Gardening: It All Begins with the Seeds!

What’s so great about a seed? By nature a seed’s whole purpose is reproduction: it is programmed to create a plant with the best taste/ nutrition, color/ appearance, and fragrance as possible to attract pollinators and consumers who will, in turn, help disperse and fertilize the seeds to create more plants and seeds.

What happens to a seed in nature, however, varies greatly from what often occurs in “civilized” farming. In nature, for example, vernalization (a period of cold) and dormancy are part of the natural life cycle of a seed. Transition from winter to spring “wakes up” the seed. Seeds are never transplanted or potted up in nature, and spacing is frequently random and inconsistent, creating different contexts for plant competition. Contrast all this with the life of a seed in our human systems. We store our seeds in a variety of conditions, plant them into a variety of mediums, transplant them and pot them up, and space our seeds according to a system of growing or harvesting. Certainly, there are ways to change our system of planting to better reflect the natural system: we can trade pots for direct seeding or begin with soil blocks, we can increase the spacing between plants and we can practice companion and interplanting of a greater diversity of species. Before any of this can occur, however, we need to look closer at the seeds themselves.

What makes a healthy seed? Healthy plants begin with healthy seeds, but not all seeds have what it takes to produce the most nutrient dense fruits and vegetables possible. In fact, according to the USDA, our food is up to 50% deficient in nutrients compared to what our parents and grandparents ate. Additionally, there is an inverse relationship between high yield seed varieties and nutrient density. This occurs because these contemporary high yield varieties have a lower ability to assimilate nutrients from the soil. Conventionally grown seedstock is also heavily sprayed with pesticides and fungicides, since the restrictions for seedstock are much looser than those for edible produce. Finally, since few seeds are actually grown in New England (many come from the midwest or west coast), the genetics of the seeds being grown and saved don’t reflect acclimation to the climate of New England.

So what can we do to ensure that we are planting the best seeds possible? Over 60% of the world’s seeds are grown by three companies, and these companies own patents on many varieties. It is important to support open source seed initiatives, and whenever possible, buy (or select and preserve) heritage and heirloom seeds that have and can assimilate more nutrients from the soil. The seed industry grades seed quality, and the seeds the consumer is offered on the shelf in the store are “the bottom of the barrel” when it comes to seed selection. Fortunately, there are a variety of options to choose from when purchasing seeds, from seed catalogues and seed swaps to seed libraries, seed conferences and, of course, friends and neighbors. In each case it is important to know the history of the seeds and the criteria met by the grower.

When selecting the seeds for your farming or gardening needs, there are several basic but important questions to ask:

*Are the seeds OG (Organic)? Conventional? Biodynamic (see Rudolph Steiner)?

*Did the grower take the Safe Seed Pledge (see Addendum B)? Is he a part of OSSI (open source seed initiative)?

*Are the seeds Hybrid/ F1? Open pollinated? Heirloom (pre-1950s)?

*Are the seeds grown in your region, so they are primed for your climate, altitude, weather, geology/ soil nutrients, and soil biology?

*What was the life of the parent plants? System of fertilization? System of pesticides? System of self-feeding via photosynthesis and relationship with the soil biology?

Another factor to consider is the weight of the seeds you are using. Since different seed sources and catalogs have different test weights, you can do a few broad comparisons, choosing to buy those seeds with better test weights. To make that determination, look for fewer seeds in each given weight; this means that each seed is heavier. Below is an example of how to determine the test weight of Provider Green Bush Bean seeds per ounce from six different catalogs.

Territorial   80

Seed Savers Exchange   75

Johnny’s   85

Sow True   90

Turtle Tree   95

Fedco   90

NOTE: The SSE catalog bean seeds are the heaviest, since there are FEWER per ounce.

*Some seed catalogs the BFA recommends are High Mowing, Turtle Tree, Fedco, Sustainable Seed Company, Johnny’s, Fruition Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. All of these can be ordered online or through their free catalogs.

Of course, while purchasing or sharing seeds are both good options, saving your own seeds from one year to the next is the ideal way to ensure that you have total control and visual confirmation of your seed standards. You can also rest assured that you are growing and feeding your friends and family the most nutrient dense and healthy food possible. In time, you can even encourage others in your community to follow suit, as you share resources, including seeds and the equipment needed to harvest and sort seeds. By saving your own seeds and selecting the best seeds and the best traits from each generation, you can improve the genetics and epigenetics of your seeds. The longer you can keep your genetic stock in healthy condition, the better your seeds will get.

Below is an example of how to plant for genetic diversity:

*2015: Plant and save seeds

*2016: Plant from 2015’s seeds. Save some seeds from 2015 and more from 2016.

*2017: Plant seeds from 2015 and 2016. Save some seeds from 2015, 2016, and more     from 2017.

*2018: Plant seeds from all three generations (2015, 2016, 2017). You may now get crossed traits from all three years! You also now have a more diverse group of genetics for plants to cross with.

Continue saving seeds in this manner to preserve diversity.

Note: If you’re interested in preserving seeds on a larger scale, it is also important to note that different plants have different minimum planting numbers to guarantee genetic diversity across generations. For home purposes, however, we can take a more simplified approach.

Once you begin saving your seeds (your own or others), be aware that the lifespan of saved seeds varies. Some seeds store better, for longer, than others. Always store your seeds in cool, dark conditions. If you are saving them in a jar, always allow the jar to acclimate to room temperature BEFORE opening the lid. If you are unsure about a seed’s viability, do a germination test. Take ten or twenty seeds and plant them out, seeing how many germinate and how quickly. Then you will have a rough percentage of viability. If you are not a stickler for neat rows or beds, sprinkle all of the seeds around and see which come up and which don’t!

Armed with your seeds in hand, it is time to start the planting process. Plan to direct seed whenever possible, paying close attention to the correct soil and air temperatures before you do. Do not rely solely on the calendar to choose when to plant your seeds. If you are starting your seeds indoors, start closer to the plant-out date so there is less chance of slowing your plants’ growth trajectory because of the time spent in containment. Cut the start time in half wherever possible. Now follow the simple steps below:

1. Inoculate your seeds with a microbial seed guard or mycorrhizal seed

inoculant before planting –– the more biology the better! (Kris/ BFN sells a dry inoculant that you can purchase at a minimal fee for this. Just sprinkle a small amount of the powder in each seed packet before planting or add water to the inoculant and pour over the planted seeds.) Doing this will get your plant off to a healthy start!

NOTE: When you open your seed packs, notice the size variations. Plant only the largest and best shaped seeds! This is also important when you save your own seeds.

2. Use soil blocks or bigger containers to avoid potting up.

3. Choose a medium (mix your own or purchased) and check the label carefully. Be wary of any pre-fertilized mixes that contain animal products from unknown sourdes (blood meal, bone meal, etc.) or plants commonly known to be genetically engineered (soy or corn meals, etc.) as they may contain chemical residues (Glyphosate) that are anti-bacterial or other hindrances to a biological system. When in doubt, it is best to select an organic mixture. Vermont Compost Company and Coast of Maine are two suppliers that we recommend.

4. Create your seed starting mineral mix by adding a blend of minerals to a 60 quart bale of soil unless otherwise specified. Minerals should be in fine grit or powder form. You can omit what you do not have or make substitutions. (NOTE: If you are a BFA member, or have attended a meeting, you can purchase an inexpensive pre-mixed mineral blend from Kris to add to your soil. Many of these other ingredients are available through Kris and the BFA stockpile in her garage!)

*Recipe #1 “Kris’s Blend”

Add 1 cup of each to a 60 quart bale of soil:

Basalt, Desert Dynamin, Carbonatite, Azomite, Kelp Meal, Humates, Zeolites, Tennesee Brown Rock

Phosphate, High Calcium Lime

1/2 cup Earthworm Castings – a.k.a. vermicompost

Mix all together until thoroughly combined. You can divide or multiply this ‘recipe’ as needed.

NOTE: This mixture stores indefinitely without the worm castings when kept dry. Only add worm castings if you are going to use it right away as they are a living biological component and need air and moisture to survive.

Add to seed starting soil and mix really well: then proceed as you normally would to fill trays/pots.

*Recipe #2 “David’s Blend”

Add 1 cup of each to a 60 quart bale of soil:

Start with carbonatite, basalt, aragonite, granite meal, azomite, greensand, desert dynamin

You can add any other ground rock you have like gypsum (only if powdered), soft rock phosphate, and wolastonite.

You can also add carefully sourced soybean meal (organic only), kelp, alfalfa or feather meal (again, organic only)

Mix all together until thoroughly combined. You can divide or multiply this ‘recipe’ as needed.

*Recipe #3 “Digga’s Blend”

Add to 1.3 cu ft. of seed starting soil: all should be fine grit or powder.

1 1/3 cup humates

1 1/4 cup zeolite

1 cup Tennessee Brown Rock Phosphate

1 cup high calcium lime

1 cup gypsum

1 cup redmond clay or desert dynamin

1/3 cup kelp meal

1 pint worm castings

Mix all together until thoroughly combined. You can divide or multiply this ‘recipe’ as needed.

NOTE: This mixture stores indefinitely without the worm castings when kept dry. Only add worm castings if you are going to use it right away as they are a living biological component and need air and moisture to survive.

Add to seed starting soil and mix really well: then proceed as you normally would to fill trays/pots.

5. Plant your inoculated seeds, water, watch and wait. Do NOT use late starters! The faster sprouting seedlings are generally the heartier plants. Start extra plants just in case or for succession plantings, and take only the best.

6. At planting time, make sure the ground and air temperatures are suitable for your seedlings. Be sure to harden them off by placing them outside for increasing hours over a 3-4 day period. Do not expose them to any harsh or intense weather conditions while they are adjusting to the outdoors.

7. Leave plenty of space for each plant to grow and use companion planting. Resilience comes from diversity, so intermix anti-insect flowers and herbs to protect your plants and to attract more beneficial insects which feed on the “bad guys.” A diversity of planting means a diversity of root exudates and a subsequent diversity of soil microbiology.

Once your seedlings and seeds are in the ground, you can rest assured that you have gotten your garden off to a great start! By understanding the importance of seeds and what you can do to ensure healthy and nutritious plants, you are already well on your way to an abundant and happy garden!

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