Finding the Art in Growing Seed

by Erin Enouen

When I began working at the Hudson Valley Seed Library four years ago as a seed packer, I never imagined that I would spend my free time growing seed. Seed packing was the “winter work” I took on in between growing seasons. But yet, here I find myself, working full time, year round at the Seed Library, with three seed crops in my personal ¼ acre garden, and plans to continue growing seed as my growing space expands each year.

This year, as an employee at the Hudson Valley Seed Library, I have the opportunity to work on research that we are conducting, made possible through a SARE Grant we were approved for this spring. By connecting with and training 6 Hudson Valley farmers this growing season, we hope to learn more about seed borne diseases that affect seed crops in the north-east and train the farmers how to see those diseases and respond to them accordingly. Building a network of motivated and trained farmers who can produce high quality, disease-free seed in the north-east is the ultimate of goal our research, and hopefully this first year will help get us there.

IMG_2283 Bridge to Paris Pepper plants being grown for seed.

As a new landowner working on building up a small, diversified farm on my own, I also have the opportunity to be one of the growers participating in the grant. For the grant, I am growing Bridge to Paris Pepper, a long, red, blocky sweet pepper that came to the Hudson Valley Seed Library from Phillies Bridge Farm. Bridge to Paris was bred out of a hybrid pepper variety and stabilized, and the Seed Library has been keeping the seed supply going for years. Now I too am part of the seed saving story of the Bridge to Paris Pepper, and I hope to do this special variety justice by stewarding this variety this year.

Someone once told me that a good herdsmen is out everyday with her herd, walking, watching and listening. A good herdsman knows the herd, and knows when issues start to arise because the first signs are noticeable. I am learning that this is true about growing seed too. Much of the study we are doing with our SARE Grant is focused on diseases. As participants we are encouraged to observe our seed crops almost daily, and jot down notes about plant health, signs of pathogens and off-types. We are encouraged to make scientific observations and get a good idea of how our plant population is doing. By doing regular observations we are gaining intimate knowledge of our crops, and heightening our sight for the characteristics of our varieties.

There are many factors that affect plants: Soil fertility, pH, and drainage; pathogens present in the air and in the soil; amount of rain and irrigation methods; pests; and of course, genetics. When an issue arises in the field, such as the presence spots on foliage, there could be one factor or five causing the outward manifestation of spots. A responsible seed grower will search for the root of issue and act accordingly. It might be benign, or the plants might need to be rogued to select for resistance to a particular external factor. Whether conscious or not, seed saving is gene selection. A responsible seed grower makes selection decisions consciously.

IMG_2313 Bridge to Paris Peppers and Otto File Corn seed crops.

A ¼ acre is a lot of land to feed two people, so when making my garden plan this spring, I knew I could fit in some seed projects. In addition to the 200 bed feet of Bridge to Paris Peppers I am growing as a grant participant I have two varieties that are part of my own seed projects: A special polenta corn that was given to me by Lee Reich and an open-pollinated kabocha squash.  Last year, I grew the ¼ cup of corn seeds given to me by Lee into a gallon of seed with the hope of expanding the supply every year. This year, I am trialing an open-pollinated kabocha squash. I have it isolated from other squash in the same species, so if I like it, I will save the seeds from it, and if I don’t, the search for a better variety will continue.

IMG_2280 This open-pollinated kabocha squash variety is looking promising!

I planted these varieties because I knew I could isolate them from cross-pollination. I scouted the neighborhood gardeners and asked them questions about what they grew. When I found out I’d be the only one growing corn for a couple of miles, I planted 600’ of my special corn. When my neighbors told me they didn’t grow any buttercup squashes, I planned on growing 400’ of the squash variety. There are 4 species of squash, so I am able to grow this variety for seed, and still have zucchini and butternut squash planted in my garden without the threat of cross-pollination. Though these varieties take up a lot of space, they are very easy to maintain in the garden. The weeds are kept at bay with a few minutes of light cultivation each week, and they require little irrigation on top of the rain.

I spent once season with the polenta corn. This is year two. Now that I am working with a bigger population, I am getting to know the variety better. Most of the plants are very tall, they produce about 2 ears per stalk. The corn is an orangey gold and when ground makes a sweet, soft, flavorful polenta. My goal for this variety in year two is rogue all plants that are below a certain height and to save as much seed as I can for eating and planting. In years 3-5, I hope to continue to plant more and get to know this variety through each different season, but I also hope to improve it so that it is more uniform and reliable.

Growing seed is like writing. A good writer is a good listener and a good journalist, knowing the intimate details of their subject. Once the intimate details are known, the writer is able to manipulate their subject—therein lies the art. A good seed grower knows the facts about the variety they are growing, but also why that variety is meaningful. A responsible seed grower preserves the integrity of the variety they are growing, and therein lies the beauty. Certainly something this budding seed grower would like to aspire to.