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Next Level Gardening: Seed Saving

Janisse Ray says every morsel of food we eat starts with a seed. Her new book "The Seed Underground" celebrates the labor of love of seed saving.

janisse, ray seed underground

Photo: Courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Janise Ray started saving seeds as an extension of her love of gardening.

Save Seeds, Save The World

“Every morsel of food that we eat starts with a seed.”

That’s the guiding principle that author and naturalist Janisse Ray follows when she works in her garden.

She started growing her own food in Georgia as a way to eat more healthfully. She started saving seeds as a way to save the world.

“Seeds are being patented at a rapid rate,” she says. And not just GMO and hybrid seeds, but also heritage and heirloom varieties. That worries her because she sees it as corporations gaining control over the food supply. “Our seed supply is our food supply,” she says.

What she would prefer is if seeds were the property of everyone and no one. “I think seeds belong to the great commons of life, like air, water, fire and the ocean,” she says. “I don’t believe they can or should be owned.”

The Magic Of Pollination

Ray is especially concerned with preserving heirloom varieties of seeds, which means maintaining a seed’s purity is of the utmost importance. Seeds are produced as a result of pollination, so she is acutely aware of how her plants interact with pollinators.

She highlights three of the ways plants are pollinated: self-pollinated, insect-pollinated and hand-pollinated.

Self-pollinating plants, like tomatoes and beans, do the hard work themselves. When the flower opens up, the pollen is dragged across the stigma — no outside critters or pollen are involved. “Anybody can save bean and tomato seeds and be assured of their purity,” she says.

Seeds that are insect-pollinated, like squashes, need a showy bloom with a fragrance to attract beneficial bugs. For instance, as a honeybees collects pollen from the flower’s male reproductive part (anthers) for use back in the hive, some stray grains will stick to the bee’s body. When it travels to the next flower, some of the pollen will be transferred onto that flower’s female reproductive part (stigma).

Seed saving gets more complicated, Ray says, when you’re dealing with cross-pollination — for instance, when a banana squash pollinates a butternut squash. That compromises the purity of the plants’ seeds.

Hands-On Gardening

In order to prevent a plant from being cross-pollinated by insects, Ray hand-pollinates her plants. This involves some serious gardening:

  1. In the evening, find a female bloom and a few male blooms that are set to open the next morning.
  2. Tape them shut.
  3. The next morning, open the blossoms and rub the pollen from the male flowers onto the stigma of the female flowers.
  4. Tape them back shut.

If this seems more hands-on than you’d like to be in your garden, she says you can ensure purity by isolating your plants.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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