A community seed bank of nonhybrid (open-pollinated) seed affords community food security and sovereignty that dependence on purchased hybrid seed cannot. Whereas hybrid seeds must be repurchased annually, open-pollinated seeds can be saved from year to year and adapted to local growing conditions. Thus next year’s seed supply is at hand – no corporations, cash or transport required. Open pollinated seeds are nature’s gift, refined by selective seed saving over generations. A community seed bank should be restocked annually
- To ensure that there will be enough seed to enable a transition to local self-sufficiency.
- To adapt nonhybrid varieties to local conditions over several growing seasons, for optimal harvests.
- To ensure the viability of seeds the way nature does, by allowing them to grow and reproduce new seed each growing season.
Any community should master the process of collecting and saving nonhybrid seed each growing season from every crop it grows. Enough seed should be saved to plant the next year’s crop, with considerable additional seed as a safety margin. Seed will be needed for planting and replanting, for bartering, and in case a crop fails due to extreme weather, drought, fire or pillaging. Whether a community seed bank resides in a central location or remains a loose collaboration of seed savers, its adequacy as a local food security resource will depend on systematic planning and purposeful action.
For some crops, saving seed is simple. For other crops, the procedure is more exacting and labor intensive. In a village or a neighborhood, it makes sense to collaborate and delegate in order to simplify the seed-saving process for each seed saver. One household may interplant a block of corn with runner beans, fence the plot to keep the deer out, and save bean and corn seed enough for a number of households. Another might specialize in saving seed for tomato varieties, along with borage and basil as companion plants to deter tomato pests. A third might interplant onions, leeks and carrots and save seed for all three.
Crops that do not readily cross are “no worry” plants. They do not need spacing or other measures to maintain seed purity because they are self-pollinating. Examples are beans, tomatoes, peas, and lettuces.
Many garden crops, however, readily cross pollinate with other members of their own plant family. In most instances, seed savers strive to keep cross-pollination from happening. In that way, the desirable characteristics of a particular variety will be maintained in next year’s seed.
There are a variety of ways to protect related crops from cross pollinating:
- Stagger planting times.
- Plant only one variety of a particular species prone to cross pollination.
- Maintain recommended isolation distances.
- Protect plants from cross pollination by means of physical barriers.
Seed should be selectively saved from the healthiest, most productive plants of each variety, selected for various desirable qualities. Seed must be saved not just from one or two plants of one variety but from as many healthy specimens as possible so that genetic diversity is preserved.
Most stored seeds stay viable longest when they are kept in dark, dry, cool, pest-free conditions. Seed must be thoroughly dry before it is stored. Packaged properly for long-term storage, some types of seeds remain viable for years, though their germination rate is gradually reduced and some genetic diversity may be lost. Despite this fact, there are compelling reasons to plant the crops the community will depend on every year and to collect new seed:
- This is the best way to ensure that seed is fresh and viable.
- Growing a crop and saving seed selectively each year adapts that crop to local conditions. Locally adapted seed is the most dependable seed of all.
- In growing crops annually and saving seed from them, community members acquire knowledge and skills potentially critical for survival. Building soil fertility using organic methods should be a simultaneous goal.
A planting plan for a community should ideally be done with seed saving in mind. A community focused on transitioning to local food self-sufficiency can collaborate to map arable land, including that in neighborhoods, gauging distances required to isolate certain crop varieties that cross. Planners can create planting zones for crops that should be isolated from one another for easiest seed saving.
This essay is distilled from “Seed Saving for Community Food Security” See also Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Susan Ashworth and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving by Carol Deppe.