“I wonder how much knowledge would be lost if there were an apocalypse,” Eric said drowsily as we settled into bed the other day, continuing a discussion on whether he’d be a librarian/teacher after the apocalypse (we figure they’d be the same position). “Just think how much is on the Internet that we wouldn’t have access to.”
“Most of it came from other places, though,” I said, “or is stored elsewhere.”
“I want to start collecting more books.”
“Our own library of Alexandria?” I said, but he was already asleep and a moment later so was I.
The next morning, I thought about the books we already have that could be considered Library-of-Alexandria-worthy (including textbooks, I estimate about a third of our collection) and what sorts we would want to buy first. I don’t believe in imminent apocalypse but I will adopt any reason for buying more books. And I mused on the other thing to collect In Case of Apocalypse: seeds. Knowledge doesn’t get you far if you starve to death.
This is my second year of seed saving and seed trading. I’m still learning about the seed saving, of course; I haven’t yet tried hand-pollination, or saving seed from eggplants or zucchini, or grown kale or carrots into their second year (though I may have to try it with parsnips–thanks, Rebecca!). But I’m loving it. It’s so efficient and reasonable and yet miraculous. All day long I am eating Von Neumann machines. And the seeds I don’t take get eaten by birds (except safflower) or scattered on the ground for next year and survive the cold and maybe some fleshy rot or some animal’s gullet and know when to come up and become huge plants by eating the sun and–how can anyone not be dazzled by this?
Yes, this happens even when you buy the seed, but you don’t really see where the plant comes from, what it does to produce those seeds, how those seeds are supposed to survive in the wild…for the real history of a plant you need to see how it’s born and how it dies and how it ensures its own immortality. And you’ve probably heard about how old breeds of plants have been lost, and are still being lost, because people don’t grow and save the seeds, and so a lot of plant breeding is probably going to have to be redone–and we’ll want it to be redone, because with as amazing as the variety of the food-plant world is now, imagine what it was like back then.
And so we come to seed collecting. It’s a lot like collecting baseball cards–or, as all the girls did when I was in sixth grade, stickers. They have certain attributes, and some are more desirable than others, and they’re eminently tradeable. But the point of a big collection of seeds is not just to have a big collection of seeds–or maybe it is to some people who only grow the plants to maintain their collections, the way Dawkins suggests that an animal is a gene’s way of making more genes. The seeds themselves are only good (unless you are an exception as above) for what they can produce, and they can’t be hoarded forever; they must be used up by producing food or flowers and generated anew, so that the collection is not a static grouping of dead objects but an ever-changing repository of colors and tastes and smells, genetics made flesh. (At least squash-flesh or tomato-flesh.)
In short: seed collecting rocks. But where do you get the seeds? Chances are you’ll have to buy some to start with. After that, you can trade. Trade some of your leftover bachelor’s buttons and Black Beauty eggplants for somebody else’s lime coneflowers and Thai basil, and for the cost of postage and an envelope (less if you do it in person), you’ve doubled your seed collection. Grow your four varieties and save seeds from them, and next year trade somebody else. You’ll want to buy some seeds that other people aren’t trading, of course (or you will if you’re me), but trading offers big benefits that you can’t get from the seed catalogs, however alluring.
There’s the cheapness, of course. There’s the ridiculously wide selection, and the consequent broadening of experience. I traded for seeds last year that I didn’t especially want or wouldn’t have bought, because the other person offered and I figured what the heck, they’re free; and now I have new flowers and herbs that I love. I’ve already traded for a bunch of tomatoes this year, most of which I’d never heard of and/or wouldn’t have picked them out of a catalog; but I’m looking forward to trying them now, because selecting my own experiences makes my world self-limiting, and I don’t want that.
There’s also the community aspect. I’m now trading with a few people for the second year, and I feel a connection with these people. Every friendly “Happy gardening!” note I get with trades in the mail makes me happy. I see the plants I traded in other people’s gardens and feel pleased (and relieved that they actually grew), and I look at the plants that people traded to me and feel grateful.
(This is probably partly due to my greed for different plants–I wouldn’t be able to expand my garden, or try out all the varieties I want to try, nearly as quickly without trading. I just don’t have that kind of money.)
In conclusion: if you garden at all, start saving and trading seeds! Wintersown has a page with instructions and links to other instructions on saving. They’re also a good place to start with for getting seeds. You can buy named vegetable varieties at the farmer’s market and save the seeds before you eat them. (You can save unknown-name seeds too, of course, but they probably won’t be as appealing for trade. The whole point of trading is variety.) You can get free seeds from Dagoba Chocolate if you send them a picture of yourself eating some of their chocolate (such a trying requirement) by the end of the year.
I discovered yesterday that Bifurcated Carrots has started a Blogger Seed Network (“blogger” part optional) for anyone who wants to trade, or even for people who don’t have anything to trade yet. Colleen of In the Garden Online hosts a Gardenbloggers Seed Exchange. GardenWeb has a Seed Exchange forum. I’ve used these last two and been pleased–more with the Gardenbloggers forum than the GardenWeb one, because I’ve encountered a couple of welchers in the latter, but both are good. (The GardenWeb site also has frequent seeds-for-SASE offers.)
And I have a good amount of assorted seeds to spare. If you want some starter seeds and don’t have any to trade, leave a comment, and I’ll send some to you. If you have seeds, come check out one or all of the places above and get started trading. This is all entirely selfish on my part; the more growers and savers and traders there are, the more seeds I get. But I don’t see why that would be a hindrance. Saving seeds isn’t hard, and trading seeds is lots of fun, and you’ll end up with a garden riotous with diversity, more money to buy a new pair of garden gloves, and something to occupy you in the non-gardening months. Whyever wouldn’t you want that?