Seeds: The promise of an abundant future

Posted by Alberto Suarez Esteban on January 24, 2021

Seeds are a treasure for both plants and animals, holding potential for future growth and nourishment. Here is a brief overview of seeds that we hope you will find helpful. Please leave your questions and comments below!

What is a seed?

Seeds are plants waiting to be born. They usually contain an embryo, a protective envelope, and some nutrient reserves to feed the embryo during its early stages of development. In some species, those reserves are substantial (think nuts like chestnuts and acorns, or grains like oats and wheat). In others, not so much (think poppy seeds). This tells us that there is not an optimal amount of reserves. There are always pros and cons. Large reserves can keep the embryo fed for longer, giving it a higher chance of survival if the growing conditions after germination are not favourable. On the other hand, large reserves are much more appealing to seed predators, so generally fewer large seeds live long enough to germinate compared to smaller seeds.

What kinds of seeds are available for purchase?

If you flip through a seed catalog, chances are you will see at least 3 different types of seeds:

  • Open-pollinated (“OP” in seed catalogs): these seeds result from non-restricted pollination (by wind, insects, etc.) between individuals of the same variety. This open flow of pollen means that open-pollinated seeds usually have higher genetic diversity than hybrids (see below). This makes these varieties more adaptable and resilient to changing environmental conditions, and a great choice for seed saving. If you grow open-pollinated varieties, save the seeds from the best performing plants, and plant those seeds year after year, you may end up with a variety that is particularly well adapted to your local conditions.
  • Heirloom: these are open-pollinated varieties that were developed a long time ago, sometimes hundreds of years. You would not be wrong in thinking that if they have been around for so long, they must be good! Heirlooms may not be the most productive or disease-resistant varieties, but they tend to be the most flavourful and/or unique-looking. When you choose heirlooms, you may not only get a potentially delicious variety, but you are also conserving a unique genetic heritage with a rich history. We always encourage people to choose heirlooms and save their seeds, so they can be part of and stewards of this history.
  • Hybrids (“F1” in seed catalogs): these seeds result from the deliberate pollination (by humans) between two varieties to develop a desired trait. For example, if a plant breeder gathers pollen from a basil variety with good flavour and uses it to pollinate a basil variety that is disease-resistant, the first generation (F1) of seeds from that cross might grow basil plants that are both flavourful and disease-resistant. Because hybrids require such a targeted pollination process, their seeds will not grow “true-to-type” plants. In other words, if you save seeds from a hybrid, you will get plants that DO NOT have the same traits as their parents, and in many cases, they will be far less vigorous. While hybrids have advantages such as increased production or disease-resistance, they require gardeners to buy seeds year after year.

Where can I get seeds from?

Seed libraries are a fantastic option, and often free! You can usually get seeds from a few plant varieties, plant them, enjoy them, save their seeds, and then donate some of your harvest to the library so other people can plant your seeds the following year. To us, seed libraries are essential for seed sovereignty and local food security. We are proud participants in the Mississippi Mills Public Seed Library.

“Seedy Saturday” events are great, and they usually happen throughout late winter and early spring. Chances are there will be one close to where you live. These are great events to connect with seed libraries, small seed producers, gardeners and farmers. They usually include workshops and fun activities for all ages. We love participating in these events; they always get us even more excited about the growing season!

When it comes to buying seeds, being small organic farmers ourselves, our first choice is always to support local, small, organic seed producers. There are hundreds of small farms dedicated to seed production. A quick search with the keywords “organic seed” + “your region” will yield many options. The only drawback for us is that small seed producers tend to only sell seeds in small amounts (which is the only way they can make a living at it), so we can only buy varieties of which we only plant a few dozen plants, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. These are some of our favourite small producers:

Here is an extensive list of organic seed producers in Canada.

For varieties of which we need large quantities of seeds, we choose companies with high environmental and social standards. These larger companies grow and even develop part of the seeds they sell, and they also partner with other seed producers with similar practices. Here are our three go-to-companies, by order of preference:

  1. High Mowing Organic Seeds (Wolcott, VT):
  2. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Albion, ME): 
  3. West Coast Seeds (Vancouver, BC):

How long does a seed remain viable for?

It depends. Some seeds can only germinate within a year or two. Some can last hundreds, or thousands of years. The oldest known-to-science seed that germinated was about 32,000 years old!

When it comes to vegetables, most varieties remain viable for a few years, although the germination success usually decreases over time. Check your seed package and/or catalog for information on specific varieties.

Commercial growers tend to use “fresh” seeds (from the previous growing season) to maximize germination success. For a home garden, we do not find it as critical. We have planted 3-year old tomatoes and 4- and 5-year-old Brussel Sprouts with great germination success.

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2 comments on “Seeds: The promise of an abundant future”

  1. Thank you for sharing these very useful information even though I am just a hobby gardener there is always more to learn. Especially the personal experiences are valuable and encouraging.

  2. Alberto, I just read your most recent newsletter... you have to be the most ingenious person I know!!! How smart to build your Ginger germination chamber from common household "stuff". Bravo!

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