One of our objectives has always been not just to supply people with seed, but to encourage them to start saving their own seed. We've done all kinds of things over the years to promote that goal.

What we've found is that most of our seed growers are still the same few people we started with: very few people seem willing to learn about and then do the things needed for seed saving, even for the simple things like peas, beans and tomatoes.

The flip side of that is the folks who get all excited and save EVERYTHING without realizing the special requirements for some seeds - which results in bad seed in the seed exchange and unhappy growers who received the seed.

And our biggest local organic farmer, who has been trying out small local organic seed companies, has just about given up in frustration and gone back to buying from large companies - because so many of the seeds simply were not good enough quality to rely on for a commercial grower.

All that means that folks learning to save seed is even more important than you might think, because most people simply won't, and many who do won't make a decent job of it. Contaminating the seed supply or ruining a good variety through ignorance of how to save it is not a useful contribution.

Zach said...

I also recommend the Ashworth and Deppe books. I'd especially like to encourage aspiring seed wizards not to be intimidated by the title of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties -- as Deppe points out, if you are saving seeds, you are a plant breeder, whether you recognize that fact or not. Before reading it, I would never have believed that a book about plant genetics could be so entertaining, but it is.

Carol Deppe has a new book out, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, which I have yet to get my hands on, but it looks interesting. Here is an interview with her about the book, which looks to be quite Green Wizardly.


John Michael Greer said...

Janette, thank you! This is worth having. Again, everyone, if you've got a good resource, please post it at theGreen Wizards forum so that others will be able to find it without combing through the archives of the Report.

John, it's a common enough misspelling. As for humanity, though, I'd say that biological evolution is getting back under way; once environmental changes push a species out of its familiar ecological context and force it to struggle for survival in a context in which genetic variations count, you normally start seeing evolutionary change shift into high gear. Now of course evolution doesn't mean progress, but there's always the hope that something interesting will come out of it.

Blindweb, from my perspective the whole GMO business is a textbook case of hubris, and the blowback promises to be pretty spectacular.

Wendy, it sounds to me as though you're about one good book from becoming an expert seed saver. Give it a try!

Mark, thanks for the recommendations! My first year of gardening here was largely fueled by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, with good results. Still, I'll check out Fedco as well.

Kevin, exactly. Saving seeds is easy to do, but it's not always easy to do well. I'd like to encourage green wizards to learn how to do it well.

Zach, glad to hear about the new Deppe book -- that's very promising.

Bill Pulliam said...


Evolution does not necessarily "increase fitness over time," since the rest of the world is not static. The population's "environment" (i.e. everything else that it interacts with, including other species that are also evolving) is in a constant state of flux. So the selective pressures pull this way, then they pull that way, then they pull the other way. Evolution is constantly being pushed and pulled by this environment. So over time you don't necessarily see "fitness increasing."


There might be some relevance to the actual topic of this post, in that our own "environment" (garden conditions, climate, personal nutrition needs and preferences, pests, etc.) is also changing. If you maintain genetic diversity, sexual reproduction, and selection then your crops can evolve to track along with all this change. Artificial selection generally applies much stronger directional selective pressure than natural selection usually does, so it can cause very rapid evolution SO LONG AS it has enough genetic diversity to work with.

TG said...

There's already a thread at the Green Wizards forum concerning Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener, but it's a little hard to find because it's under the topic "Makenna Goodman's interview" in the Cafe section. I read the first three chapters for free via Google Books and was very impressed. It's on my Christmas wish list. If I don't receive a copy then, I definitely intend to buy it.

--Tracy Glomski

Don Plummer said...

RE: GMOs, evolution, and the need for genetic diversity in our food supply, the very best refutation that I ever read of GMOs and their underlying assumptions is an essay by Barbara Kingsolver called "A Fist in the Eye of God." It's in the essay collection Small Wonder. It's well worth seeking out to read. She begins the essay, not surprisingly, with a primer on evolutionary theory.

My own seed saving has been rather casual to date and consists mostly of self-seeding. I'm on, I think, the fifth generation of calendulas, for example. I have been trying to select calendulas for heat tolerance, but so far I haven't been all that systematic at it. I also tried to save seed from one that came up with orange, instead of yellow, flowers, but I lost the seeds. Drat.

Calendulas, of course, aren't the most useful plants in the garden, but I still like them.

I noticed some seedling borage in the garden last week. There won't be enough time for them to grow, but some more of the seed might spout next spring, right?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

I'd like to point out that seed saving should also be done with native species that may or may not be human food plants: we need to do what we can to help preserve biodiversity.

I've been working with Midwestern prairie and savannah plants for some years, saving and cold stratifying the seeds and then starting them in March for early June planting. Maybe I'll try growing some heirloom veggies this spring and saving those seeds, as well.

To Youth: I understand soil regeneration in the Midwest U.S., but would hesitate to offer advice for other regions. Here, the best thing you can do is grow a prairie: native grasses and forbs, including legumes, combined with a burn regime will all by themselves improve the soil within about five years or so. That's for large areas. Smaller areas can be improved with more conventional organic methods.

I too would like to see a post on this matter.

Mary said...

I've just purchased Carol Deppe's latest (1st pringing 12/2010) "The Resilient Gardener...Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times." Perfect timing, eh? In depth instruction in everything food related from start to finish. The 5 foods you'll need to survive and thrive, how to grow them, how to store them. Including how to dry squash in the sun based on how the natives did it, updated from willow branch to the perfect size dowel!

I get my seed locally from Johnny's Seeds and also from local heirloom gardeners. I'll be flat out in the winter and spring months so instead of waiting for the catalog, I'm thinking of an afternoon trip in mid-December if they're open. I like to sit in the store, read through the catalogs and bring my seeds home with me.

Cathy McGuire said...

I second the recommendation of "Seed to Seed" by Ashworth - it gave me the courage to try to save seeds that are slightly harder than the basics. I'm still new to it, and don't trust my techniques enough to share (ie: my lettuce seeds are labelled "Lettuce", though they could be one of four varieties - it got crazy at harvest-time) but I am able to save and re-grow several veggies, herbs and medicinal flowers. The conditions of storage are very important! I was so disappointed the first year when I saw that some of my seeds had mold due to damp conditions, and some had been invaded by bugs due to open storage conditions! So this year, I got airtight plastic containers and a good supply of dessicant, and hopefully have selected an area of my unheated studio that is neither too warm nor too cold.

However, I will also say that stripping off seed and getting it ready to store can be overwhelming (esp. for a compulsive person like me who wants to save all of it!), and I still have a few paper bags sitting around, and I'll label those seeds "iffy" for next year. I agree with whoever said start with one veggie and build - get to know that one. It gives you confidence.

Also, I recommend Seed Savers Exchange as a wonderful place both to buy seeds and to learn. If you become a member, you can buy from hundreds of savers, and even sell your seed through their catalog! It's amazing!

Cathy McGuire said...

Awww... I just checked over at Seed Savers Exchange, to double-check what I'd said - and there's a big honking fight going on! I will say honestly that I don't know which side has the facts, but apparently the co-founder and longtime Exec. Dir. was fired by the board and has filed a major accusation via internet that they are in league with the Devil - Monsanto - via the Svalbard Doomsday vault. Now, I thought the vault was a cool idea - deep storage for enough varieties of plant that the world could recover from disaster... but apparently some think it's a Monsanto/GMO plot... maybe others have more info. But I still think it's a great place to buy seeds from, and since we're mostly beginners buying seed, we're not even involved in the question of what happens if we as savers donate seeds. Maybe more information will come out eventually.

Kevin said...

Cathy M - re conditions of storage - since losing a whole season's worth of seed some years ago to rats (they were stored in plastic) I now use metal cookie or candy tins (25c from the thrift store) for safety.

Cleaning seed - if it's for your own use, it doesn't necessarily need to be as clean as what you buy from the store. I find both buckwheat and clover to be hard to clean, but I using them for cover crops so they are fine with lots of chaff, as long as it's dry.

The new Carol Deppe book sounds wonderful - I am all excited now! Love her "Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties".

Robin Datta said...

Here is the Seed germination, theory and practice *.pdf download site.

And htere is Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth.

And by Carol Deppe:
Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties.

and The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.

A link to the essay A Fist in the Eye of God" and an alnernate link.

Don Plummer said...

I've got a small patch of prairie plants, but I've mostly just let them reseed themselves; I haven't done much systematic seed collection.

I'm the treasurer for the local Wild Ones chapter, and every December we have a seed exchange. This year I won't be bringing much seed to the exchange, but I've got some potted paw paw seedlings to bring.

Markdirtfarmer said...

I must say one of my favorite source books is the 6th edition of the Garden Seed Inventory. It is printed by the Seed Savers Exchange. This book is a complete listing of all known sources of OP and heirloom seed available in the US and Canada for the year of 2004. How cool is that. Reading all the seed discriptions is far more exciting than any novel. (What can you say about a person who likes using taxonomy keys.) I highly recommend it to anybody who is an avid gardener. A sad note, though, is the number of seed houses that have gone out of business since its printing.

Houyhnhnm said...

Timely post, JMG. My Potimarron squash seeds are drying right now and the Calypso (Yin Yang) beans are already tucked away for next year.

It's time to save more than seeds though. Something Bill Pulliam said applies to livestock as well as plants: "Artificial selection generally applies much stronger directional selective pressure than natural selection usually does, so it can cause very rapid evolution SO LONG AS it has enough genetic diversity to work with."

That's why I once bred Arab horses--remarkable underlying genetic diversity. The old desert horsemen had a saying that they didn't shape their horses, the desert did--and the desert culls ruthlessly.

Frankly, I'm not fond of the look of desert-type Arabians or pure Akhal Tekes, but I am in awe of their genetic strength. For example, Arab and Turkoman blood provided the foundation for the American Quarter Horse and the Morgan. Even the Percheron almost certainly carries Arab blood.

In richer environs, these two strains revealed the depth and variety in their DNA. If indeed the climate continues to warm, this blood will likely reform itself into its original light-framed, slab-sided, economical form. We shall see.


Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

I'm a little surprised tht no one has mentioned the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa as a source of open pollinated seeds. If you become a member, you get a yearbook with tens of thousands of open pollinated varieties.

Baker Creek in Missouri has a lot of open pollinated seeds too.

I find that saved seed grows better. Evolution arguments aside, the plants that did the best in our conditions produced the most seed. It makes sense that those seeds are the most productive.


Ariel55 said...

Dear John,

Your talents continue to amaze me!
Thanks for the tuber information as well as your "bottom line" which we all may need sooner or later. Best regards!

Uglee said...

Here in Northern Arkansas, we have a great source of seeds and knowledge about traditional farming methods: the Amish farmers. They are wonderful people, always friendly and ready to help. They grow their own crops, make their own clothes, mill their own grains, drive horse-drawn wagons and eschew electricity. Many of the vendors at our local farmer's market by produce from the Amish. When our society collapses, they will just keep chugging along as they always have, using centuries old methods.

The Amish Mennonites also sell at the local farmer's market. They are similar to the Amish in that they still grow their own crops and make their own clothes, but they do drive cars and use electricity. Neither the Amish nor the Amish Mennonites use store-bought seeds.

If you ever do meet any Amish or Amish Mennonites, show them respect and don't take their pictures.

Cherokee Organics said...


It's interesting that most of the responses dealt with vegetables. The same issue relates to fruit trees (as well as other trees and shrubs) as you really need a large genetic pool with which to draw upon.

I'm lucky enough to be able to shop at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne for fruit and vegetables. Not only is it well priced and competitive, it also stocks a diversity of produce from diverse suppliers (it's big).

Even so, over the year you'll only ever find about maybe 8 different types of apples. There were once over 7,000 varieties (I have about 26 planted – lots of cider apples!) across the world most of which are now lost. With their loss comes the loss of genetic diversity and resilience in the species as well.

A small genetic pool means that overall the species is subject to shocks that happen in nature regardless of farm management techniques.

Here, I find some years are better for yellow stone fruit, others white stone fruit. Cherries are subject to short heat waves and may split in heavy rainfalls. Some apricots types do better in dry seasons than wet seasons. I could go on but you never know what you'll get until you pick it.

The industrialisation of our food production systems is a real weakness. I diverse food forest provides insurance that a mono crop can never give and as hard as people would like to try you cannot produce consistently on a long term basis.

Getting back to it though, I recommend that if you have the space, try some seedling fruit trees. It's a bit of a gamble, but most seedling fruit trees seem to be hardier and more resistant to the shocks that nature continually throws at them. Also you begin to select for trees that do well in your area.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...


Apologies! I forgot to mention that most fruit trees that are in production now are grafted varieties and not seedlings.

The difference is that a grafted tree (eg. apple) will have roots that come from one seedling specie and at an early age, they'll cut off the top of the tree and graft on another known compatible specie of fruit tree.

The thing is with grafting, you get a genetically identical fruit tree growing so you can guarantee the type of fruit that develops on the tree. This is great for orchardists who produce according to demand and/or fads.

The roots (or rootstock) determines how big and/or disease resistant the final tree is. The rootstock if left to grow may also produce an interesting tree in itself, but usually these are cut back if they develop as they outcompete the grafted part of the tree.

Seedling trees on the other hand may produce an identical or random variation from that of the tree that produced it.

Take for example the Granny Smith apple. This was found as a seedling apple tree which by chance grew in a garden (Mrs. Smith's) in New South Wales - Australia. Now it’s very widely spread from just one seedling tree.

If we fail to grow seedling trees and only produce a small variety of fruit then we reduce the genetic diversity of the plants - and you never know what you may end up with - it may even be an improvement on the original fruit.

Good luck!

dr-beowulf said...

I'll second the recommendations for Seed to Seed and Seed Savers Exchange. One of the anthropologists at my university runs a seed bank and holds periodic swaps: Arkansans should have a look at CAAH, while others might want to look for similar initiatives in their own states.

My personal experience with saving seed is that the hardest part isn't so much saving the seed per se -- at least not for the veggies I usually grow -- but avoiding crossbreeding. Cultivated carrots, for instance, freely cross with wild carrots a.k.a. "Queen Anne's lace", which is very common here; I'd have a heck of a time maintaining pure carrot strains. And most summer and winter squash, zucchini, pumpkins, etc. are varieties of the same species (Cucurbita pepo), and will freely hybridize with each other. Plant yellow squash and zucchini next to each other, and the Gods only know what you'll get from any seeds you save. There are ways around that, but they can be labor-intensive.

Growing diverse varieties can also create a problem: if you like growing fifteen different tomato varieties at once, or ten different cucumbers, that'll make it harder to save seed (unless you're willing to grow possible hybrid seed and see what happens -- which might be a useful experiment, but not if you're counting on getting a certain return).

On the other hand, beans usually self-fertilize and will breed true from seed. Garlic and shallots normally reproduce asexually; cross-fertilization isn't an issue at all. These are ridiculously easy to save and propagate. My best recommendation would be to start with the easy plants, and work up to the trickier ones -- as CM said, maybe learn how to save one or a few new seeds every year. That's what I'm working towards.

hapibeli said...

Great post! My wife and I are seed savers, as well as organic gardeners, so we're right there.

Bill Pulliam said...

Uglee --

The Amish are far less self sufficient and independent of the fossil fuel society than most outsiders believe them to be, and are decreasingly independent with each generation. I talk to the older Amish around here and they worry that their own old ways are fading within their own community. They do not necessarily farm organically either. They are more and more growing a cash economy based on tourism and farmers markets. In my community, Amish are seen more and more regularly shopping in the Mall*Wart, to which they travel in regular gasoline vans. Don't read me as too harsh, they still know much about this stuff especially in the older generations. But in recent years I have seen Amish boys using gasoline weed-eaters and rototillers, been in Amish houses that were powered by propane, and seen a field that used to be plowed by horses every spring now being plowed by a diesel tractor.

The Amish are not motivated by environmentalism or sustainability. They are motivated by religious fundamentalism, family and community cohesion, and the desire to strictly observe their sabbath and scriptures as they understand them. Technology is evaluated on a case-by-case basis under these principles, not under ideas of sustainability.

So, the Amish are a good resource. But don't romanticize them or idolize them or make them out to be a primo model for sustainable living.

ezab said...

For a wonderful introduction to saving your own vegetable seeds, a downloadable booklet, go to:

The Seed Ambassadors also sell seeds adapted to the Pacific Northwest.
Go to:

There are many links to other seed-saving resources on the Seed Ambassadors website.

Kevin said...

Cherokee, how hard is it to graft a tree? There's an apple tree in the yard next to mine that hangs over the fence and easily half its produce falls in my yard, or can be picked from there. However since I rent and might eventually have to move, I'd like to have a little apple tree of my own, preferably in a container so I can take it with me if need be. Is it crazy to think I could graft something from that tree? Can this be done, and if so how?

Adrian Skilling said...

Great practical post again JMG with some good background philosophy. A good book from the UK is:

This has inspired me to save seed. I've done a lot of the easier crops like peas, beans, garlic (just leave it in the ground!), tomatoes and some more tricky ones like pumpkins (using hand-pollination). Check out (UK) a gem of a company. Not only do they sell great open-pollinated seeds but they tell how to save seed.

I would recommend saving large batches every few years of some crops every few years depending on number of year viability. I've yet to properly manage when and what to save. Still learning. You need to take care though, it'd be easy to get poor saved seeds for Brassicas for instance.

ezab said...

When you want seeds for medicinal herbs, try Horizon Herbs, in Williams, Oregon. They carry many herbs, including rare varieties. Find them online at

In addition, I use, which carries herb seed as well as many unusual flowers. For example, they carry seed for calendula officinalis, the medicinal variety of calendula.

Richard said...

About fedco, I've gotten seed form them and most of them were good, but I just thought I'd mention that their "Laurentian Rutabaga" that I planted this year was bad seed, a few of them had good form but the rest were horrible, some forming hard carrot-shaped roots and not bulbing out at all, many with a solid white coloring and an unpleasant taste. The tops were irregular too. I have experience growing rutabagas in my location, so I know it was real bad seed, either crossed accidentally or the plantings not rogued or selected for a number of years. Fedco is far from the worst, but be aware that many seed companies sell poor seed to home gardeners because for most gardeners as opposed to market growers, they'll think it's something they did and never think to suspect poor seed. Steve Solomon gives an excellent insiders view of the seed industry in his book "Gardening When it Counts"

Don Plummer said...

@Bill Pulliam:
For what it's worth, it's quite inaccurate, and somewhat offensive, to call the Amish "fundamentalists." Christian Fundamentalism was a reaction to the so-called "Modernist" movement in American Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Fundamentalism, therefore, was strictly an American and a Protestant movement.

The Amish, on the other hand, are descended from the Anabaptist movement, which has its roots in sixteenth century Europe. Anabaptists are usually considered part of the Protestant Reformation, but most other Protestants at the time were wary of them and, in fact, many persecuted them. Their insistence on separation of church and state (a novel doctrine at the time) and their refusal to take part in warfare caused them to be perceived as a threat.

Anabaptists and Fundamentalists might share some doctrinal beliefs--most likely those beliefs that are shared with most other Christians--but their understanding of society and culture are quite different. Most, though not all, Anabaptists are pacifists, as I already mentioned. Very few, if any, American Fundamentalists are pacifists.

My son attended a Mennonite college, so I have learned some things about Anabaptists from him.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Kevin,

No worries. Grafting is pretty easy although for my place I purchase grafted fruit trees and grow seedling fruit trees. I went to a heritage apple farm a couple of years ago and picked up heaps of grafted apple trees all of which have taken. The main problem is that I don't have access to the root stock trees and don't wish to let them take over one of the purchased grafted trees.

You can check out the Wikipedia entry here:

There are probably also heaps of video's on youtube to show you how to graft.

It sounds as though you have quite an old apple tree next door. I'd recommend putting some of the seeds in potting mix and leaving it over winter and see what turns up over the following summer. It sounds a bit hit or miss, but you may be surprised to find that the tree that grows isn't that dissimilar from the one next door. If you keep it in a large pot and feed it with worm tea's, compost etc. when a seedling begins you'll find it won't grow all that large anyway because the root system can't get too big in the pot. Most advice that you see for fruit trees seems aimed at the commercial grower. If I get a yield of fruit that's only 80% of the original tree it doesn't bother me.

Most seedling trees don't seem to differ too much from the parent tree, which is a shame. They also seem hardier as their root systems are larger and better able to forage for water and nutrients over dry periods.

Good luck!

pfh said...

Yes, it's very good to point out that contradiction. Finance is indeed built around an information model, that assures a dollar saved in the past will forever earn multiplying material returns in the future. The physical world simply doesn't work that way... and very fascinating that our information theory people have not noticed... but still, isn't it also "high time" we recognized that our centuries of strenuous effort to run a physical world on a perpetual escalator have not made it work.

From a physical world view profit comes from the organization of the whole producing more than is needed for the parts. That's also called "net energy" and all systems have to have it to work at all, and to get started any system needs to have multiply profits of that kind, for a while.

Investors, though, take the profits to call their own, to accumulate more and more, rather than to recycle as rewards for parts of the system generating their rewards they find agreeable. Instead they withhold making investments unless they feel assured they'll get multiplying returns for themselves, believing that can be endless like it was a Ponzi scheme!

How about calling the alternative "recycling the magic" or "returning the rewards" instead of what I've been calling it... whatever that was.

Have more good blog posts recently too.

tom rainboro said...

Apple grafting is certainly not difficult. Here's a UK based youtube link.

Eve said...

JMG, just wondering why there isn't an obvious link the the Green Wizards site with other links on the right hand side on the Archdruid Report homepage.

- Eve

Bill Pulliam said...

Don --

Interesting, but also irrelevant to my point, that the Amish are not organic or fossil-fuel independent, and are motivated by religious choices not environment-energy-etc. concerns.

Since most mainstream people erroneously assume that the Amish do farm organically (which they don't), sustainably (which they don't), and humanely (which they don't), they really drive down the market prices for other local farmers who do attempt to do all those things, Why pay $3 for eggs when I can get "the same thing" from the Amish for $1.50? This is of course the fault of the non-discriminating buyers, not the Amish, but it is still annoying.

Kevin said...

Thanks Cherokee and Tom! I've saved your comments for reference, and will give it a shot, both grafting and planting seeds. I've got access to the tree, to its seeds, and to a fairly sizable yard, so why not? In fact I think it would be foolish not to.

I'll have to make a bat house for the tree, as it's gotten pretty badly infested with larvae of some kind (white moth, perhaps?) over the past couple of years. Yet its yield of clean apples is still pretty respectable, even so. This town has something of a mosquito problem (thanks to a big stupid bayside development project that went in 45 years ago), so attracting bats seems like a good idea in any case.

jksirmsdj said...

We are not living in an information society at all because the most important information is like a nugget in a river bed of stones and most algorithmical programs can never notice them.
I am working with a lot of address data from people and the live in "behind the green hut" that can never be analyzed by the big data warehouses. The guy in "behind the green hut" on the other hand is someone that delivers something personal to us other than inhabitant 23423 on house x on street y
And that applies to all sort of data. The most important data can not be processed. Be it Midi Music or the glimpse of Mona Lisa.