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Archive for November, 2014

Bill McDorman teaching at Seed School. Belle Starr is on the left.

Bill McDorman teaching at Seed School. Belle Starr is on the left.

I recently attended Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance’s six day Seed School in Buhl, Idaho. Bill McDorman and Belle Starr founded Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) this year, along with their friend John Caccia. John manages the Wood River Seed Library that was formed in early 2014. According to their website, the mission of RMSA is to “connect communities with the seeds that sustain them. Through education and other supportive services, this organization would help people reclaim the ancient tradition of seed saving and stewardship to grow a more resilient future in their towns, neighborhoods, and backyards. Their vision: a region filled with local farmers and gardeners producing a diverse abundance of crops—food, wildflowers, and grasses—from locally adapted seeds.

Bill and Belle founded RMSA after three years with Native Seeds/SEARCH. Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is the go-to place to find seeds native to the Southwest. There are educational programs at NS/S, but the emphasis is on the seeds—preserving them, growing them, and sharing them. The emphasis at RMSA is on education. Through education there will be more people and organizations available to do the preserving, growing, and sharing work.

Germination test with 100 seeds.

Germination test with 100 seeds.

Information covered at Seed School included, but was not limited to, seed breeding, germination testing, harvesting and processing, seed libraries, and seed enterprises. Although seeds can stay viable for many years, it is good to know the germination rate to know how much to plant, particularly if you are sharing them with others. The germination tests I do at home are done with only 10 seeds at a time and are sufficient for my own use. This summer a new seed library in Pennsylvania was challenged by the PA Department of Agriculture and asked to conform to the same laws that govern seed companies. One of the requirements was to have germination tests done–the kind that require 100 seeds to be tested at a time. I don’t believe that is necessary for a seed library, but the test is actually something you can do at home. Put 100 seeds on a damp paper towel, roll it up and keep it moist for a few days, then check it again. We did that at Seed School using wheat seed. Whether you are using 10 seeds or 100 for your germination tests, it is a good activity to do with volunteers if you are involved with a seed library. You receive valuable information to pass on with the seeds and your volunteers receive valuable experience, not to mention the camaraderie that develops with people working together.

We visited a USDA lab and a native plant nursery. Everyone we met was passionate about their work. The nursery produced most of the native plants that were installed in the region regardless of which company or government agency was the local supplier. So much for diversity of sources. Likewise, there are fewer sources of organic seed than you might think. Seed companies don’t necessarily grow all the seeds they sell and some don’t grow any. High Mowing has always only sold organic seed. According to their website, although they grow more than 60 varieties themselves, other varieties are supplied by growers in the Northeast, the Northwest, and from large wholesale organic seed companies such as Vitalis Seeds, Bego Seeds, and Genesis Seeds. You could be buying organic seeds that weren’t even grown in this country, let alone in your region! It does make you think. Companies that do not limit themselves to organic seeds could also be sourcing seeds from Seminis, now a subsidiary of Monsanto. When Monsanto bought out Seminis, Fedco Seeds decided to cut ties with Seminis—a big step for any seed company at the time. You can read here about the current state of our seed supply in the words of CR Lawn of Fedco in a talk he gave in February 2013.

Don Tipping explaining threshing.

Don Tipping explaining threshing.

Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds in Williams, Oregon was one of the presenters at Seed School. The home farm of Siskiyou Seeds is Seven Seeds Farm where about 60% of the seed for the company is grown. To offer more diversity in the catalog, Siskiyou looks to other growers, many in southwest Oregon. A description of each of those growers is in the catalog and each variety of seed offered shows the source of the seed in the description. Siskiyou turns to High Mowing for some of their varieties, but you know which ones were bought from that wholesaler from the catalog descriptions.

Seven Seeds Farm is part of the Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, a “new approach in seed security through supporting the development of bioregional seed producing hubs linked with a national marketing, breeding, and quality assurance program.” Closer to my home is a similar cooperative– Common Wealth Seed Growers—made up of my friends at Twin Oaks Seed Farm, Living Energy Farm, and All Farm Organics. At Seed School I met Luke Callahan of SeedWise, which is an online marketplace that provides a way for home gardeners to connect with very small seed companies. Common Wealth Seed Growers is listed with SeedWise.

In 2003 and 2004 I attended a series of workshops organized to educate seed growers in the Southeast region of the US. It was part of the Saving Our Seed initiative. One of the results of that project was the seed production manuals for the Mid-Atlantic and South and for the Pacific Northwest that you can freely access online now. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is the main market for seed growers in my region, but the growers here sell to other companies, also. At the time I wondered what would result from those workshops. I knew many people present and didn’t imagine them rushing out to grow seeds for Southern Exposure anytime soon. Well, a decade has passed and a network of growers has developed. My daughter even grew seeds for Southern Exposure this year!

If you are concerned about the source of your seeds (as you very well should be), learn to grow your own or buy from small growers in your region. We can’t change the world overnight, which would result in chaos anyway. But, with each action we take we send out ripples that can result in a lasting, positive change. Seed School at Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance produced some ripples that I know are going to make a difference in keeping the seeds in the hands of Homeplace Earththe people for years to come.

 

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???????????????????????????????As you are wrapping up the gardening year, I hope you have recorded questions you might have had over the season. Maybe you have a crop that just never performs as well as you would like or maybe you would like to expand your activities to grow something different or grow your usual crops in different ways. Just maybe, you are looking forward to using a cold frame, building a low tunnel, or putting up trellises in 2015 but you don’t know much about those things. This winter would be a good time to set yourself on the path of self-directed education.

Having questions of your own is the best first step. Searching for the answers is the next. Observation in your own garden is a good place to start. I hope you have taken notes over the course of the gardening year about what puzzles you in the garden. Then, hit the books and see what others have to say. I know that people have become accustomed to searching the Internet and YouTube for information and I don’t mean to discount that. There is a lot of good information out there (including this blog) and there is a lot of not-so-good information. Pay attention to the source.

When I produced the cover crop and garden plan DVDs I had people like you in mind. The DVDs would be used in the classes I taught at the community college where they are still part of the curriculum, but are also available to anyone wanting to further their gardening education. Not everyone can fit a college class into their schedule, even if one was available to them. My DVDs can be used by individuals or with groups and can be watched over and over. They are a great way to bring everyone into the same understanding of the subject to start discussions.

My book Grow a Sustainable Diet takes the garden planning and cover cropping further by including planning to grow a substantial part of your food and the cover crops to feed back the soil, while keeping a small footprint on the earth. In the first photo you see me working on that book. During the writing of each chapter I would get out books for reference and they would pile up beside my desk. When I finished a chapter, I would put the reference books away and start a new pile with the references for the next chapter. (By the way, I bought that wonderful desk at a church yard sale.) Whether I am writing a book, working on my garden plan, or researching something new I want to do in my garden, the scene is the same. I check the resources I’ve developed from my garden myself, refer to books on my shelf, refer to books from the libraries (I frequent several) and check out what is on the Internet.

Sometimes when I am learning about a new crop, or fine-tuning what I know about something I’ve been growing awhile, I will write a paper about it to put in my garden notebook. It would answer all the questions I have about that crop and include some ideas for the future. In the paper I document where I found the information in case I need to reference it later. If you were taking a class somewhere you would have to write papers—maybe on things you have no interest in. You are the director of your own education here, so all the papers you write for yourself are relevant and timely.

???????????????????????????????I learned to garden before the Internet was a thing. With a limited budget I learned from the experienced folks who wrote the books that I found at the library, primarily the ones published by Rodale Press in the 1970s and 80s. Then Chelsea Green came on the scene with New Organic Grower. Since then there have been many more good gardening books published, including the ones by my publisher, New Society. All the while I was reading those books, I was trying out the authors’ ideas and coming up with my own. The learning is in the doing. Get out in your garden and just do things. Encourage your library to stock the books you want to learn from. If you are going to buy them, try to buy from the authors themselves. Some good books are out of print, but thanks to the Internet, you can find them through the used book websites. Used book stores are some of my favorite places to shop. When you find something particularly helpful, buy it for your personal library. Put the books you would like on a Christmas Wish List. If someone asks you for suggestions, you will be ready.

???????????????????????????????When the opportunity arises, go to programs and presentations that are offered in your community and regional conferences. Something might even pop up at your local library. This photo shows the publicity that the Washington County Seed Savers Library gave to their upcoming gardening programs in April 2014. There is a poster to show that I would be speaking there and a brochure that listed all the spring programs. These programs were free to the public!

There will be a cost involved for conferences, but you can recoup that in the knowledge gained from the experience—and from the connections you make through the people you meet. Sometimes the best thing to do, especially if you are new at this, is to spend your time listening to what everyone has to say. You can even learn a lot listening to the discussions going on over lunch. I just returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, Kansas. I enjoyed meeting people following my work and those who just discovered it. I also enjoyed spending time with other authors, editors, and the Mother Earth News staff. Although we email throughout the year, it is good to meet-up in person.

My next adventure is to attend Seed School in Buhl, Idaho both as a student and as a presenter on seed libraries. That’s where I’ll be when you receive this post on November 4, 2014. I am looking forward to sharing what I know and to learning from everyone else who is there. Take control of your own gardening education and plan to spend this winter learning wherever you can. Fill your garden notebook with your customized garden plan and with information specific to you.Homeplace Earth

 

 

 

 

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