You are a Seed Keeper — that’s a pretty cool job title. Can you tell us more about what you do?
I come from a place called Akwesasne, which is an indigenous Mohawk community near the Canadian border. Traditionally, we are an agricultural nation so caring for seeds and for the Earth in general aligns with our cultural values and has been handed down from one generation to the next over millennia. There’s a lineage of people cultivating relationship to their food and to the Mother Earth. We have quite a number of heritage and traditional varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and other plants that have been specifically handed down through many generations over the last several thousand years as a part of our traditional food ways. I have the great honor of being one of the seed keepers of the Mohawk people which means that, together with others, I am making sure that the seeds stay alive and healthy and that they’re given freely within our community, as well as passed down to the next generations.
Sounds like a true passion.
It is a real passion. Due to the impacts of colonization and acculturation many of native North American food systems have been dismantled and unfortunately, they are not a part of our everyday life anymore. As a teenager I didn’t really have access to a lot of the traditional foods and to the cultural memory that goes with them. As a young woman I became interested in traditional farming and wanted to learn more about where our food comes from and to create more sovereignty and freedom through cultivation. That’s how I opened this Pandora’s box of the world of heirloom seeds… and wow!
It turns out that not only do seeds have this incredible diversity — a prism of different colors and shapes and sizes and places where they grow best and communities that they come from — but that they also carry stories and beautiful lineages of relationships.
For Mohawk people agriculture was historically at the center of our culture and I was very curious why it no longer was a significant part of my life and how I could reengage and restore that relationship and connection to the land. So I began to ask people, gather seeds and learn more and more about my responsibility to care for them. It led me on a 20-year-long path to being a seed keeper. Being an educator and a mentor constitutes a central part of this role. I am helping people who are in a similar situation I was 20 years ago — curious but not having access to knowledge or seeds. I am passing this knowledge I received from the elders and mentors of mine within the community because I honor the importance of keeping these traditional seeds alive together with the cultural memory that is attached to them.
It is. I run a seed co-operative. We have a 10-acre farm that focuses on stewardship of seeds and education of people about seed care and growing food in holistic ways. I am also the national program coordinator for the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network — a program of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which works with a number of different tribal communities to create seed libraries and banks and also to build mentorship networks to leverage resources around policy for protecting our seeds against biopiracy, biocolonialism and patenting. I travel all over North America to see tribal communities and facilitate workshops and conversations around how communities are creating these resources in their lives. So that’s my work in a nutshell. It’s complex and multilayered but it’s also a beautiful path to follow. The seeds have guided me well along my path.
So would you say that seed keeping could be seen as a decolonization
To me decolonization is the foundation of the seed sovereignty movement. But I also like to put a positive spin on it: it’s re-indigenising.
We are claiming back our traditions and rehydrating those original agreements that we had with the plants and with our ancestors but also with our descendants. It doesn’t happen only in Native American nations. Across the globe communities start to recognize the importance of durable, resilient, local food systems. Local engagement has been growing the incredible momentum in the last several decades. The Seed Freedom Movement is a part of it because we recognize that we cannot have a durable and resilient local food system if we don’t have locally adapted seeds that are a part of it. Seeds are the foundation of agriculture but they also encode a memory of the land, the climate, the weather, as well as people’s cultural values, aesthetics and stories. And now people of all generations are coming together to recognize the importance of seed heritage, to create new ways to counteract the globalization and industrialization of our food systems, to resist monocultures. At the heart of what I do is the creation of the seed literacy. Even if you’re not a farmer or a gardener, seed is a vitally important thing in your life because we all eat.
Among Mohawk people the women were traditionally responsible for seed keeping. Is it still the case within this modern growing movement?
Historically in most cultures — although I can confidently talk only about the Mohawks — seeds were considered feminine. It relates to our own reproductive system — it’s the woman who carries the seed. If you look botanically, it’s the female part of the plant that is creating the seed, so this is a feminine expression of the plant’s life cycle. In our tradition and in many cultures and traditions across the globe seeds have traditionally been considered a feminine aspect of the agricultural system and largely it’s been the responsibility of women to care for them.
In your writing you are using this beautiful word — rematriation.
We’ve been using it in a lot of different contexts. Primarily it’s about restoring the feminine back into our lives through our food systems and recognizing that many of the industrial global food systems are very patriarchal, so it’s about creating that balance. Our traditional knowledge wasn’t about women being more powerful than men or the other way round. The point was to maintain that egalitarian balance between the masculine and the feminine.
Rematriation in relation to seeds is about bringing the seeds back home into their original context and into their communities of origin. Speaking more broadly, rematriation is about restoring that feminine energy back into our lives and our communities.
I learned of the word through a man named Martin Prechtel. In my latest blog post I quote a piece from his book “The Unlikely Peace of Cuchamaquic” — he speaks very eloquently about the idea of rematriation, about that holy feminine being restored back into our lives. Among native peoples we talk a lot about repatriation of things back into our communities. So in this case we decided to use a more feminine word. It’s inspired by the work of Martin Prechtel but also by the legacy and lineage within indigenous communities.
Is it relatively easy to engage young people in such work?
For many years there had been this generation gap. Older people were keeping traditions and seeds alive but younger ones didn’t engage, didn’t see it as relevant. But now I’m witnessing a resurgence of the movement among the younger folks in tribal and farming communities but also in a more mainstream culture. People are waking up to the fact that the monocropped way of life and industrialization of everything is damaging not only to the nature but also to our relationship with the world. Young people these days are inheriting a world that is deeply troubled. In a way they know they have to do something and they are enraged. Stewarding seeds is such a powerful, beautiful and inspiring path to follow. It’s a hopeful form of activism. It’s very tangible and it creates something positive to work for instead of working against something else.
We have to be good future ancestors and responsible descendants, so it’s our responsibility to care for the seeds to make sure that younger generations and future generations that we might not know yet have them.
I have a teenage daughter who’s been growing up on a seed farm so this way of eating is her life from day one. She has a great passion for the culinary arts. She wants to be a chef. There’s a spectrum of ways in which young people can engage in this kind of work. If you’re interested in farming or gardening, that’s great but you might as well be a chef, an artist, an activist, a public speaker. There are many different ways to contribute. A lot of our work in the seed sovereignty movement evolves around inclusivity — how we can acknowledge the gifts that different people can bring to the table and how to make sure that a well-rounded resilient food system has many people contributing in various creative ways so it’s not only about growing food.
You also say that seeds are living beings and our relatives. Can you unpack it a bit for people who haven’t grown up within a Native American community and may have a problem with relating to it?
Sure. All of us — and that includes everyone who is reading it now — descend from a lineage of people who had a very intimate relationship with plants. It’s just in the last couple of hundred years of human history we’ve been looking at seeds and food in general as a commodity as opposed to something that was an integral part of our life that we shared. It used to be a commons, a collective inheritance. A long time ago our ancestors — mine, yours, everyone else’s — made agreements with plants that they would take care of each other. There is this intimacy, there are familial relationships that are encoded in creation stories that are held within many different ancestries and bloodlines.
So when I say that seeds are sacred because they are living relatives, I mean it wholeheartedly. That’s how I view seeds and that’s how pretty much all of humanity saw seeds up to a certain point.
Then it started to get industrialized and commodified and our collective view of what seeds represented has changed. I like to remind people that 200 years ago in the United States and in Europe there were no seed companies. People shared and traded seeds instead. I like to tell people to think deeply about their relationship with their food and with the seeds that make this food. If you trace back different cultural lineages, you’ll see that plants and seeds played significant roles in cosmologies and worldviews. In the Mohawk creation story such foods as corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and strawberries figure prominently. They grew from the body of the daughter of the original woman as a gift to her sons. These foods would then sustain them for the rest of their time here on Earth and they literally grew from her flesh and bones. So in our cosmology we see them as our relatives. We have an agreement with them that they would nourish us every day but we have to give back. That’s a reciprocal relationship.
So now, in North America but also globally, we need to rethink and rewrite the narrative of our relationship with food and seed. At the moment there is a dominant narrative in the Western world that sees plants as dead inanimate objects that we just grow, harvest, mechanize and exploit. But that dominant narrative is really just a shallow facade around a much deeper relationship that humans have had with plants for a lot longer. So in our educational seed co-operative Sierra Seeds we challenge that dominant narrative.
This is a radically different view to the one held by mainstream agricultural companies. You are promoting it now not only through Sierra Seeds in the US — recently you joined the faculty of over 40 women who teach the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course where you run a module on seed keeping. It is not a regular part of the PDC curriculum, is it?
It isn’t indeed. Permaculture is a fantastic curriculum and a beautiful pedagogy — a wonderful system of knowledge that has been distilled down from a much larger traditional ecological body of knowledge originating all around the world and I think many of us within the movement acknowledge that. There is a very particular curriculum of 72 hours of teaching that accompanies the PDC and seed stewardship isn’t a part of it but then… how can it not be a part of it? Seed stewardship should be an integral part of every farmer’s garden and it was — until a hundred or two hundred years ago. So when we’re talking about permaculture and creating holistic food systems, the seed has an inherent place within it. People need to know how to steward seed and how to cultivate seed that’s regionally adapted to a very specific place and to their own unique low input permaculture system. So I approached the creators of this course and said: “Hey, what if we include a module on holistic seed stewardship?”.
The seed is the beginning. It’s so vitally important to the foundation of all food systems but at the same time most seeds available now aren’t adapted to low input polyculture or permaculture systems.
They have been bred and selected for monoculture in a very different farming system. That’s why I think that for people who are meant to obtain a certificate in permaculture design it’s important not to forget about saving seeds. I feel super thrilled to contribute to this course and hold a little corner of that space to really honor the seeds and all that they give us.
One more thing… I’m sure that everyone who got to this point of our conversation feels like me. I buy the majority of my vegetables from a local farming co-operative so the veggies I eat are local, culturally appropriate and organic. But as a city dweller with a small garden I throw away most of these really good seeds and now I feel super-bad. Any advice for folks like me?
The beautiful thing about this growing seed sovereignty movement is that there are many different community projects and initiatives that are springing up wherever people come together to think creatively about how we can develop more access to good seeds within our communities. So in a lot of places, especially in urban environments, there are seed libraries and seed exchange — places where people help to facilitate the distribution and collection of these seeds. So I would recommend that folks, who don’t have a lot of capacity in their life to do a lot of seed stewardship in their own garden or allotment, connect with the wider community. Seed libraries are popping up — it’s worth to look for a local one and share your surplus of seeds there.
The beauty of a seed is that it multiplies exponentially. It is a wonderful example of the natural abundance of the Earth and I think it is also a beautiful expression of the gift economy. Even keepers like myself always have more seeds than we need. It inspires me to be generous and to give seeds outside of my own home farm. The seeds teach us to be generous and to share our abundance with other people and this is really the true nature of things. We live in a society where the dominant narrative is based on scarcity and austerity, so we need to start paying attention to seeds because they remind us of the inherent generosity of the Earth and of our own inherently generous nature.
#seedstewardship #permaculturewomen #seedsaving #decolonization
To find out more about Rowen and the projects she’s involved in, have a look at the Sierra Seeds website. Rowen is also one of the tutors in the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Certificate course.
Free Mini-class: No Such Thing As Waste In A Garden, Closing the soil and food nutrient loop: reducing and reusing food waste
with Mandy Merklein
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
We love food. Let's make sure it doesn't get wasted! In this mini class we’ll look at how gardening cuts down on waste and ways to eliminate waste while gardening.
By growing your own food, you can cut down immensely on many forms of waste. This is true throughout the whole cycle from seed to plate and back into the garden. What waste can be avoided by simply growing tea herbs and sprouts on a windowsill or in the garden?
Here are just a few ways gardening reduces waste:
Here are some more ways to reduce waste in your food system:
Take a look at your garden set up and think about ways you could be closing the loop to create no waste. Create a repurposing project such as using toilet paper rolls to grow your starters. Make a worm bin or compost for organic waste, i.e. food scraps etc. Invite friends/family to help. Document. Extend the idea of repurposing and not wasting into other areas of your life.
This miniclass is excerpted from the Waste, There's No Such Thing As Waste module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Mandy Merklein.
Mandy Merklein studied permaculture for her thesis in environmental studies at Wells College. She has worked as a field biologist and environmental consultant in the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Pacific Northwest, South Pacific, South America and Europe. She currently lives in Mallorca, Spain. Mandy received her PDC from Darren Doherty, and her teaching certification from Rosemary Morrow. She is a founding and active member of Permacultura Mediterranea (PermaMed.org), Youth in Permaculture, Gaia Youth, Community and Ecology Resources LLC, and Escola Kumar, a permaculture education demonstration site, where she lives, practices, and shares permaculture with her family, friends and students.
Further reading on this topic:
Harland, Maddy. Fertile Edges. Permanent Publications- 2017. Harland is co-founder and editor of Permaculture International magazine. This book covers a wide range of topics including regenerative culture, earth restoration and social permaculture.
Shiva, Vanadana. Seed Sovereignty, Food Security. Women in the Vanguard of the Fight against GMOs and Corporate Agriculture: North Atlantic Books. 2016. An anthology of women writers on protecting seed biodiversity and food.
#waste #compost #repurpose #sharetheharvest #permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen
with Rowen White
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
The focus of this mini class is to walk through the planning of the seed garden as it is integrated into your larger farm or garden. Integrating seed stewardship into an existing garden isn’t difficult or complicated, but it does take a bit of foresight and planning.
If you are a beginner on this seed keeper path, it is best to keep it simple and make the commitment to grow one or two varieties of seed in the season. I will be offering guidelines today on how to steward varieties with care from seed to seed.
Today, following this worksheet, we will create a constellation of all the considerations that we must understand as we lay the groundwork for our seed crops. Some seed crops are grown in the same manner as their food components. These are crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and dry beans. With these crops that double as food crops, the only considerations that you need to make is the timing of planting, to ensure that the seeds ripen in the fruit. You also need to consider isolation strategies that may be needed to ensure varietal purity. I will cover these topics briefly today, but you can dive deeper into them as part of the Plant Midwifery lesson in my season long distance learning module, Seed Seva.
I suggest you pick a seed variety that has special significance to you. This seed work is about restoring relationships, and the process of following a seed crop through the cycle will deepen your connection and relationship to these plants.
Part of drawing out the map of intentions for following a plant through the life cycles is to begin to learn what I call plant midwifery. You will be learning the many layers of the plant’s reproductive cycles, as you work with and help steward life from one generation to the next through the stewardship of seed. You will only touch the surface of these reproductive cycles today. As you plant and move into the sprouting and flowering phases of the season, you will learn more about the diversity of ways in which seeds create seeds from their blossoms, and how we can learn from such expressions and patterns.
But first, I want to walk you through my own process of planning my seed stewardship projects.I would recommend that you get yourself a copy of The Seed Garden by Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel, and Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Both books will be a great reference for you throughout the season.
This is a good time to remind you that there is a lot to learn in this mentorship path of seed keeper. I have been stewarding seeds for 19 years and I still learn every single season. Don’t let the abundance of information overwhelm you. Allow it to seep in slowly, like water on thirsty soil. You may find yourself going back over these lessons and books in years to come, to find new perspective and insight. Be patient with yourself.
Things that may be helpful for you to have as we begin to fill out the seed garden plan are maps or layouts of your current garden or permaculture site. If you are just beginning, just sketch out a dream garden map, as a visual that we will use for this exercise. Get out your garden journal and begin to make a map of your current garden, and where you intend to plant different crops.
It’s also helpful at this point if you have maps of your garden from the last year to refer to so that you can take into account crop rotation. You will want to plant heavy feeding crops in areas where legumes or light feeders were grown last year. Ensure that you don’t plant the same crop type in the same bed or soil the next year to prevent disease and viral buildup.
Please print out your seed garden plan worksheet, and use it to follow along with my inquiry in the video.
The key is to start slow and steady, and to make sure you are always set up to handle stewardship of the varieties you have been given. This is a long-term relationship that you are beginning with these plants, and it’s better to be more focused than to have more than you can handle.
I always begin my planning with my field map, my inventory sheet, and the seed garden plan worksheet. I start with sketching things out, but innovative digital garden planning software is available.
Begin to fill it out with the basic information, including variety, name, etc. I suggest that you put both of these worksheets in a garden journal or 3 ring binder, as you will be referencing this and filling in more areas of the sheet as you go throughout the season.
Don’t skip this step!
This is a good place to catch details you will be writing in your garden journal, and will help you establish good habits around recordkeeping.
Growing for seed and growing for food is sometimes very different. You will be thinking through a number of different variables to assess if there is anything different you will need to do for your specific seed crop varieties. Plants for seed often require more space than for food production.
What is a good population size for healthy seed?
There are a couple rules of thumb for figuring out how many plants of each variety you need for good healthy seed. For seed varieties that are self-pollinated, you need less plants, usually between 1-20 for good varietal maintenance. For cross-pollinated varieties, you need usually between 15-500+ for healthy seed.
Again, you don’t need to worry too much about this at this very moment, and you can see how it's much easier to begin with self-pollinated crops, depending on the size and scale of your garden or farm. With selfers, you simplify and decrease the number of variables that affect your seed. That said, some of my most treasured seed relatives are cross-pollinated, and they are not much more difficult, they just require a little bit more planning.
You can see in the seed garden chart that they have two columns for population size, one for home varietal maintenance, and a higher number of genetic preservation. I would in most cases be guided by the home varietal maintenance numbers.
Do I need to consider varietal isolation?
If your seed variety is a cross-pollinated species, you will need to consider isolation. The simplest form of isolation is to make sure that no other variety of the same crop type is grown in close proximity. For instance, if I am growing a sunflower or a corn variety, I want to make sure they are grown far enough away from another variety of the same crop type.
You will also see guidelines for isolation distance in the chart.
I will note here that these charts are rough guidelines. I can grow two varieties of corn much closer in distance because of tall tree hedgerows which block the pollen drift and also taking into consideration the hillside and the way that the wind blows consistently. I have had great success growing corn only 1000 feet apart, but there are trees and a prevailing wind that goes away from the corn crops and not between them. Over the seasons you will begin to read the lay of the land and see what works well within your landscape.
Another strategy that we use is to space out the planting timing of each variety. We do this with corn, and it works wonderfully.
Ask yourself, do I need to consider how much space each mature seed plant will need?
As I said before, some plants produce edible fruit and vegetable at the same time the seed is ready. Things like watermelon, tomato, dry bean, pepper, etc. These don’t require different spacing for food and seed.
But some seed crops extend beyond the normal stage of edibility, and you may need to increase spacing. For lettuce, I normally plant four heads 4-6 inches between plants, but for the seed phase they need more like 12-14 inches. In this case, I simply harvest every other one, and allow the remaining heads to go for seed.
Seed crops get rather wild and unruly!! See these mustard green seed pods spreading out all over! Note the stakes and trellis twine! We will be learning all methods of handling seed crops as they grow. In your seed garden plan and your seed record, fill out with how many of each plant you will need, and what sort of spacing they will need in your beds.
For your own personal homework make a list of ten varieties of either flowers, vegetables, herbs or grains that you have an interest in learning to grow from seed to seed. Grow things that have been historically grown in your region. Look for heirlooms that have been grown in your bioregion. Seeds are not one-size-fits-all.
Out of the list of ten, narrow down to one variety that you feel drawn to steward this coming season. These may be seeds you already have in your home.
This miniclass is excerpted from the Holistic Seed Stewardship module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Rowen White.
Rowen White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for seed sovereignty. She is the educational director and founder of the Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed cooperative focusing on local seed production and education, based in Nevada City CA. Rowen is the current National Program Coordinator and advisor for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network. She teaches creative seed training immersions around the country within tribal and small farming communities. She weaves stories of seeds, food, culture and sacred Earth stewardship on her blog, Seed Songs.
Further reading on this topic:
Breeding Organic Vegetables, Rowen White. (This is a FREE e-book for you!)
Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth. The seed saver's standard reference that gives information on saving all the common vegetable seeds. An important book to have if you're saving seeds of heirloom varieties.
The Seed Garden, Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel. An important book to have if you're saving seeds of heirloom varieties. Published by Seed Savers Exchange.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #seedsaving #seedstewardship #seedgarden
The following article was originally published in Permaculture Design Magazine’s Issue #102 Plants & Propagation. November 2016.
There is nothing more life-affirming than witnessing a seed sprouting in the garden that you didn’t plant. An old gardener friend once told me, “Life wants to live, ” and I believe that cultivating self-seeding in the garden is one of the best practices in trusting Nature’s ability to self-organize and thrive.
Allowing and encouraging plants to self-seed is a practice of resilience for the permaculture garden farm, and offers many benefits in addition to many avenues to explore. Below, we will look at why cultivating self-seeding is a form of resilience, how to encourage it happening in the garden, and some edible and medicinal self-seeding plants with which to consider making an acquaintance.
There are so many reasons to cultivate self-seeding varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables in the garden. In addition to getting to know the nature of the plant in its fullest expression, you can save tremendous amount of time by working with nature, as opposed to against it.
Perhaps I am a lazy gardener, but this is one of my top reasons for cultivating self-seeding varieties. I also enjoy the surprise, and play of chance; as what emerges is a dynamic process outside of my control. Planning and maintenance are interlinked, and a cultivator of self-seeding varieties works with a design of the garden that is more free form allowing for plants to move around the garden at their own volition, as opposed to expecting plants to stay where we put them.
As authors Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, and Hank Gerritsen write in their book Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants(1), “seeding is a vital way in which plant communities thrive and survive … a way of the garden becoming an ecological system.”
Many people refer to self-seeded plants as “volunteers,” and that is because the self-seeding plants emerged because they have something to offer and the conditions were right for them to offer it. Take the self-seeding dandelion.
Dandelions growing in a vacant lot with hard, compacted soil demonstrate one of the highest benefits of “volunteers,” because they can provide a direct ecological function and service. The strong taproots of dandelions work hard to break up the compacted soil, draw water and minerals from soil sublayers, and work to restore and regenerate the land upon which it is growing.
Self-seeding dandelions also provide a hardy and nutritious, quick-turn-around pollen source for pollinators in an area of land where many other plant ecologies have not yet been established. In this way, I see self-seeding “volunteers” as offering to us some form of restoration, and renewal at a higher level of knowing than we might see at initial face value.
Self-seeding “volunteer” plants typically beat me out to the garden to plant seeds in the ground. In this way, “volunteers” save garden-farmers time by initiating the growing cycle when the conditions are right, as opposed to having to wait till the garden-farmer can get around to planting them. The self-seeding seed has an intelligence that waits for just the right conditions- just the right soil temperature, moisture, nutrients, and get the growing started. It never ceases to amaze me how borage is already a few inches high before I set out sowing in the Spring!
Self-seeding varieties that have early germination periods, and therefore an early on-set of flowering, can be a crucial pollen and nectar source for beneficial insects. The benefit of food and habitat for pollinators and birds continues throughout the life cycle, as many seeds left on the plants become forage for garden friends. Food and habitat for beneficial insects is a primary way in which self-seeding plants transform the garden-farm into an ecological system, and works with nature so that the garden-farm can create resilient ecological relationships.
Cultivating self-seeding is in direct opposition to the segregated model of agriculture which imports its seed, sows it when the farmer is ready rather than when the seed is ready to grow, harvests the plant for its crop, and then clears the field before the plant can set seed, and repeats.
In permaculture, a key principle is “integrate, not segregate” and cultivating self-seeding into the garden integrates the sowing, harvesting, designing and planning, as opposed to segregating those acts into isolated moments of human intervention.
Which brings me to a primary benefit of self-seeding varieties, and that is seeds! As seeds develop on a plant, they are adapting to the specific microclimate of your garden, and will produce more resilient off-spring for the next year. Barbara Pleasant in her article “Self-Seeding Crops You’ll Never Need to Replant”(3) says “one of the characteristics of a truly sustainable garden is that it produces at least some of its own seed.”
By cultivating self-seeding in the garden, you are allowing for your plants to produce more resilient future generations, as well as, producing more seeds in general. When I allow my greens to go to seed after I have harvested them, I end up with exponentially more green seeds, and in turn more potential plants than I started with.
Not only can the garden-farmer use these seeds in the garden, but also the wildlife, as mentioned above. While some farmers may view letting plants going to seed to be a waste, the permaculture garden-farmer sees the myriad of benefits to letting a plant live out its full life cycle, encouraging niches to the overall benefit of the ecosystem.
Finally, the cultivated chaos of self-seeding is extremely beautiful and life-affirming. While the garden-farmer plays a role in creating the garden plan, as a self-seeding cultivator, the interaction is primarily centered on observing Nature’s beautiful design layout, without constant intervention, and making choices to encourage what you find beautiful with the goal of encouraging more beauty. Could that be more life-affirming?
HOW SELF-SEEDING WORKS
The practice of cultivating self-seeding in the garden begins with observing a plant’s full life cycle of birth, death, and decay as it transitions from seed to germination to leaves to fruit to seed to dropping its seed, to wilting, and the forthcoming birth of the next generation. This observation process is a constant reminder, and a vital way to tune into the cycles of Nature.
The more you become aware of the plant’s life cycle, you also start to notice its habit and shape. Does it send out runners, form a mat, sprawl, clump or climb? It is possible to do some background research(2) into the habit and form of the self-seeders of interest, but what is most informative is the hyper-localized observation process of watching the growing patterns of self-seeding plants on the land where you are.
Whatever you learn about growing you are learning about growing where you are. This is true because of microclimates, and the fact that each piece of land has slightly different soil, wind, water, and sun exposure. So what might thrive in one place, doesn’t in another, and visa versa. The best bet of someone who wants to cultivate self-seeding in the garden is to dive right into it. One encouraging thing about the practice- there’s no such thing as failing! Whatever grows grows, and lessons can be learned!
There are different elements in self-seeding plant communities of which are worth paying attention that will support the cultivation of a desired design outcome. For example, what is the population density of the “volunteers” like: is it thick, sparse, or sporadic? How quickly after germinating do they set seed (note: many varieties will set seed quicker when the temperature rises, or they are grown in very close proximity to other seeds)? What is the dispersal pattern of the seeds (do the seeds drop straight to the ground, are they moved by animals or the wind?)?
Having a sense of how specific self-seeding plants grow in your garden allows you to make more informed decisions when intervening. Intervention in the self-seeding garden-farm including select weeding and thinning plants you don’t want to make more space for those you do, and supporting the spreading of plant communities either by dropping the seeds yourself in weeded soil. If you are cultivating self-seeding flowers versus self-seeding greens, you may have different approaches. For example, with self-seeding greens I may start by seeding them heavy like a carpet in a bed in the Spring.
After harvesting baby greens for a few yields I will allow them to go to seed (the stress from space competition increases the speed at which most greens will go to seed). By end of summer, I will have another round of greens sprouting up with little to no work.
On the other hand, if I was cultivating self-seeding flowers like calendula or borage, I may thin or transplant “volunteers” to their suggested growing space to allow each plant to reach their maximum growing expression. It is really up to the garden-farmer as to what is your highest priority: is it leaves, greens, seed, color, or something else? With those design goals in mind, intervention is simply a curated process.
It is important to understand that there are self-seeding annuals, self-seeding biennials, and self-seeding perennials. What this means is that how long the individual plant lives depends on its life cycle. For example, a self-seeding annual will grow its full life out, flower and set-seed in one year, and that’s it; that exact parent plant will not grow back the following year. So a self-seeding annual has brand new plants that come up every year.
The general growing location of that plant variety may be in a similar location, but they are new plants. Self-seeding biennial varieties take two years to reach their full maturity and set seed. Depending on what you want to use the plant for, self-seeding biennials may require a little more patience with one year not being as productive as others.
Self-seeding perennials are plants that will continue to grow every year, going through their full flowering & seed cycle every year, and also set seeds for new plants to grow. Self-seeding perennials may require more thinning or transplanting in the Spring, but also not necessarily. Different plants grow at different rates. Also, some plants may be a perennial, but in colder climates they are treated as an annual. It helps to understand if they are self-seeding annuals, biennials or perennials, as each one requires slightly different care.
Finally, the only way that self-seeding works is if you let plants live their full life cycle all the way through the wilting. While many gardeners feel it is a necessity to “clean up” the garden at the end of the season, leaving many plants standing in the garden-farm long after they set fruit can be the most important moment when self-seeding happens.
Again, this is why it is so important to understand how the self-seeding plants you want to encourage seed themselves. For example, I always leave the sunflower stalks standing in the garden through the snowy months. Typically the seeds are gone by late Fall, but I leave it to the birds to eat and distribute the seeds for next year’s sunflower crop. Leaving sunflowers to stand in their wilted state supports their self-seeding.
WHERE TO START
Below are a few of my favorite edible and medicinal self-seeding varieties, with a little about how they can be used in the various parts of their cycle.
There are so many herbs that will happily self-seed in your garden-farm. Calendula, chamomile, chives, fennel, borage, oregano, basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, and horseradish to name a few. Some are self-seeding annuals, other self-seeding perennials, and it is useful to know the difference. Either way, herbs are often times the big heavy hitters for attracting and supporting pollinators. Some self-seeding herbs is a must in any garden-farm.
Perhaps one of my favorite, because they seem so happy to sow themselves. With edible seeds for humans and birds alike, immense beauty, cutting flowers, healthy oil producing potential, edible baby sprouts, and consistent food for beneficial insects, sunflowers can’t be beat!
Once you start growing potatoes, it can be hard to stop growing them, unless you find every single little potato that was growing in that soil. Forgotten potatoes are one of the best ways to start next year’s crop early. It is important to watch for blight, and not let any potatoes stay in the ground if they show any signs. Also, in order to get optimal growth of each plant, I occasionaly will transplant them in early Spring to give them a little more space, and get their growing more aligned. This great source of Vitamin C is one of my favorite!
Unless you keep an immaculately clean garden, and pick up every single fallen vegetable and weed, you probably have encountered the “volunteer” tomato. One thing that makes for an interesting self-seeding tomato plant is that it already has done the work for you of saving some its most viable seed from the year before; so in theory, your self-seeding tomato is going to be produce some of your most resilient varieties for your particular climate. Another note about self-seeding tomatoes is that since self-seeding borage is such a great companion plant with tomatoes, the two plants can continue to re-seed themselves in partnership.
There are so many tasty and nutritious greens that are self-seeding. Arugula, chard, collards, kale, lettuce, mustards, spinach, and sorrel are just a few of the awesome options of self-seeding greens. I like to add self-seeding radish and turnip into my bed of baby greens as well.
Seeding a bed early in the Spring, taking a few harvests before letting them go to seed, will provide a fresh bed of baby greens come late Summer/Fall. And depending on how densely you seed the initial bunch, you may be able to eat some of the spicy flower heads. For the ones that set flower, you will see many beneficial insects coming to share in a harvest while you admire and wait for the next crop.
Anyone with a compost pile who has put the remains of a squash in it have probably experienced the awesome self-seeding potential of the squash. I have seen many a compost pile that just leave the squash plant growing right out of the pile all season. I have also experienced building a lasagna bed using some 80% finished compost where squash came up in the beds. I’ve left it’s sprawling vines as a ground cover to keep out the weeds till the other things I’ve planted get more established and able to shade out the weeds.
I’ve also eaten self-seeding squash. The trick about self-seeding squash is that the fruit that grows very well may be a hybrid of different squash if their parent plant was grown within a close proximity to a different variety of squash, causing for cross-pollination. Check out seed-saving distance requirements to get a full-bred variety so that you can plan for how to best space and cultivate your self-seeding squash patch.
7. Wild Edibles
And where would we be without the wild ones? The wild self-seeding plants are some of my favorite because they are so incredibly informative about the needs of the soil and what the next stage of ecological succession looks like. Wild edibles are often medicinal or provide high nutrient levels. Good examples of self-seeding wild edibles that you may consider cultivating in your garden-farm are dandelion, burdock, wild lettuce, lambs quarter, purslane, and plantain to name a few.
The above list is just a selection of self-seeding possibilities and by no means exhaustive. There are so many more flowers, vegetables and herbs that will make a happy home in your garden-farm if you let them. Once you get started you can experiment with more and more. Nature is abundant, and life wants to live! Growing self-seeding varieties will keep your garden going long after you are sowing, and with a little cultivation and attention, it can be one of the most resilient and productive gardens possible. Happy self-seeding!
1. Reif, Jonas, Christian Kress., and Hank Gerritsen Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants. Timber Press. 2015.
2. Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s book, Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. 2005 is a great resource for gaining additional insights into plant’s ecological behavior, and consider how best to cultivate their nature. See the “Architecture” (Appendix 1) and “Form & Habit” (Appendix 3) sections of the tables included for more insight on this matter.
3. Pleasant, Barbara. “Self-seeding Crops You’ll Never Need to Replant.” Mother Earth News, August/September 2010.
Diana Sette is a visionary leader with a diverse range of experience from designing home ecologies to leading expansive community-oriented permaculture projects. Diana is Certified Arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture as well as a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer. She is the co-founder of an intentional community in Cleveland, OH, works as an educator, a green infrastructure consultant, and is a published writer covering ecological design and the intersection of art and politics. She is currently working towards a certificate in Ecopsychology and is a practicing interspecies communicator, mother, artist, musician, poet and speaker who enjoys sharing the magic of the plant and animal world with others.
Diana is a part of an international team of more than 40 women from 13 countries who recently launched an online Permaculture Design Certification Course with Advanced Training in Social, Emotional and Cultural Transformation. Learn from and study with Diana here: https://coursecraft.net/courses/z9Thn/a/cpmYFEtTT
#beneficialinsects #seeds #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #selfseeding
By Heather Jo Flores
In a foggy, temperate climate, most of us know the drill: Start seeds indoors in early spring and use grow lights if you have 'em. Plant in fertile soil with plenty of space in mid-June. Trellis, water, prune and pray and maybe, just maybe, get some homegrown tomatoes before the rains come again in September, when what started out as a savory dream of salsa and gazpacho turns into six pounds of green tomatoes topped with powdery mildew and hopeful plans for next year.
But there's hope! Tomatoes are native to the foggy forests of the Andes mountains, and with well-chosen heirloom varieties and a few useful tips, you can grow more tomatoes than you'll know what to do with.
VarietiesIn this case, size matters, and smaller is better. Cherry tomatoes are always a good bet. Salad and plum tomatoes are bigger than cherries, do well in this climate, and come in a wide variety of flavors, shapes and colors. Avoid giant slicing tomatoes like Brandywines and Oxhearts.
Here are my favorite tomatoes for a temperate garden, based on disease resistance, early and extended harvest, and yield:
A gorgeous, green-and-yellow-striped salad tomato with a bright, sweet flavor. Very prolific, a single plant can yield several dozen fruits.
Named for the subtle fuzz and pinkish-yellow color, this salad tomato is one of my all-time favorites. Not as prolific as the Green Zebra, but with such a distinct, delicious flavor, you just have to try them!
Bright yellow, it's one of the larger varieties of salad tomato. More saucy and savory than Green Zebra or Garden Peach, Taxis can be quite prolific and are a good choice for canning.
This is a classic red plum variety that does really well in a marginal climate. Fruits are shaped like a small Roma, and ripen quickly in tight, savory clusters. Excellent for canning. As with many of these varieties, San Marzanos have a long, wonderful history that I don't have space for in this article, but it's worth looking up online.
The "old faithful" of the temperate tomato world, Early Girls are a mid-sized, sweet slicer that won't disappoint.
Willamette & Oregon Spring.
As the names indicate, these two similar varieties were bred for temperate gardens. The mid-sized, orange-red fruits ripen early and provide a juicy flavor that is perfect for slicing, sandwiches and fresh eating.
Another mid-sized variety, with bright red fruits and an early harvest. Saucy and savory, great for raw eating and also for cooked recipes.
This is one of many varieties of tomato bred for success in Russian climates. They are tolerant of hot days and cold nights, which makes them a great option for Southern Humboldt gardens. The large, blackish fruits are juicy and savory, delicious in salsa or salad. If you can't find Black Krim, keep your eye out for other "Siberian" tomatoes, as they tend to do well in temperate gardens.
Grow tomatoes in the hottest place in your garden. Prune low-hanging branches of nearby trees to get as much sun as possible. If there is a wall or a fence nearby, paint it white to maximize the heat reflection of the sun onto your plants. Mulch with bright rocks. A greenhouse is a perfect microclimate for tomatoes, as long as they don't get over-watered.
Once they start to bloom, tomatoes need little water, and young plants get moldy if they're too wet. Overwatered tomatoes are more susceptible to rot, mildew, yellowing and split, watery fruit. Also avoid irregular watering — don't dry them all the way out and then drench them to make up for it. This will cause "blossom end rot" and weird-shaped fruit.
Set a regular, light watering schedule and stick to it. Once the fruit starts to ripen, reduce watering by half. Also, when you do water, avoid spraying overhead or you could cause the leaves to get spots from "sunburn." Hand-water in the early morning, pointing the hose toward the roots of the plants, or use soaker hoses or drip irrigation.
Tomatoes can grow in many different soil types but it's important not to over-fertilize them or they will turn into big leafy bushes with no fruit. Sow seeds in a light soil and transplant them into a rich compost. I don't use high-nitrogen fertilizer (read: poop) but I do recommend seaweed, oyster shells, wood ash and comfrey compost tea.
Weeding & Trellising.
Successful gardening requires good air circulation. Use vertical space to create it. Tomatoes love to climb. Trellising makes use of vertical space and lifts ripening fruits off the ground and away from would-be marauders like slugs and rats.
Use Handi-mesh tubes like the cages used by pot farmers, to build space-saving, easy to harvest tomato towers: Set up the cage, anchor it down, and plant tomatoes 10 inches apart around the cage. Stick a sunflower in the middle so it can grow out the top. As the tomatoes grow, poke them in and out of the Handi-mesh.
I plant marigolds and cilantro on the ground between the towers. The marigolds repel tomato-loving insects, and the cilantro tastes great!
Thinning & Pruning.
If you don't have full sun, and/or if you're growing large-fruited tomatoes, pinch off a third of the unripe fruits before they get too big. This allows the plant to focus on ripening fruit better. As for pruning, don't. Those fruitless, lateral branches provide balance, support and photosynthesis, and anchor the plant to the cage. Leave them. If leaves turn yellow, bust them off.
Save Your Seeds!
Finally, when you get a good crop, save the seeds! Tomatoes are self-pollinated, so you can save seeds without worrying about inbreeding problems. It's easy:
1. Collect ripe, undiseased fruits and squeeze the gooey seeds into a glass jar.
2. Add enough water to fill the jar halfway and cover with a piece of cardboard to let air in but keep bugs out.
3. Set on a shelf and let ferment for 5 to 7 days or until it really starts to stink! This fermentation process removes the slimy seed coat, kills seed-borne diseases and separates good seeds from bad. Bad seeds float, good seeds sink.
4. When a thick skin of mold forms across the top of the seedy liquid, fill the jar with water and swirl it around to sift and separate the contents. Carefully pour off the mold without dumping the good seeds out. Add water again and pour it off. Do this a few more times until all you have is clear water with clean seeds sunk to the bottom.
5. Pour through a tea strainer and carefully tap out the clean, wet seeds onto the inside of a folded piece of paper bag. Label and set in a dark place to dry for at least two weeks (or run them through a food dehydrator on the lowest setting overnight) and stash them in a tightly sealed jar or envelope.
Good luck and happy harvesting!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #temperategardens #homegrowntomatoes
by Heather Jo Flores
This time of the year, the garden might at first glance look messy, unkempt. The plants are starting to dry out, turn brown and die. But look a little deeper and you see an abundance of seeds ready to harvest, and whether you are an old expert at seed stewardship or a new gardener with a budding curiosity, saving seeds from your home garden to grow and share can be one of the most rewarding experiences of the season. This old-world skill is best learned experientially, and within a community of fellow seedgeeks. But here are some tips to get you started, even if you only have a small garden.
Some plants are much easier for beginners. This has less to do with ease of harvest than with whether or not the plant needs a large or isolated population to produce viable seed. For reasons we don't have space to explore in this article, saving seeds from cucumbers, squash, corn and most plants in the Brassica family (kale, cabbage, broccoli) is best left for experienced farmers who have the space and knowledge to make sure those seeds have been bred in a way that maintains their genetic diversity and integrity. On a home scale, I recommend starting with the easy ones: lettuce, beets, carrots, celery, tomatoes, onions, beans and plants in the mint family (most of your culinary herbs.)
Most of the vegetables we eat are just babies when we harvest them for the table. But to save seeds, let the plant mature completely. Heads of lettuce will elongate and shoot up flower stalks covered in tiny, yellow dandelion-like blooms. Onions will send up a pointy bud that will open up into a globular white cluster. Beets, carrots and celery are biennial, so their seeds won't mature until the second year. Tomatoes and peppers, when harvested for seed, should be much riper than most of us prefer for fresh eating.
Harvest and Processing
There are two distinct types of seed processing: dry and wet.
Make sure the seeds are fully formed and have started to dry. A good test is if they shake easily into your hand. If the seed is still very firmly attached to the plant, it probably hasn't matured. When you harvest, don't try to remove the individual seeds in the field. This can cause a lot of waste. Just cut the whole seed-head carefully into a paper sack and move to a sheltered spot where you can clean it.
As soon as you harvest, create detailed labels with as much information as you know. Include date of harvest, date of planting, species and variety names, where in the garden it grew best, where you originally got the seed, and why you liked this particular variety enough to save seed from it. Keep these notes with the seeds, and you will always have the information at your fingertips.
Most seeds mature within a protective coating called chaff. To process seeds for storage and replanting later, we must first remove the chaff; otherwise it will rot in storage and cause the seeds to decay. To remove the bulk of the chaff, pour the seed heads onto a clean tarp spread on the ground or a large table. Fold the seeds into the tarp like a burrito, making sure the corners won't leak. Stomp, smash and dance on the tarp, and then carefully open it back up. Avoid getting a lot of dirt and other contaminants into the seeds.
Now you are ready for winnowing. On a large scale, this is best done with fans and screens, but on a small scale you can just do it with a medium-sized round bowl and your mouth. Put the seed into the bowl a little at a time and swirl it around, blowing gently. The chaff, which is lighter, will lift up and blow away, while the seed, heavy with genetic material, will sink. Pick the last few specks of chaff out with your fingers and place the clean seed on a piece of paper in a standard electric food dehydrator on the lowest setting (around 96 degrees) overnight. You could also dry your seed on a dark shelf for at least two weeks, but I prefer the dehydrator so I don't have to worry about mice, ants and ambient moisture ruining my crop.
If the seed is encased in a juicy fruit, such as tomatoes, use this method to remove the slimy seed coat so that the seeds last longer in storage. This not only gets rid of the slime, it also kills any seed-borne diseases and ensures your seed will survive in storage for up to several years.
Squish the seeds into a jar. Add a small amount of water, place a piece of cardboard over the top to let air in but keep bugs out, and set the jar aside. Pick a spot that is not in your kitchen, because it will definitely stink! Within a week, a thick skin of mold will form on top, and the mature seeds will sink to the bottom. Now, fill the container to the top with water and carefully pour off the mold on top. Rinse the seeds a few more times, until the water is clear, then strain them. Now they're ready for the dehydrator.
Seed Saving Storage
Store seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. I store mine in paper envelopes inside insulated picnic coolers, available for a few dollars at any thrift store. If you save peas or fava beans, watch out for weevils, which are very common. You won't be able to tell if your seed has the weevil larvae inside, but store them in the freezer and you can be sure they will die. Also freeze seeds from members of the Allium family, such as onions, leeks and chives, which are particularly short lived — they last much longer when frozen. The longevity and viability of your seeds will be largely dependent on storage conditions, so don't overlook this important step.
We can only protect diversity by keeping it alive, and your seeds will perish if stored for more than a few years. Grow and save them again, and share your collection with fellow gardeners. My favorite way to share seeds is through the community seed swap.
If you 'd like to learn more, have a whole module on seed saving in our online double-certificate permaculture design course.
Heather Jo Flores wrote Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community. Seed saving is her deepest passion. Visit www.heatherjoflores.com.
#seedsaving #permaculturewomen #freepermaculture
by Heather Jo Flores
Whether you save your own seeds or just have a bunch of leftover packets from years past, a seed swap is a great way to expand the diversity of both your garden and your community. But don't limit yourself to just seeds!
I have been organizing events like these for 20 years and folks have brought surplus plants, trees, garden supplies, food preserves and homebrews.
A seed swap attracts more than just the local permaculture crowd. People from all walks of life have a passion for gardening and seed saving and this event can bridge gaps and build new friendships that lead to a close-knit and more sustainable community for everyone.
How to organize a community seed swap
Look online and ask around in your area about anyone who has organized seed swaps in the past. It is better to help with a central, large swap than to have a bunch of small ones that aren't connected. If you can't find anyone who is already organizing swaps in your community, then you are ready to move on to step 2.
Make a flier and/or FB event page
In order to do this, you will need to decide on some things. First, when and where will you have your seed swap? Your house, the park, a local church or café or a nearby community garden are all great venues for a seed swap and they don't cost money. Next, decide whether you want to have people exchange just seeds, or if you also want to have them bring plants, garden supplies, potluck foods, preserves, homebrews, etc. Put all of this information on your flier. Pick a date at least six weeks in advance to give yourself time to get seed donations and thoroughly publicize the event. Once you've made the flier, you can create an event and a page on Facebook and any other social networks that seem relevant.
Get seed donations
Send a short, polite letter, with your flier attached, to seed companies, local farmers, garden stores and anywhere else that you think might have some surplus seeds from last year to donate. Remember that some of these places get a lot of requests, so be patient and polite. It is fine to follow up with a second email or phone call a couple of weeks after your first request, but don't harass them! If you don't get a ton of donations for your first seed swap, don't worry about it. Once you've established an annual pattern, you will always have more seed than you know what to do with.
When your swap is about three weeks away, start doing a ton of publicity. Send a calendar listing to the local papers. Make an event on Craigslist and promote that Facebook page. Make a handbill and pass it out at farmers markets, post fliers at local garden centers and food stores. Go to garden-related events and invite people in person. The more you hit the streets with this, the more successful you will be. A seed swap is a tangible way to connect with your community in face-to-face, real time. Let it happen and you will be amazed at the results.
Set up for the seed swap
On the day of the event, give yourself about two hours to set up the space. Make attractive signs for the different families of garden seeds (beans, brassicas, nightshades, lettuces, etc.) It doesn't matter if you know botany, just create a system so that people who bring seeds to share can easily find where to put them, and seed-searchers can figure out where to look. Create a few sitting areas for people to socialize when they're taking a break from seed swapping. Leave a space in the middle where everyone can circle up at the beginning of the event.
During the seed swap
Most seed swaps take one of two forms: people either set up their own little area and directly trade seeds, or everyone just puts what they brought out on onto the tables, potluck-style, and then they just go for it. I much prefer the latter format because I feel it contributes to the spirit of community more so than a "this-for-that" format. Assuming you will take my advice, have everyone put their seeds on the tables, but ask them to wait until a critical mass of people have arrived at the event before they start looking. Once you get what feels like a solid amount of people (and seeds), have them circle up. Go around and ask each person to talk for less than a minute about who they are, where they're from, and what they brought. This is an essential part of the event, as it gives everyone a clear picture of the community that has come together for the seed swap. But don't be afraid to play facilitator here, so that the go-around doesn't take more than 20 minutes or so. Introduce yourself at the end, and ask everyone not to take more than half of anything — that way the diversity stays on the tables for as long as possible. And then tell them to go for it!
Document, document, document
A seed swap is one of the most photogenic events you will ever attend. Take as many pictures as you can. Get close-ups of hands with seeds in them. Take group photos of people laughing and sharing. Climb up high and get shots from above. If you have video or audio recording tools, interview folks and ask them about their relationships with seeds and their experience of the seed swap. All of this documentation will help you promote future events, and can be a wonderful way to inspire people in other communities. If you have skills to edit a short video and put it online, all the better. This is such a simple, free and easy way to build community, so consider your final task as important as the rest, and help get the word out about the glory of a community seed swap!
#seedswap #permaculturewomen #freepermaculture
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