Air Date: Week of September 13, 1996
Living on Earth's organic gardening expert Evelyn Tully Costa talks with Steve Curwood about saving one' s harvest seeds for planting next spring, and the benefits of threshing certain seeds before they go out of style.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As nearly every school kid knows these days, wild animals are in trouble. Extinction is at an all-time high and creatures beloved and obscure are headed for oblivion with unknown consequences for the Earth and its people. But what not so many people realize is that plants are also in trouble. Both wild plants and cultivated varieties, which have provided food for humans for thousands of years and are part of the genetic base for many of our current food crops. By one estimate we're losing 27,000 plant species a year, 1,000 times the natural rate. Much of this loss is by accident. Human communities are squeezing out wild ones and new crop varieties more suited to current conditions are replacing older ones. Some of the loss, though, is actually by design. Companies that produce and sell seeds are replacing common varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers which can reproduce themselves with infertile hybrids, which of course can't. And in some cases, with patented bioengineered versions. But there's a movement around the world to preserve traditional or heirloom plants, and Living on Earth's organic gardening expert, Evelyn Tully Costa, says backyard gardeners can play a role by preserving their own seeds from their favorite plants. Evelyn joins us now from New York. Hi, Evelyn.
TULLY COSTA: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: How do we do this now, with my cherry tomatoes? I love the sungold cherries. They're so delicious. How can I save their seeds?
TULLY COSTA: Okay. What you want to do, Steve, is look at your favorite plants, and you want to select them for certain traits. You can look at them for their color, whether or not they're disease resistant, their flavor, their size, how vigorous they are. You want to make sure that their heirloom varieties, or non-hybrid types, because heirlooms' offspring are identical to the parent plants. In other words, when you plant the seed, you're going to get the parent plant, which is unlike a hybrid. The flavor is oftentimes superior, and over time the strain can actually be improved. That's why people do this.
CURWOOD: Okay, so like I have about 6 of the sungolds. I should pick the best one, the one that had the best output this summer.
TULLY COSTA: Mm hm. Yep.
CURWOOD: And save the seeds from that.
TULLY COSTA: Right.
CURWOOD: How do I do this?
TULLY COSTA: The first thing you need to do is you need to know when this plant has matured, okay? Now, I'm just going to give a general overview of a lot of different plants that people can sort of figure out when the plants have gone to seed. Ripe flowers of herbs, ornamentals, and even some vegetables have exposed seeds emerging from dried pods, which are off the buds. Now, sunflowers are a really common example of this. You've got to pick these buds and lay them out to dry. Now, seeds from the brasica family, like mustards, cabbage, and broccoli, develop inside pods. Now, the key is to harvest these seeds before those pods crack.
CURWOOD: And I just put this into a jar, or what do I do?
TULLY COSTA: What you get to do is thresh, which is still done all over the world by people that don't have industrialized agricultural methods. This method is used for flowers, herbs, mints, onions, berries, corn, grain, and even some beans. And basically what you're doing is separating the chaff from the seed. This is done with a series of screens and a 3 speed house fan which simulates the wind.
CURWOOD: Okay. How do I do this, though, with tomatoes? I mean, they're kind of, you know, gushy.
TULLY COSTA: Ah, okay. Well that brings us then to the mushier side of fruits and vegetables. We're talking here, like you said, about tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, and even some chilies. They need to rot. They need to ferment a little bit before their seeds are screened, dried, and stored in that order, Steve.
CURWOOD: Okay. And then how do I store these?
TULLY COSTA: Okay. Uh, this is the important part. I would recommend that people use well-labeled jars. Store them in a cool, clean, dry, and insect-proof area. Seeds should be as dry as possible before going into storage, since heat and humidity can be damaging as well as encourage bacteria and fungus.
CURWOOD: Boy, I tell you, with a garden one is always busy. There's canning and now there's seed saving. But I suppose this way I get to make a connection between my favorite tomato plant and next summer, huh?
TULLY COSTA: Right. And really what we're doing here is closing a circle. You grow from seed and instead of buying seedlings or seed packets you grow the plant directly from a seed that you have saved and this leads you into the next growing season. It's also important for your listeners to be aware once again of the big picture drama each human on this planet takes part in every time we eat. From the poorest peasant to the CEO of a multinational corporation, learning about the seed gene pool, who owns it, and how food crop diversity is being manipulated, it's critical to anyone who's interested in eating. So I am now going off to enjoy my last heirloom Amish Brandywine tomato and cucumber sandwich of the season.
CURWOOD: Well, there's another mouthful from our own Brooklyn-based gardening correspondent Evelyn Tully Costa. Thank you so much.
TULLY COSTA: Okay, Steve, thanks a lot.
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