I think often people who are interested in food (including me, for a long time) don't realize that it all starts with a seed, and the story of that seed matters. When you look at those glossy seed catalog photos, or those seed packets in the rack at the garden store, much of what you're seeing is patented seed. Those varieties are owned by someone--sometimes a university, often a private company--and they're making money off every sale of that seed. This isn't necessarily good or bad, it's just the way it is.
But say you like a vegetable variety and don't want to have to buy the seed year after year. You think you can just grow that plant out until it goes to seed, then you can save some of it for next year. Maybe it's your favorite sweet corn, pepper, pea, or tomato. These seeds are easy to see, so they should be easy to save. But here's the rub: You can't save seed from most of the varieties that you buy. Or rather, you can save it, but the vegetable you grow next year with your saved seed might turn out to be very different from the one you loved this year.
Most of the seeds we buy are what's called F-1 hybrids, which means that they are the product of a cross between two very different parents. Often these hybrids are "improved" varieties in some way. They might have better disease resistance, drought tolerance, storability, color. They might grow quickly in a shorter or cooler growing season, like ours. These traits were bred into them by the parents, but they aren't guaranteed, or even likely, to be passed along to their offspring.
So the obvious downside of hybrids is that you're locked into buying these seeds every year. And when you do, you're giving your money to a company that might be breeding some kickass seeds, but they may also be manufacturing chemicals, genetically modifying organisms, or practicing planned obsolescence (taking popular varieties off the market), to make a profit. From the point of view of someone interested in sustainable agriculture, that doesn't feel too good.
But enough of this negativity! What I'm really here to tell you about are some of the awesome open-pollinated varieties that you can grow! Open-pollinated seeds are like choosing homemade seeds over store-bought. Yes, you can buy open-pollinated seeds in the store, but you can also grow them and collect them yourself. And because you can collect them, you can select them. You can choose seed from your most vigorous tomato, your most flavorful squash, your most cold-hardy cabbage, or the only lettuce that didn't bolt in this blasted summer heat. You can select them and plant them, year after year, until you have a vegetable that's an expression of you: your values, your tastes. And that is not only good food, it's a good story!
|Oregon Homestead squash|
|Pueblo chile pepper|
Want to know more?
There are lots of great books on the topic of seed saving, but the one that I found the most fascinating was Where Our Food Comes From, by Gary Paul Nabham. It's about the Russian scientist Nikolay Vavilov, who traveled the world looking for genetically diverse ancient seeds to protect his country from famine. (Sadly, he had the bad luck to be doing that during the reign of Stalin.)
If you're interested in trying to save some of your own seed, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is an indispensable handbook. It walks you through seed saving methods for every type of vegetable you can possibly imagine.
There are some great seed companies that are working hard to make sure open-pollinated seeds aren't lost. Seed Savers Exchange is one of the most well-known. Many more are small companies specializing in regionally appropriate varieties, which I find especially exciting. Here are some that carry varieties specific to the Northwest:
Wild Garden Seed