In the cycle of challenge/triumph/better-luck-next-time that is gardening, planting seeds has always thrown us for a loop. How can one humble kernel contain so many expectations? And questions. When to plant? How deep? How far apart? In the almost eight years that we’ve lived in our garden, our success with planting seeds has been limited, so we’ve stuck mostly to planting plants and cuttings.
Luckily, our friend Christine Dionese of Garden Eats has had a great time growing heirloom seeds in her own coastal Southern California space. And it’s a multigenerational passion. We’re excited to have her guest blogging on The Horticult today, talking all about heirloom seeds — what they are, what they’re not, and how and why to plant them. (And save them.) Plus a demo with her beloved broccoli rabe! Read on…
I grew up in a family that raised edibles from heirloom seed, and since I learned every detail about growing food from my Garden Eats partner and mom, Kath, this too has become my way. I love when my Italian broccoli rabe comes up. This year I grew a separate pot that I watched bloom from broccoli crowns into sunshine bright yellow flowers and then seed pods. It’s amazing that one broccoli plant can produce enough seeds for hundreds more. The act of seed saving, and then sharing the seeds to later have those gardeners send you photos of the plants they grew and fed their families with is very cool. I really want to donate some of my broccoli seeds to an urban children’s garden this year, so readers, if you know of one, let me know!
If you’ve seen the documentary SEED then you’re aware many seed varieties face extinction. Growing with heirlooms helps solve this problem and keeps biodiversity thriving. Biodiversity not simply for the sake of the plants, but our entire ecosystem. Some animals and insects thrive and depend on these plants to continue their species; without these plants, they too face extinction. And, this threat just travels along the food chain — when we limit seed biodiversity, we limit the diversity of nutrients we’re able to consume and plants that can resist disease and varying climate shifts.
What they are:
Heirlooms are regional seeds that have been carefully handed down from one generation to the next because of special traits they possess. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated — this means they’re pollinated free from human intervention by insects or wind. This practice has been taking place for about 10,000 years!
What they are not:
● Hybrid seeds. Plant breeders cross-pollinate two varieties of plants to produce the preferred traits of both as one. Preferred traits may be dependable harvest or disease resistance.
● GMO. A seed whose DNA has been altered via human intervention. Alteration may include genetic information from differing, non-plant species. This method poses biological risk for future plant diversity.
Why heirlooms are important:
In one word, biodiversity. Reduce extinction risk, preserve the food and nutrient chain. Heirlooms may need extra attention and sometimes their yield is a bit less than other seed types, but they are full of flavor and packed with nutrition.
How I saved seeds from my broccoli plants this year:
If you’d like to save seeds, grow five to ten plants separately and away from the ones you will harvest this year for food.
1. I sowed broccoli rabe heirloom seeds this fall here in California.
2. Allowed broccoli crowns to go to floral bloom and then on to seed pods.
3. Once pods start to lose their green vibrancy and are turning yellow, dulled and brown, it’s time to save the seeds! Some of the bottom pods may start opening on their own, this signals it’s time.
4. Pods will easily pull apart, so take care of seeds flying everywhere. I deseed the pods over a dish or shallow bowl. When I have a lot, like this year, I hung it upside down with a little tarp-lined container to catch the seeds.
5. Allow seeds to dry before storing. I suggest storing in glass jars with non-BPA jar lids.
Seed viability is about four to five years with a 75 percent germination rate. I purchase many heirloom seeds here in San Diego from City Farmer’s Nursery. If you’re not in town or your local garden store doesn’t offer organic, non-GMO heirloom seeds, check out the 2015 Whole Seed Catalog.
You might be surprised to learn how many more edible plants you could be growing each year. Now is the perfect time to order seeds so you have first dibs on everything you’d like to try. You can also search for seed savers exchanges in your area as well. Getting the inside scoop from other gardeners on tips and tricks to keep heirlooms thriving is invaluable info you can continue to pass on for generations to come!