Farming’s seedy side
A seed saved is a seed earned
For years on his 10-acre farm in Fallon, Dr. Bill Mewaldt has been selecting the most flavorful, most productive fruits and vegetables from the healthiest looking plants, and saving their seeds for future harvests. It’s a routine that, over the years, has resulted in better, stronger, tastier food and plants well-adapted to the region—all at little cost to him.
“One of the things that’s so important for sustainable agriculture is to save your seeds,” said Mewaldt. While it’s not something big seed companies want you to hear, he says anyone, from the weekend gardener to the professional farmer, can do it easily.
Mewaldt provides seeds to local farms, including Lattin Farms, and also sells his seed packets online and locally at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op on Plumas Street. His knowledge and passion about seeds and sustainable agriculture is well-earned, having been a life biology professor for 30 years and a farmer since the mid-1970s.
He spoke to an audience of about 25 people sitting under some trees at a recent seed-saving seminar at the Garden Shop Nursery.
“Decide which plant you like best, tastes best—that’s the plant you want to save seeds from,” Mewaldt told the group. Once you’ve made your selection, remove the seeds from the fruit or vegetable, let them dry on a paper towel, put them in an envelope, label them, and store them in an unheated garage or other cool place over the winter until it’s time to plant them come spring.
“You get the benefit that you didn’t have to buy them, and those seeds are going to give you better plants than what you got last year,” said Mewaldt.
He says tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and okra are examples of good plants from which to save seeds. Squash and melon seeds cross pollinate easily and therefore aren’t as desirable to save. But you can save their seeds by putting bags over the flowers to create a barrier for bees, then pollinating by hand.
In general, said Mewaldt, the best seeds to save are from open-pollinated, not hybrid plants. With hybrids, the parent plants are genetically distinct, like crossing a small cucumber with a big cucumber to get a medium one. With open-pollinated plants, the parents are genetically very similar. While hybrids, listed F1 on seed packets, are consistent from year to year, with the same size, flavor, color and disease resistance, they won’t adapt to local conditions or improve over time. That’s why, said Mewaldt, they don’t make good seed-saving candidates. Open-pollinated plants, on the other hand, can cross pollinate with each other, and there will be slight variations in their offspring. Those variations allow gardeners and farmers to save seed from the best plants and improve their crop from year to year.
“As an organic farmer, it’s almost an obligation to save your seeds,” said Mewaldt, as it can increase quality and save money.
For seeds you buy yourself, Mewaldt said to feel free to plant seeds a year or two after the packet’s expiration date, as something will likely come up.
There’s also nothing wrong with letting plants—from tomatoes to herbs to lettuce—reseed themselves. “Volunteers are great,” said Mewaldt. But only for a couple years, as you should rotate where you plant your crops every one to three years, depending on the crop.