Crouching in the street across from our vet’s office, struggling to put a lead on our new puppy, I was distracted by the abundance of green plants on a narrow strip of wasteland squeezed between two buildings. In late March. In near freezing temperatures. Where there had been an attempt at grass—and where there was now an intriguing collection of stones, rubble, and trash—a community of plants was growing. Some were medicinal; all but the grass was edible. After an unprecedented late February snowfall, followed by high winds here was a robust natural ecosystem brimming with biodiversity: various plantains, sorrels, chicories, and chickweed all coming up from under, around, and through a fair amount of debris. A celebration of survival. No one was fertilizing the plants though, with the proximity to the vet, there must have been the occasional dog contribution. But no one was spreading seed, tilling it in, irrigating or bombing with pesticides. We all have seen this. In vacant lots, in sidewalk cracks, in supermarket parking lots. But we rarely stop to consider what is happening. This is robust survival by natural selection; testimony to the genetic resilience of old plant species, plants left to their own biological devices on undisturbed soil. Had the plants across from the vet’s office not been trod and peed upon by who knows how many dogs, I might have foraged my salad for lunch.
“In an extremely small area, especially if freely open to immigration, and where the contest between individual and individual must be severe, we always find great diversity in its inhabitants. For instance, I found that a piece of turf, three feet by four in size, which had been exposed for many years to exactly the same conditions, supported twenty species of plants, and these belonged to eighteen genera and to eight orders, which shows how much these plants differed from each other.”— Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species
I am a farmer and an unrepentant Darwinian. I farm in the mountains where I am one among many small farms—all a mix of woodlands and fields. Growing small scale and sustainably—from my own seeds—means there are no environmental or financial costs associated with growing our own food or selling our surplus other than taxes… and purchasing the land. We create fertile soil from our own waste and that of our animals. We save household water and rainwater. And the food we grow—distributed very locally—tastes better, is healthier and will always be fresher than anything store bought. I believe in the necessity of small-scale farms. I believe in selling and buying locally. I believe it will be essential. Climate change is here and now and will only be more extreme. If we never pumped another barrel of oil out of the ground, we would still be living with violent weather patterns. Heat trapping carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide will remain in our atmosphere for years driving the climate system crazy. I am not waiting for consensus. Because I see collapse all around me—and the idea of a technological fix terrifies me—I committed to growing my own food and to teaching others how to do so. I borrow from many farming traditions but primarily use the natural world as my ultimate guide. I have no illusions about who is in control; I follow Mother Nature’s dance steps. I pay attention to what she is doing, how she is doing it, and when.
Our earth has gone through periods of climate upheaval and two mass extinctions. Average temperatures have been hotter and colder and CO2 levels have been higher than they are now. Through millennia of extreme changes in the climate, plants have changed to fit into and benefit from their surroundings. Within each species, in each generation, there is always variation. Those with variations favorable for survival in a specific environment pass on their fitness to their kids. And when plants with diverse needs cohabit, they have an advantage over any monoculture because they utilize different resources, occupy different ecological niches. THAT was happening on the strip of ground across from my vet. Think of any forest or meadow, a mix of plants coexisting with different needs in terms of nutrition, moisture and sunlight. They participate in a mutualism where they benefit one another by repelling pests or barter with the soil biota to acquire their nutrition and moisture. That’s a sustainable ecosystem. I can grow food and medicine plants like that. But it depends on which plants. It depends on which seeds.
Resilient chickweed (stellaria media), my salad mainstay, coming up from under the rubble.
Genetic manipulation is nothing new; we have been altering seeds to fit our needs since the beginning of agriculture. However, now four multinational corporations control the majority of plant breeding research, the commercial seed market, and the agrochemical industry. The word which concerns me, the operative word in the above sentence, is control—control of Nature, of the markets, of what those multinational companies decide we can grow. The result—what is happening with our crops, with our seeds—is called genetic erosion. Because a few large chemical companies control the majority of our seeds—and they are a very limited selection—it impacts our crop biodiversity and, ultimately, our food security. The larger the gene pool (with any species), the more robust the population. The smaller the gene pool—the lower genetic diversity—the less general fitness and ability to deal with environmental changes within the population. This would increase the chance of extinction from disease, predation or changes in the climate. I’m not even mentioning the unethical, immoral issues over prosecuting/persecuting farmers for saving patented seeds. (Well… actually I did just mention it.)
My seeds are from open-pollinated plants which are fertilized by insects and animals, rain, wind, and one another. And some are self-pollinating. Unlike the commercially sold and regulated hybrids, these seeds produce similar plants the following year; seeds true to type. Heirloom plants are antiques. Handed down from generation to generation. Because they are from old seed lines, heirlooms are always open-pollinated, though open-pollinated plants may not be heirloom. Often they are kept at a distance from other subspecies or species of their genus in order to not cross-pollinate. (There are exceptions, especially among fruit trees which often need other subspecies for pollination.) In every region there are local micro companies which sell heirloom seeds. The public libraries often have information on seed swaps and seed savers meetings. Local seed banks and seed libraries are growing everywhere.
Following Mother Nature’s dance steps
Each year I save more seeds, from my own plants, from what I forage, from neighbors… This is where Charles Darwin and Mother Nature converge with our new climate extremes. I am stepping back and letting the locally-adapted food plants take charge, while I reserve the option to select those with optimal nutrition. At the same time, a self-supporting ecosystem is emerging. It is so much easier than the constant warfare with the natural world which could almost be the definition of our current agriculture.
In early spring there is already a profusion of young dandelions in the lawns of city folk and throughout famers’ fields. They try to get rid of this prolific self-seeding food. Yet, every single part of the dandelion is beneficial and the pollinators love her. The taraxacum genus has evolved along with our agricultural crops—hundreds of species and 2800 subspecies—the seeds intermingling with the harvest. This could be a model for our food crops; an absolutely free, nutritious food and a multi-use medicine. And wherever she appears, she brings along friends… an entire community of culinary and medicinal weeds. Why are we not paying attention?
Leaving our food and medicine plants to adapt to the local climate is not breeding. Breeding is how humans interfere. Plants adapt. Plants have hundreds of millions of years of adaptation experience. They are changing right now in response to our altered environment. I want what was happening in that patch of ground across from the vet’s office. I want all-purpose plants like the dandelion. No trial seed plot at any seed company can produce seeds which grow into resilient, nutritious, and delicious food better than the seeds which have adapted to grow in my valley, in my village, on my land. It has always been so. We have always been able to produce our own fertile seeds, seeds for plants which demand far less of their environment. We don’t need Monsanto. We have forgotten what we always knew—and have been encouraged to do so. Every single heirloom plant we grow, in the company of some of its kind, has the ability to reproduce itself.
Farming on the edge of the woods
My gardens border on woodlands. Wild fruit trees and brambles bridge the grandmother oaks and pines to the gardens. Some of the understory trees and shrubs are indigenous, many were naturalized long before we arrived. The local raspberries, currant bushes, mulberry, cherry and fig trees on the edge of the garden have gone through drought, heat, and blizzard to continue to deliver stellar harvests. We have been encouraging them, transplanting their most robust seedlings, enlarging the community. The woody shrubs and trees provide an infinity of benefits to the wild and cultivated seeds I toss out; from water and soil retention, essential nutrition and nutrient exchange, housing for birds and other insect-eaters, summer cooling and afternoon sun screen during our baking hot summers to name a very few. By having placed our food gardens on the edge of the woods, our intentional plants are nourished by the above and below ground networks of the well-established plants.
The seeds which can easily adapt to the local conditions will become the plants to survive and reproduce. That’s survival of the fittest. But here’s the caveat most people forget, the fittest for that particular spot, for that situation. Immediately after we arrived we began to collect all our waste and our animals’ bedding. I dumped, quite literally, all the compost on the sad hard ground between our back door and the edge of the woodlands. The wild edibles and wildflowers moved in immediately. Then I tossed out seeds for leafy greens—arugula, parsley, endive, lettuce, chard, etc… Together with the uninvited (but welcomed) guests, they became the cover crop for the beds, self-seeding, self-perpetuating. My seeds were a mix of whatever I had with me when I arrived: seeds saved from my previous gardens, some from friends, some from packets which beckoned to me from the nearby feed store, some from a rare seeds catalogue. I mixed them in a bucket of garden soil and spread them over the beds. Some never germinated, some sprouted but did not produce another generation, some are still self-seeding today. The plants chose where they wanted to be and with whom. And that was important. I did not pamper or coax them. The survivors created a permanent salad blanket, a thriving community, into which I insert the seasonal crops like peas and beans, broccoli and cauliflower, tomatoes and potatoes. The cover crop self-seeds at different times of the year in different densities. This is the opposite of monoculture. It is not my design. This is what I see when I walk in the meadows or along the river bank.
Cauliflower planted into a self-seeding cover crop of arugula, chicories and endive
I retain some discretionary control. I can decide which plants are left to go to seed and from which plants I collect the seed. I can thin areas where the plants are too dense and I remove many to pot up and sell. Because I also have the local trees and shrubs in the garden beds, some of the sun-loving plants wind up in shade and need a little guidance—by way of transplanting. Some plants, like the chicories, just continue to chug along through four seasons in sun or shade. Some like chickweed—which is a delicious salad green—hibernate all winter and are now out in force. By interplanting a seasonal vegetable into the permanent cover crop, the community is resilient enough that a pathogen or insect can do little damage.
Most gardeners have had the experience of ‘volunteers’ appearing in spring. These are seedlings from fruits which dropped, decomposed on the ground, and germinated all on their own. We are often told to weed them out as they are unknown hybrids. But when growing heirloom plants—at a distance from other subspecies (to prevent cross-pollination)—volunteers will grow up to be just like their parents. I leave them all. I transplant the oak seedlings from under the mother to an area I am reforesting. I sell and give away the tiny fruit trees. The raspberries, blackberries and currants stay and expand their horizons as do all the vegetables. (I have celery coming up in the most unlikely of places.) Six years ago a friend gave me a yellow cherry tomato which, she said, came from seeds from Mexico, possibly related to the original tomato. I saved the seeds and planted them the next spring. Though I stake some of my tomatoes, I left these to vine along the ground, the habit of the original tomatoes. The crop was delicious. Inevitably, I missed harvesting a few. The following year, seedlings emerged from the same area and I left them. Like the parent plant, they had wonderful small yellow tomatoes. Now I have a permanent, self-seeding crop.
I tend to ignore advice about native and invasive plants; the climate is changing enough that some of our indigenous plants are now struggling and some invasives may wind up feeding us. And really, given a geological time frame, what is a native? I plant some of all my saved seeds—the seeds which made it through drought as well as those which survived deluge, those early to fruit and the last ones standing. Something is always a success. I am saving seeds knowing that, if not this year, then perhaps next year I may be growing the bulk of our food from fall through spring. I am also being practical. For two years in a row we had no rainfall in July and August. We have large cisterns but when I consider watering a seasonal vegetable through a drought, I must weigh the enormous drain on our water supply against the yield I will get in return. The water is better used to support our young trees in the summer (and thus the birds and beneficial insects).
I also ignore the advice about cleanliness in seed saving. Mother Nature does not wash her seeds in bleach before drying them. Plants drop their seeds beneath the mother plant. Or the wind carries them off. Or an animal eats them and redistributes them elsewhere in their own pile of fertilizer. They go through heating and desiccation and rehydrating numerous times. They are covered in plant debris. They go through a deep freeze and thawing and yet, somehow, a small primitive root emerges to dig into the earth just when the temperature, moisture and sunlight are just right for germination
And, in spite of reading that one MUST thoroughly dry seeds and store them in a dark, dry and cool space, I have inadvertently overwintered seeds in a damp tool shed and had no difficulty sprouting them the following spring. However, making sure seeds are dry before storing, choosing an airtight container and keeping them in cool, dark conditions is probably optimal for storing seeds for many years.
I keep pushing the extremes while paying attention. This year I will mark the vegetables which flower and fruit early but continue feeding us—or the birds and beasts—well past their expiration date. I’ll save those seeds. Last year my focus was on saving seeds from the plants which stayed green and productive in the cold weather. I recently planted peas from seeds I collected at the end of December, extremely late for peas. I dried and stored them and in early February soaked them in water. Those with roots beginning to peak through after several days were the ones I planted with the new moon. (From a neat biodynamic observation on plant growth with the phases of the moon.) They have already begun to break through the soil. It is 5°C and cloudy today.
Noticing the outliers costs nothing and takes little time, but it requires being present, being aware. It also helps with trouble shooting before a problem develops. I walk among my gardens every day and visit the trees in the fields and meadows every week. I have dragged chairs and benches into the various gardens and sit, with my morning and afternoon tea, among the plants.
Our seed vaults are saving crop biodiversity but not seeds for the farmers. Their intention was always to be a gene vault, a resource for plant breeding. It is up to the small farmer and gardener to safeguard our food supply. Not only because we can grow higher quality locally-adapted foods from seeds we collect but because small scale farming for community production is the only way forward. We are saving our food supply for a sustainable future by simply not standing in its way while it evolves with the changing environment. When it comes to growing our food from seed, I can do better than the big seed companies. But really, we can all do better. The seeds for growth are all within the plants… and within us.
© Jeri Sue Metz 2023