Organic Gardening & Farming, Plants

A Multipurpose Garden

Last summer I had four raised bed gardens and one herb spiral. It was the humble beginning of what will eventually become a 3/4 acre market garden. I suppose I could rent some expensive heavy machinery and purchase a huge quantity of compost and seeds and hire some help and take over the entire 3/4 acre space at once, but I don’t prefer to work that way. I prefer to minimize my costs and my fossil fuel consumption, I like doing this work by myself and by hand, and I choose to grow my planting areas slowly so that when I make a mistake, I can correct it before it becomes a giant mistake. I worked all winter long expanding the garden, and it now consists of 13 raised beds, two herb spirals, a 20×30 in-ground vegetable patch, a large herb border, and mulched pathways. It’s my home garden, it’s a mini-sized market garden, and it’s also a seed garden. Next year I hope to make it twice as big.

I’ve filled every garden I’ve ever planted with heirloom seeds (open pollinated seeds that have been & can be saved and passed down through the generations). I choose heirlooms partly because I appreciate the colors, textures, rich flavors, history, and diversity, but also because I believe in them. An heirloom seed is a renewable resource. If you learn how to steward it, you never have to buy it again, and you can share it with whomever you please. And if you select seeds only from your best and healthiest plants, every year your seeds will become better adapted to your needs and local conditions.

One way to support heirloom seeds and keep them available for all is to purchase them from independently-owned seed companies with good ethical practices. I’ve done my share of that over the years, but lately I’ve been working towards becoming a seed keeper myself. Last year, I successfully saved seeds from my Provider Bush Beans, several kinds of herbs, and a particularly vigorous and tasty butternut squash from my friend’s garden. I also saved enough Carola seed potatoes to double my potato planting from last year, and I have previous experience saving garlic cloves to replant year after year. It is extremely satisfying work. This year I planted the seeds that I saved, and now I’m watching them thrive with an extra layer of pride and connection. I remember your parents, little plants. Let’s make them proud together.

I structured my whole garden this year with seed stewardship in mind. Plants that can be isolated by distance have been given that isolation space to prevent cross pollination. For some other plants that can’t be isolated by space, I planted only one variety of each species so that no cross pollination can occur.

Corn is a special case, because it can be cross pollinated by wind up to 1/2 mile away. Although I’m only growing one variety of corn, my neighbors grow another. Since I can’t isolate my corn by distance, I am attempting to isolate it by time. I started my corn seeds extra early (indoors under lights, then transplanted at the proper time), and I chose a variety that is supposed to mature much faster than the kind my neighbors grow. With luck, my corn will be completely done before the surrounding field corn tassels. It’s really important not to let your garden corn cross pollinate with field corn, especially if you plan to save seeds, because the patented genetically modified genes from the industrial corn can get into your seeds. Even if your mother plant is an heirloom, if the father pollen is a GMO, you aren’t legally allowed to plant those baby seeds. Seed Savers Exchange does sell some special bags that can be used to protect the silks from stray pollen, and I am planning to use those too as an extra measure of protection.

I’ve even planted a few varieties that are rare and/or expensive, so I’m growing them just to make more seeds! One of these is a special bean from the Potawatami Nation called Potawatomi Pole Lima that I sourced from Truelove Seeds. The seeds are rare and they sell out quickly, so I only got one packet. I may not even eat any of the harvest this year, because that would reduce the number of seeds I can save to grow a larger planting next year. Another is Mandan Parching Lavender corn, a beautiful pink colored flour corn that is one of the traditional native corns from North Dakota. I’m also growing French Grey Shallots, Santé Shallots, Inchelium Red Garlic, and Tree Onions. These are not grown from seeds, but from bulbs. Bulbs are expensive compared to seeds, and $100 bought barely enough bulbs to fill two 4×8 beds. Will I get my money’s worth from that planting? Probably not, if I simply eat the harvest. But if I re-plant all or most of it, I’ll be able to increase my planting next year to many times that size for no additional money!

Before too long, I should have a market-sized planting of gourmet garlic, shallots, onions, lima beans, and much much more, and plenty enough to save seed AND eat my fill AND take to the market. With certain fruits like tomatoes and ripe peppers, you can save the seed and still eat the fruit the seed came out of. Win-win. Year after year, for as long as I continue the work, I’ll always be able to have these plants in my garden.

If you’re interested in saving seeds from your own garden, there are wonderful free resources available from Seed Savers Exchange. I also recommend the book “Seed To Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. Perhaps it’s available for free at your local library! It’s a very rewarding, economical, and accessible skill.