Seeds of wisdom; seeds of sustainability
By Michelle Annette Tremblay, Photos by Sean Buk, Published in Country Roads Magazine, Autumn 2013
With each bronzy autumn comes the harvest we've all been waiting for. Eagerly we dig through the rich dark earth, uncovering beautiful red and white potatoes. We gather zucchinis, fantasizing about how we'll slice or stuff them. If we're lucky, the growing season has been long enough to grace us with ripe melons, and fat tomatoes. But wait – don't gobble up all the fruits of your labours just yet. Take a moment to think of next spring.
If you're like many people, you've been steadily becoming more dedicated to sustainable agriculture, using natural fertilizers such as manure and compost, and perhaps learning about companion planting to encourage better growth and ward off pests naturally. If you haven't started yet, this is the ideal time to begin harvesting and saving your own seeds. It's not too hard, there are a ton of reasons to do it, and if you've grown heirloom organic plants, you now, at harvest time, have everything you need for a 2014 summer of bounty.
“Above ground peas and beans, are the easiest,” says Laurie Ann Storring, of Madawaska House Retreat and Organic Gardens, in Maple Leaf. She has invited me to come out and see her little piece of paradise first hand. And I am impressed. Her well-mulched gardens overflow with sweet berries, multitudes of vegetables, and a whole separate bed full of medicinal plants, most of which I've never even heard of.
Although this is only my second time meeting Storring – my first was last week when I stopped by York River Meats in Bancroft where she was selling some of her fresh produce - I am nonetheless well acquainted with what she does. It would be hard for me not to be. I've heard her name mentioned over and over in conversations about sustainable living; I've seen photos on facebook of her workshops (some of the members have given themselves the moniker the Green Goddesses) all about planning plots, preparing soil for growing, canning and preserving, and many more topics. She runs 10 workshops a year, and they are wildly popular. She and her husband Richard Baynes, an ubercool artist who also works in their gardens, are well known throughout North Hastings as the go-to people when it comes to learning about organic gardening. You're not likely to run into them in the supermarket - the unofficial social hub of a small town – because aside from things like cheese and butter, they grow and raise all the food they need for the whole year. Their pantry and root cellar are, by any measure, an inspiration.
“A seed is a living thing. It has memory,” says Storring, after giving me a full tour of the gardens, which wind and weave throughout the rugged property. Heat loving plants are on the south slope; medicinal ones are down a little path from the chicken coop. As we sit for a cool drink of fresh well water at her picnic table, joined by Baynes and Whiskey (the retreat's very charming canine), Storring says, “Seeds adjust to the area where they're grown.” This, she explains, is why it's so important to choose heirloom seeds. They've had decades to acclimatize to their specific environment, becoming more resistant to regional pests and diseases, and tolerant of the local weather. And in this day and age, where we are bombarded daily by strong arguments for avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), buying organic seeds is a no brainer. Most GMOs won't produce viable seeds at all, forcing gardeners to buy new seeds year after year. So heirloom organic seeds are definitely the way to go, but they can be expensive to buy; certainly more expensive than their non-heirloom non-organic counterparts.
I'm not a great gardener, but I try, and this was the first year I used only heirloom organic seeds. After scurraging through seed catalogues, checking out different varieties of my favourite vegetables, with special attention to the 'days to maturity' information, I picked out enough seeds to fill my 10'x20' garden. As I forked out well over a hundred dollars, I reminded myself it was a good investment for the future. I knew I wanted to grow food I could feel proud feeding to my kids, and I knew I wanted to join the Green Goddesses and learn all about harvesting and saving my own seeds. As I write this article now, Storring's seed workshop is still a month and a half away, but she says she's happy to give me the inside scoop early so I can write about it. Sharing this information is paramount to her beliefs. As she begins to share her process, I immediately feel more confident in my investment.
“It all starts with the seeds you purchase in the first place,” says Storring. “It really is an investment.” That's because, if you buy seeds once, you can regrow your favourite crops year after year, never needing to buy seeds again unless you want to try something different. Moreover, once you start saving your own seeds, you'll likely end up with more than you need - seeds need to be used within a year or two, since their viability decreases exponentially over time -in which case you can trade your extra seeds with other growers for variation. Seed swapping gatherings, like Seedy Saturday, are popping up in communities big and small all across the country.
I am a tomato lover, so that's the first crop I ask about. Storring smiles, and says tomatoes are one of the more tricky fruits to harvest seeds from, but she gives me the rundown.
“Choose a good specimen, and let it fully ripen. Pick it, slice it in half, as if you were going to eat it, and then scoop the seeds out,” explains the veteran gardener. She has a proven method for scooping out the seeds, which she demonstrates in her seed saving workshop, but basically as long as you can get the seeds out, you're in business.
“Next, put the seeds in a jar of water, swish them around, and rinse.” She rhymes off the next steps quickly, as though she's done it a hundred times. “Put them in a jar of clear water, with cheese cloth on the top and let it mould - let it get good and mouldy! Over time the less mature seeds will rise, and the viable seeds will go to bottom. Then skim the top, rinse the seeds thoroughly, and drain them really well in a sieve.” She recommends dumping the drained seeds on a plate and letting them sit overnight and then gently separating them the next day, as tomato seeds can be quite sticky.
If you're not quite ready for the tomato seed saving process just yet, maybe start with beans or peas. They basically just need to be dried and shelled. Cucumbers and zucchinis should stay on the vine as long as possible, so the seeds inside can fully mature; they should stay on the vine until they get mushy. Carrots and parsnips can just stay in the ground, as they don't go to seed until the second year of growing. Regardless of what plant you're dealing with, the final stage of harvesting seeds is the same: once the seeds are thoroughly rinsed and their coating is off, you let them dry out completely, put them in a paper envelope, and store them somewhere cool, dark, and dry. If they get too warm and damp they will start to germinate early and die.
“When big agriculture came into being, most people stopped saving their seeds,” recounts Storring wistfully, as we sit around the picnic table taking turns throwing the ball for Whiskey. She and Baynes both recount growing up with gardens, and learning techniques at a young age from their parents, but say they witnessed the ubiquity of the practice dwindle over time. They are both encouraged by the recent gradual resurgence.
“Today it's a pretty radical step that people are taking that provides them with their own food. Of course some companies don't want that,” Storring says, adding that it's important to continue the old traditions, if nothing else to protect seed variation. She speaks longingly of a variety of pepper she used to enjoy that is no longer available because people stopped growing it. “I can't buy the seeds anywhere; it was a beautiful purple pepper. There are wonderful species that are just being lost.”
At the end of the day, that's why she and Baynes do what they do. They made the lifestyle choice 10 years ago to live off the land, relearn the techniques they had been introduced to as children, and expand on them. For a while they focused on selling their produce, but over time they realized what they really wanted to do was feed people good knowledge. I can't wait to take her workshops.
“This is our path; helping other people learn,” she says, smiling at Baynes.
To book a tour of Madawaska House Retreat and Organic Gardens, at 30 New Carlow Rd., in Maple Leaf, or for more information on Laurie Ann Storring's workshops, contact her at MadawaskaHouse@live.com or 613.332.9282