Saving seed helps us maintain genetic diversity, and we can enjoy a culinary adventure along the way. We can encourage locally adapted foods by conserving the genes of animal plants. Then we propagate the plants that do well in our area. We get to select for ourselves by tasting the new varieties and keep the seed.
Buy Seed. Grow. Reap, Sell. Repeat?
In the conventional system, the seed selector influences what the farmer will grow, and then the produce goes to market, and then the cook and the diner are parts of the chain. But certainly the waste does not go back to the garden. The home has a very short close plot to plate cycle. We plant, tend, harvest, share, cook, taste it, and then select the seeds from the best tasting plants, save the seeds and the next year plant again.
Bang for Your Buck
Vilda Figueroa in Cuba with her husband Jose Lama dedicated their life to re-educating people about what could grow in Cuba. Because for 600 years the Cubans have been eating white bread, and yet they can’t grow wheat. So here’s the challenge we can ask the soil and the environment to keep growing what we like to eat, or we could change what we eat to suit the site. If you want big bang for your buck, you want a lot of yield for a minimum effort then spend that effort on annual plants. But if you want a sustainable system, if you want a food forest, then start looking for perennial plants.
Difference between annuals and perennials
The big difference between annual and perennial is that the annuals spend some of their energy, and some of your energy, building up their structure. That structure sustains the plant through the off season. And help them get through winter. So, their yield comes in two parts: part for you in edible fruits, and part for them in sustaining their life.
Let’s spend a moment thinking like a plant. What are the goals of the plants? A perennial plant needs to work towards the long-term survival, it’s going to spend less energy on reproduction in those early years because it needs to grow. It is slower to grow because it’s spending time on its structure, but the extra yields of a perennial plant can be harvested for people such as timber shade and habitat for the wildlife. They do need to be managed after 10 years or so, you will need to be able to cut the trees.
The Perennial Seed Plans Beyond Short-term
On the other hand, animal plants have got a short-term survival plan they only need to last a couple of months, and they can die off in winter. They’re quick, and they’re lightweight in their structure so they’re a little bit easier to handle. They’ve got a higher reproduction drive, they really want to pump out seeds. They have a greater edible yield for humans because most of what they grow we can eat the leaves, the roots, the seeds. They do need to be managed yearly but the management is usually less heavy lifting. So that management involves preparation of the soil, the seed selection, keeping records, planting it, protecting it, watering it, weeding and pruning. The sad thing is if you skip a year because of a drought, then you can lose that genetic material. Generally speaking perennial plants will out-compete annuals because they’re stronger.
So whilst you can have animals early in the system, the perennials will live on. In a food forest, you design so that there’s some open areas to continue to grow annual plants. Annual plants optimize the use of energy, they get in there they use the sun and water, and they grow quickly. So they give you a useful yield quickly. In this example from our site in Mount Kembla New South Wales Australia, we converted a paddock, actually a paddock of weeds, into annual gardens and then into perennial food forest. That gave the site much more drought resilience, and a varied microclimate.
In the early years we grew sorghum on our site, which was a great fodder for the chickens. and we planted tomato, lettuce, silver beet, parsley and other common herbs for us.
The young trees were hidden amongst the herbs. They started to grow taller, and finally shade out the annual plants. Then eventually that whole lower area became shaded out. But it turned into a good refuge for the chickens. The main trees now in the first vegetable patch are: avocado, mango, Mulberry and Tamarillo which is Biennial plant. And grapevines and kiwi fruit wind amongst the trees.
Your First Seed
So if you’re going to start saving seed, concentrate on the common plants as you build your skills. And then move into some uncommon plants for a bit of a culinary adventure. Traditional culinary knowledge is being lost on those uncommon plants. So, it’d be great to seek out people who can help you there. Start small. Focus on the plants that you really love.
I love Kang Kong. It is such a delicious green, and so I’m happy to spend time and energy learning how to grow that in my climate. You will find some new foods grow really well in your climate maybe even better than the common foods that you once grew. But the new foods require research, they require some deeper understanding. You will be pioneering this.
You’re Our New World Pioneer
You can pioneer new foods for your area. The easiest way to do this is to save the first fruit. And the best looking fruit. Don’t eat that seed, save it for the next season. Talk to your neighbours, especially older gardeners, to find out what grows really well in your climate. And to try to find some old varieties.
Try to find some out-of-climate varieties so foods that grow in warmer areas or cooler areas. That will build the biodiversity of the food plants that you’re growing. And then have a look around at some multicultural foods. You might be surprised at what will grow.
We know we are living through a period of rapid climate change, the best way to help humanity and to help the food plants to adapt, is to diversify and gather cultural knowledge. There are heritage varieties of nearly every food that you know, and the forgotten foods include bitter lettuce or Monstera deliciosa fruits, and there are also native foods these include indigenous nuts and grasses. Saving rare varieties requires a lot of responsibility especially in record keeping and isolating the different strains. But, on the plus side, we know that this conservation will help maintain genetic diversity. That is key to humanities adaptation.
What are your plans for yourself and for your garden’s future? In our Permaculture Design course notes we offer useful resources and methods for saving seed. Enrol today to design your new future.