A seedy primer

Above: View from Not Far From The Tree’s table at a Seedy event in 2008.

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting longer, the sun is spending less time hiding behind clouds, and though most of us probably aren’t poking our fingers in the dirt quite yet, the ground is beginning to soften. For most of us, these annual weather changes leads us into daydreams of beaches, BBQs, bikes, and naps in the grass, but for urban gardeners, seasonal shifts get us thinking about something else entirely: seeds.

This weekend we’ll be at the Bonar-Parkdale Church on Queen West, for Seedy Saturday, and at the Lawrence Heights Community Center, for Seedy Sunday, spreading the word about the joys of urban fruit picking (we’ll also have some black walnut ink for folks to test out).

Seedy Saturdays and Seedy Sundays are grassroots community events where seed-savers can meet, swap and talk all things seedy. If you are a gardener, foodie, environmentalist, or just someone who takes an interest in community events, then Seedy Saturdays and Sundays are great places to meet like-minded folks and learn more about what goes on in your local gardening, agricultural, and/or environmental communities, and find out about the companies and groups that are doing great things to promote fun and biodiversity.

We are so excited about this weekend that we’ve decided to produce a short glossary of terms to help the uninitiated navigate the exciting world of seeds.

Seed saving is the practice of allowing select plants to fully mature to the point at which they produce seeds, and then collecting and storing those seeds for later use. Plant breeders usually only collect seeds from the plants that best display the traits they want, over time creating new varieties (or preserving old varieties) that exhibit different characteristics, such as drought-tolerance, pest-resistance, cold-hardiness. It’s a form of complex genetic engineering that has been around since the invention of agriculture. Since each plant will produce many seeds, seed saving might be the most renewable and sustainable practice around!

Seed exchanges are events where gardeners meet to swap those seeds that they have been proudly cultivating over the years. The purpose is to promote biodiversity, strengthen plant varieties and to widen the genetic pool of native plants. In Canada, the volunteer organization Seeds of Diversity produces an annual seed catalog which gives members access to almost 3000 plant varieties that are available for free exchange.

Seed diversity can be protected on a scale as large as preserving seeds in enormous databases located climate-controlled bunkers, or as small as neighbourhood farmers getting together for a local swap. Industrial agriculture relies on commercial seeds that produce uniform crops and must be purchased annually, limiting the gene pool and leading to loss of plant species. The director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust has warned of a potential “mass extinction” of seed varieties, with hundreds of species lost every year. Since climate change threatens to place unforeseeable stresses on agriculture, seed diversity is necessary for food security. Swap events like Seedy Saturdays and Sundays are some of the best places to help keep things diverse!

Open-pollinated (OP) varieties are plants that reproduce naturally when bees, other bugs, birds, and blowing winds transfer pollen from one plant to another. While many commercial seeds are sterile, open-pollinated seeds will reliably produce new generations of plants, and increase genetic diversity in doing so.

Heirloom seeds are OP varieties that have been passed down over many generations, just like a piece of jewelry that has been in the family since the olden days. Heirloom seeds produce plants that are true-to-type, with the same qualities and characteristics as their parents (just like us). The exact definition of what constitutes an heirloom seed is debatable, with some arguing that the cultivar has to be over 100 years old, and others citing 1951 as the official cut-off date. Either way, if you buy heirloom, there is a good chance you could be eating the exact same beans that your great-great-great-great grandmother did. Some heirlooms varieties apparently even date back to biblical or even pre-historic times.

Hybrid seeds have been deliberately designed by cross-pollinating plant varieties in a controlled environment. Farmers develop hybrid seeds in order to combine the abilities of two plants to make one mega-plant, which might be better tasting, less susceptible to pests and diseases, or more tolerant of extreme climates.

Native plant varieties are indigenous, non-invasive species that have not been introduced for the purpose of cultivation. Native trees, vines, and wildflowers are important in maintaining the overall health of a natural environment, since insects, birds, mammals, or other plants may depend on them for their survival. Edible plants that are native to the Toronto region include wild leeks, jerusalem artichokes, paw-paws and serviceberries. Gardeners concerned with the ecological health of their area are encouraged to grow an abundance of native varieties. If you are interested in learning more, The Ontario Invasive Plant Council offers a free guide called Grow me instead: beautiful non-invasive plants for your garden.

You can learn more about seed saving, seed exchanges, and seed diversity at the Seeds of Diversity website.

Look out for Evan’s blog posts each Friday throughout the spring. He’ll be sharing stories about growing, exploring and edibles in the city.

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