by Rowen White
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
The focus here is to walk through a seed garden plan 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.
Creating a Seed Garden Plan
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 material 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.
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