By Sandra Frangiadakis, KFPC Food Action Lead
Winter is traditionally the time when gardeners pour over seed catalogues, dreaming of spring planting and the beautiful, bountiful gardens they will grow in the coming year. And, while the seed choices may seem ample, the selection in today’s seed catalogues pales in comparison to what was once available. A 1983 National Geographic infographic illustrates the loss of biodiversity in food crops in the eighty years from 1903 to 1983. For example, in 1903, there were almost 500 varieties of lettuce offered in commercial seed catalogues, compared with only 36 varieties available commercially in 1983. According to the infographic, we lost 93 percent of our vegetable seed varieties in those eighty years.
For millennia, seed-saving was a necessary and natural part of growing annual flowers and vegetables. Growers needed to save their own seeds in order to have something to plant the following season. In the late 1800s, as commercial seed companies started to emerge, farmers and gardeners began to leave the task of saving seeds to others and, over the years, became more and more reliant on commercial suppliers for their planting needs. Many heirloom varieties were lost as suppliers favoured the most popular varieties, often those in use by large-scale growers, and let stocks of more unusual varieties dwindle or become extinct.
Like many settlers, my maternal grandmother brought seeds for some of her favorite crops with her when she immigrated from Bosnia in 1929, but when she passed away, the family farm was sold and those seeds were no longer saved. My mother especially regretted the loss of a particular sugar melon and a large, sweet variety of sugar snap peas that she had loved as a child. At one point, we contacted the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties, trying to recover the loss, but we were never able to find melons or peas quite the same as what my mother remembered. Many readers may have a similar story, and I guess the lesson is always share your special seeds, so that if your crop fails or your seeds are lost, you have a backup supply.
As awareness has grown about the number of plant varieties that are being lost, the number of groups dedicated to saving them has also grown. The best-known Canadian organization is Seeds of Diversity. Among other things, they have over 6,000 seed samples in their library, host a free member exchange with around 3,000 varieties available annually, and support new and established community seed libraries.
We don’t always give much thought to the miracle of seeds, but when you look at a full-grown stalk of corn or the seemingly endless vine of a Scarlet Runner bean in late summer, and think back to that little kernel you put in the ground just a few months before, it is pretty miraculous. When you start to save your own seeds and consciously attend to the complete life cycle of a plant, it adds a whole new dimension to your gardening experience. It can be a great learning adventure for kids too, as you watch the development from seed to plant to flower to seed. Many of our common garden plants produce easy-to-save seeds that are great for beginning seed savers.
The Kamloops Food Policy Council started a Community Seed Library and we’re looking for seed donations, as well as interested people who would like to borrow seed to grow out, help clean and package seed, or help organize our collection as it grows. If you would like to learn more about saving seeds, or have some unusual seed you’d be willing to share, we’d love to hear from you! You can check the Kamloops Food Policy Council website, find the Community Seed Library on Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
To learn more about the seed-saving revival, join us at the TRU Clocktower Theatre February 27 for a screening of SEED:The Untold Story as part of the TRU Films For Change series. This movie tells the story of passionate seed keepers from around the globe as they wage a David and Goliath battle against chemical seed companies, defending a 12,000 year food legacy. Admission is by donation.
Another upcoming event that will help you get stoked about seeds and gardening is Seedy Saturday. This year it is being held on Saturday, March 2, at the OLPH Parish Center, 635 Tranquille Rd.