They came with seeds from Amish pumpkins and wild chard, looking to swap rare plant varieties and maybe a few tips on what grows best on Long Island’s East End.
In February, an estimated 500 people attended the second annual Long Island Regional Seed Consortium Seed Swap at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, which featured lectures on subjects ranging from cultivating seeds in small spaces to a panel on the importance of saving the Long Island cheese pumpkin, as well as a public seed swap.
Attendees ranged from novices (like myself) to professional farmers with a decade of seed-saving experience.
Here’s what I learned from an afternoon dedicated to saving these embryos of plant life.
Not all seed saving is the same
For many species, saving seeds requires unique methods of harvesting, drying, cleaning and storing.
“It’s a different growth habit and seed-saving technique for every variety,” Zach Pickens of Brooklyn’s RoofTop Ready Seeds told the crowd at the forum.
If you want to get started, a good place to begin is with the book “Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Gardeners,” which offers a guide to saving more than 160 vegetable varieties. The author, Suzanne Ashworth, has grown seed crops for every vegetable mentioned in the book and vigorously tested all the methods used.
“That’s the bible,” Pickens said.
Saving seeds preserves biodiversity
And biodiversity means enhanced food security and a food supply that is less susceptible to disease and insects.
Saving seeds also preserves plants that grow well in your area, whether they are heirloom varieties or hybrids.
“You start to have a choice in what you want to grow rather than it being dictated by a seed company,” said farmer Steph Gaylor of Invincible Summer Farms in Southold and Salt of the Earth Seed Company. “There are between 8,000 and 10,000 types of tomatoes and your average seed company offers 100.”
Gaylor’s crops, which include more than 350 tomato varieties alone, have been adapted to the North Fork or were bred to thrive here.
She recommends that novice seed-savers start with self-pollinating crops like beans, lettuce and peas, which do not cross-pollinate will remain true to type. Gaylor, whose seed company is the only one of its type based on Long Island, said she’d like to see more local farmers preserving seeds in the future.
“We have fallen away from that model,” she said. “We’re ripe to bring it back.”
Your seed dollars are political
When you decide to purchase seeds through a national retailer or from a boutique seed company, you are choosing which part of the industry your money supports.
If you buy through a national catalogue, the seeds you get could be sourced from a major corporation like Monsanto or Sygenta, which own many smaller companies, according to Ken Greene of the Hudson Valley Seed Library in upstate Accord. And that means you could inadvertently be supporting the biotech industry, even if you are purchasing non-GMO seeds.
“There is no transparency in the seed industry,” said Greene, whose business preserves heirloom and other open-pollinated varieties from going extinct.
On the other hand, if you purchase from a small company that has signed the “Safe Seed Pledge,” you know the business is not knowingly peddling genetically modified seeds.
Greene’s suggestion? Learn to ask the right questions about your seed source — namely, where the seeds come from and if they are purchased from a large corporation.
Also, if you are not sure about your retailer, he recommends avoiding buying varieties that are trademarked by big companies.
There are bad seeds
A pathogen-infected seed can be a big problem. But the only way to know for sure that your seed has been infiltrated by a bacteria or virus is to have a sample tested before planting — which is prohibitive for most home gardeners in terms of both cost and time.
Instead, you’ll have to monitor plants for symptoms like leaf rot or spotting.
“You’re going to have a very devastating situation if a seedling has a disease,” said Meg McGrath, an associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell University.
Some pathogens can be managed with hot water treatment. To learn more about that process and the pathogens that affect common crops, visit McGrath’s website at vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/NewsArticles/HotWaterSeedTreatment.html.
The most effective (though not foolproof) way to avoid pathogens?
“You want to save seed from an absolutely perfect fabulous fruit,” McGrath said.
She also recommends removing all plant debris from your garden at the end of the season and rotating crops every year.
For more information about seed-saving on Long Island, visit the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium’s website at LIRSC.com and sign up for their newsletter.
This story originally appeared in the 2016 edition of northforker Home and Garden