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Seed saving connects us to our past. (Photography by David Benthal)

The silver dollar plant, also known as annual honesty or Lunaria annua, in Master Gardener Nancy DePas Reinertsen’s backyard is almost 40 years old.

“My aunt lived in the south of France and whenever my mother would visit, they would trade seeds,” DePas Reinertsen said. “The seeds for my silver dollar plant were from my aunt’s garden and given to me in the early 1980s. A lot of women in my family are gardeners, so I guess seed collecting is kind of in my blood.” 

DePas Reinertsen is a lifelong gardener, starting when her mother gave her bean seeds to plant in the backyard when she was a young girl growing up in Haiti. Her family came to the United States as political refugees when she was just 2 years old, leaving almost everything behind — including the flowers from their beloved garden. 

“My mom would always reminisce about my grandmother’s rose garden,” DePas Reinertsen said. “We left the country by ship and because there were such strict rules about taking foreign plants across borders, my mother didn’t want to risk being stopped at customs. There was this regret across my whole family that we couldn’t have those seeds again.”

Photography by David Benthal

Although no one saved seeds from the rose garden, many members of her family, who are now dispersed all over the world from Queens to France, continued to garden and collect their seeds after each growing season. 

Today it is second nature for DePas Reinertsen to save seeds. Looking across the garden at her Southold home, an abundance of native and non-native flowers and vegetables can be seen. Seeds from marigolds and lemon balm, lily of the valley, and lettuce are collected and harvested by DePas Reinertsen every year, making many of her plants decades old. 

“My marigolds came from seeds which were originally in my mother’s garden,” DePas Reinertsen noted. “We would always work in the garden side by side, and although she passed away, planting these seeds always gives me such a warm feeling of connection to her. It’s like she’s still in the garden with me.” 

DePas Reinertsen became a member of the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Program in 2022, in part to learn more about the significance behind saving seeds. The labor-intensive program, which requires over 125 hours of volunteer work during the first two years and time dedicated to taking weekly in-depth classes, educates Suffolk County-based adults and youth about sustainable gardening practices.

It was during her training to be a Master Gardener that DePas Reinertsen learned why seed saving is vital to the ecosystem around her. 

“My marigolds came from seeds which were originally in my mother’s garden. We would always work in the garden side by side, and although she passed away, planting these seeds always gives me such a warm feeling of connection to her. It’s like she’s still in the garden with me.” 

Nancy DePas Reinertsen

CCE’s Master Gardener Program places heavy emphasis on the importance of native plants and saving their seeds. Plants native to the North Fork evolved based on the specific climatic and ecological conditions of the landscape. Native plants are integral to the food web of indigenous insects, birds and other wildlife. Yet, as the North Fork continues to develop commercially and residentially, many of these native plants are sacrificed in exchange for concrete parking lots and grass lawns barren of any biodiversity. 

“There’s this idea that we have an opportunity to bring back the extraordinary biodiversity of the North Fork simply by saving the seeds of our native plants and making sure that they have a chance to thrive,” explained Robin Simmen, community horticulture specialist for CCE. 

Photography by David Benthal

Saving native seeds is a necessary, and often overlooked, step to perpetuate a healthy ecosystem. For example, butterfly weed, or Asclepias tuberosa, grows wildly on the North Fork. The tiny orange blossoms attract numerous pollinators and these insects depend heavily on the nectar this variety of milkweed provides. Certain butterfly species, especially monarchs, also depend on the leaves of this plant, as it is the only type of leaf their caterpillars can digest. 

“Their seeds are an odd-looking brown, leathery pod and are filled with feathery white seeds that are meant to float on the wind,” Simmen said. “This plant is very species-dependent and if this capsule doesn’t open and the seeds are not released in the air, these species could very well be wiped out. Which in turn impacts the entire ecosystem.” 

Yet by saving and planting more of these seeds and allowing them to flourish, the natural surroundings of the North Fork can thrive. 

Saving seeds as a means to combat the harm to the native environment and protect our food systems is not a new concept. After arriving in the Americas in the 17th century, European colonizers starved en masse due to crop failure. These settlers quickly realized the seeds they brought across the Atlantic were not viable in the humid conditions of North America’s East Coast. That led to seed exchanges with the surrounding Indigenous tribes to create a sustainable food source. 

Today, modern agricultural methods are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Growing well-adapted produce and plant life that aids pollinators is instrumental in reducing the impacts of an ever-warming planet. 

“You need to know where your seeds are coming from,” said another Master Gardener, Deb Kimmelman. “I try to trade only with other Master Gardeners or someone that I trust and who knows what they are doing.” 

Walking into a garden store, the packs of seeds available for purchase are most likely from one of four global agricultural corporations: Bayer (the company that acquired Monsanto in 2018), Corteva Agriscience, Sinochem and BASF. Together, these corporations control more than 67% of all seeds globally, according to the ETC Group, a “research and action collective committed to social and environmental justice, human rights and the defense of just and ecologically sound agri-food systems,” according to their website. 

Typically, the seeds produced by these mega-corporations are riddled with pesticides and require those same chemicals to flourish properly — further harming the surrounding environment. 

In an effort to avoid putting more harmful substances back into North Fork soil, Kimmelman and DePas Reinertsen utilize a service called Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization based near Decorah, Iowa. SSE preserves heirloom plant varieties through regeneration, distribution and seed exchange. It is one of the largest, nongovernmental seedbanks in the U.S. and is accessible to anyone. They provide numerous programs and region-specific resources to guarantee seeds are native to a given area. 

“There has been this resurgence to go back to heirloom seeds and to save seeds with the rise of genetically modified seeds that are often dangerous to save and replant,” said DePas Reinertsen. 

Heirloom varieties, or seeds that have been passed down over generations, are vital to the native ecosystem around the North Fork. There are plenty of heirloom varieties of native plants, fruits and vegetables that offer bountiful benefits to their surroundings. 

“These seeds are often over 50 years old and have a lot of history to them,” said Kimmelman. “They are not cross-pollinated with other varieties and they are always non-GMO. You save them year to year and always know what you’re getting.”

Saving heirloom seeds not only guarantees a more sustainable native ecosystem but also connects back to the area’s heritage. 

“You get to pass plants down and share them with generation after generation,” DePas Reinertsen said. “It’s something you want to share with the people that you love. That’s my favorite part.” 

Join DePas Reinertsen, Kimmelman and Taralynn Reynolds and Group for the East End at Down’s Farm Preserve in Cutchogue on Saturday, October 21 for their Inaugural Seed Plant Swap. This event will occur on the Preserve’s Pollinator Pathway from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and all are welcome to bring their seeds and trade with others.

A how-to guide for saving seeds

Saving any kind of seed, heirloom or natural, is easy to accomplish in a home garden. Several libraries across Suffolk County, in collaboration with CCE’s Master Gardeners, host seed-saving Zoom sessions to aid beginners as well as those more well-versed in the art of seed-saving. 

“Even as a Master Gardener, I’m always looking for different ways to save [seeds],” said Kimmelman. “I’m always learning about the best storage methods.” 

The best place to start your seed-saving journey is by first finding seeds to plant in the spring. Seeds can be sourced online from organizations such as SSE or even from local libraries. At Cutchogue New Suffolk Library, a catalog of more than 30 flower, vegetable and herb seeds is available for patrons to take. These seeds come from a variety of places, including the library’s own garden. 

“Seeds have become pretty expensive,” said Darlene Brush, head of adult services at Cutchogue New Suffolk Library. “It’s a great way for the community to interact and reuse things other people grew in their garden.” 

A seed exchange, presented by the North Fork Audubon Society and Group for the East End, is slated for October, in which anyone interested can swap seeds and tips with other garden enthusiasts.

Photography by David Benthal

When is it time to save?

The best time to save your seeds is between late September through November when most of the plant life on the North Fork begins to brown and wither. Make sure your plants are completely dry before you remove and collect the seeds you want to save. If the seeds are not completely dry, lay them on a paper towel in a cool, dry room for a few days. 

Make sure to do your research

“Flower seeds are the easiest to save. I would suggest starting there,” DePas Reinertsen said. 

Some seeds, such as tomatoes and eggplants, need to go through a complicated fermentation process to be viable for the next growing season. You will also need to make sure you know when each seed needs to be planted, as some seeds need to be sown in late winter or early spring to ensure proper growth. 

Seeds come in a variety of shapes and sizes; however, many look the same. Make sure to label and date the seeds you collect — a mistake even Master Gardeners DePas Reinertsen and Kimmelman admit to making. 

What’s the best way to store them for next year?

After collecting, labeling and triple-checking that the seeds are completely dry, now it is time to store them for next year. Glass Mason jars or paper envelopes, such as coin envelopes, are the best ways to ensure no outside moisture can interfere with the seeds. If any mold gets into the container, the seeds are no longer viable. 

Make sure your seeds are stored in a cool dry place during the winter months and by the next planting season, you will be ready to grow the bounty of your labors.