in Greener Homes on 12 March 2012
Growing vegies gets cheaper and easier when you save the source.
CHRIS Brock’s vegie patch is laid out in terraces, stepping up the slope above his house in Healesville. It’s well fenced to keep out wombats and netted to ward off birds. Right at the top of the hill, he’s working on a different line of defence.
In the top bed, he’s growing General Mackay climbing beans, but his family won’t be eating any this year – they’re saving them for seed instead.
“It’s a rare variety, and I only had a small amount of seed,” Mr Brock says, “so I’ve grown them out to hundreds of seeds. Next year I can grow a decent crop myself, and share them with others.”
Mr Brock is an environmental scientist, and the convenor of Yarra Valley Seedsavers. As well as the climbing beans, this year he’ll be keeping seeds from broccoli, swedes, wombok and kale, to list a few.
“I’m concerned about conservation of seed varieties and about maintaining diversity in what we eat,” he explains. “Saving seeds and growing your own vegies is a practical way to be less reliant on the industrialised food system, which is degrading biodiversity.”
His group meets before the change of seasons. Together, they sort seeds, share tips and deposit and withdraw from their collective seed-bank, according to their needs.
“There’s a lot of cultural information you don’t get on a packet of seeds. When you meet the person who grew them, there’s so much you learn about how to grow that vegetable, when it’s ripe and how to prepare it,” he says.
Brock and his fellow gardeners are part of the national Seed Savers Network, founded by Jude and Michel Fanton. The couple have worked on similar projects in over forty countries. They’ve also published a guide, The Seed Savers’ Handbook, which contains instructions for over a hundred vegetables, herbs and flowers, including tips on avoiding cross-pollination among certain varieties, as well as storage and cultivation.
Ms Fanton says there’s no reason to be intimidated. “For plants that go to head, you can rely on self-seeding. It’s the simplest way, and it’s what we’re doing in our garden more and more,” she says. “Let things like carrots, parsnips, parsley or dill go to seed, then whack the seed-head around into other beds.”
When it comes to tomatoes, she also suggests starting with the most straightforward method. “You can just squeeze the seeds over a paper towel, write the name on it, let them dry on the table or the windowsill, then roll them up and put them in a jar.”
No matter the plant, the most important thing is to make sure the seeds are completely dry before you store them – otherwise they’ll decompose.
Once you get in the habit, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. “It gets easier and easier to grow things, because the plants are adapted to your soil, your growing style and your climate,” Ms Fanton says.
“Home-saved seeds are changing all the time and that aspect of evolution is really important for the way we cope with climate change.”
There’s another, less tangible benefit, too. “Sharing and saving seed is a way to remember people too,” she says. “For example, we’ve got a sweet French fennel from Michel’s aunty and we’ve had it for 31 years. It really adds a poignant aspect to the word heirloom.”