Seed Saving: Savouring a Family Heirloom
And Saving it for Posterity
My mom was a passionate gardener. If you came up our driveway sometime between sunrise and sunset on summer days, she could almost always be spotted, hunched over her plants. One of our cats would usually be sprawled across her back or shoulders, purring in contentment and watching over her work. My mom was also a meticulous saver of seeds, especially when it came to the pulses—dried beans and peas—which she was particularly fond of. She kept these in large jars for winter soups and in smaller jars for sowing in the subsequent year's garden. Now that she is gone, the seeds that she saved from her garden have become a living family heirloom.
This spring, while I was back home in Nova Scotia, I rummaged through our seed cupboard and packed my suitcase with little containers of colourful seeds she had carefully put away. I've since planted three of my mom's favourites in my garden: Salt Lake pole beans (she had written "meaty and prolific" on the jar), Ethiopian lentils (she especially loved cooking with this variety for their plumpness and tender texture), and Darlaine yellow peas (labelled as "Darlene," she used these to make her traditional Québécois pea soup, or soupe aux pois).
People have been saving seeds for over ten thousand years. Throughout these years of seed saving, farmers have been selecting and cross-breeding seeds for desirable traits, resulting in an astounding variety of crops that are well-adapted to local soils and weather patterns. A famous example of this diversity is in the Andes, home to over four thousand varieties of potatoes of every shape, colour and size. But today, seed production has largely been taken over by multinational corporations whose bottom line is maximizing profit. Monoculture, genetic engineering, and a one-seed-fits-all approach to agriculture has stripped away the ability of countless numbers of farmers to be self-sufficient and has also resulted in a dramatic loss of biodiversity. The United Nations estimates that in the last century alone, 75 percent of genetic diversity in crops has been lost.
This depletion of biodiversity not only creates an alarming vulnerability to agricultural pests and diseases, but it also speaks to a larger loss, that of our human heritage. Every seed has a story behind it, a unique flavour, a traditional way of cooking and eating the food it produces. By losing these stories and traditions, we are losing a part of ourselves.
In this era, seed saving has become an act not only of ecological stewardship, but of resistance and activism. Resistance to a world where a handful of mega-corporations control our seed and food supply. And activism to create a world that is biodiverse, self-sufficient, colourful, and perhaps most selfishly for us food lovers, flavourful and delicious.
If you're new to seed saving, beans and peas are a great place to start because they are self-pollinators, which means they are very unlikely to cross with other varieties. They are also very easy to harvest. First, you need to be sure to use non-hybrid seeds since hybrid plants will not yield seeds that are true to the parent plant. To collect the seeds, all you need to do is leave the pods on the plant until they are completely dry and the leaves are falling off. One trick to ensure the beans are ready for saving is to press your thumbnail into one. If it doesn't make a dent, the beans are ready. Pods should be harvested and then dried for a day or two in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight before being shelled, or threshed. For a large harvest, a quick and easy threshing method is to simply place the beans in a plastic or paper bag and stomp on them to break up the dried pod casings. To clean the beans, there are several methods, but a fun and easy way is to drop the beans into a bucket from about a metre above, in front of a fan. The moving air will blow away the lighter pod bits and the beans will fall into the bucket. You can dry the beans for a few days longer, as above, before bottling them up. They are now ready for cooking or replanting. If replanting, choose large, healthy seeds and discard any small or damaged seed.
The year before she died, my mom gave me a small, humble-looking book for my birthday called Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It, written by Dan Jason, the owner of Salt Spring Seeds, one of Canada's most successful heritage and heirloom seeds companies. I had always felt a little intimidated about saving my own seeds but this book's simple yet thorough approach really demystifies the process. I recently dug it up again.
I want to continue growing and saving seeds from those delicious beans and peas that my mom loved so much. Maybe one day I will pass them on to my own as-yet-unborn children. And this fall, I look forward to making my mom's traditional soupe aux pois using her beautiful Darlaine peas.
Mom's Soupe aux Pois
By Aube Giroux
3 cups dried whole yellow peas (not split)
4 slices bacon, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
2 medium stalks celery, finely chopped
1 medium leek or onion, finely chopped
12 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water
1 small pork hock (raw or smoked) or ham bone
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large bowl, soak the peas in water to cover generously for at least 8 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse; set aside.
In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, add the bacon. Cook, stirring often until the fat is rendered, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and leek and cook, stirring occasionally until the leek is softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the broth, pork hock, maple syrup and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partially cover the pot and simmer, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes, until the peas are totally soft and tender, about 2 hours. Add water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. (The soup should be thick but not porridgey.) If a ham hock was used, it can be removed and the meat around it chopped and returned to the soup. Season as necessary with salt and pepper. Serve hot.