Agriculture began around 10,000 B.C. when hunter-gatherer societies began settling in one place, farming crops and domesticating animals for their food. This stay-at-home farming was made possible partially by the practice of saving seeds from one harvest and planting and cultivating them for the next. Saving seeds from the most productive, most pest resistant and best tasting plants improved the gene pool over time and became a standard farming practice for centuries.
Early European settlers to the Americas traded seeds with Native Americans and established a germ plasm base on which our country’s farming is based. Seed-saving societies developed during the Colonial era and in 1862 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was established and initially spent nearly a third of its budget on collecting and distributing seeds to U.S. farmers. These farmers often saved their best seeds precipitating steady improvement in the gene pool. Seed companies found the government’s seed distribution program detrimental to their profit margin and after pressure from the American Seed Trade Association, the governmental dispersal of seeds ended in 1924.
Though many hybrid and genetically modified seeds are available today, fewer than 10 corporations own and have proprietary rights to about 65 percent of them. The seeds for many highly productive crops have become commercial assets for these corporations and have been patented. Those who want to grow these crops must purchase the seeds annually. Farmers and gardeners interested in sustainable practices are returning to saving seed from open-pollinated crops as an alternative.
The development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides increased productivity initially, but some of these practices began to cause environmental problems. Today, many farmers are choosing to farm without chemicals to mitigate environmental damage such as water pollution and ecosystem destruction.
Those interested in farming and gardening more sustainably by saving seed may want to start planning for an upcoming seed exchange. This summer’s event is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. July 26 at Tropical Edibles Nursery in Captain Cook. The event begins with a potluck. Participants are encouraged to bring starts, huli or seeds to trade with other growers.
Though summer in West Hawaii presents a challenge to growers who want to dry seeds from their best crops, it is possible to do so with care. Before the seed exchange, folks are advised to test the seeds that have been saved from earlier seasons. An easy way to test small seeds that may have lost some of their vitality is to place a few on a damp paper towel and cover them with another damp paper towel and keep the towels moist while checking regularly for germination. If none of the seeds germinate in the next few weeks, you may not want to bring those to the exchange.
Now is an ideal time to gather huli, corms and cuttings from many crops. Okinawan spinach, Malabar spinach, many herbs and tomatoes can be grown from cuttings. Bananas grow well from young corms and pineapple and taro plants can be reproduced from their tops or huli saved following harvest. Though some fruit trees produce the best quality fruit if grafted onto healthy root stock, many can be successfully grown from air-layers and others, such as papayas, grow easily from saved seeds.
Seed exchanges offer a wonderful opportunity for exchanging information about seed saving and plant cultivation. Those with no seeds or plant material to trade may still attend the exchange to get started growing and have plant starts or seeds to offer at the next exchange. Attendees with material to share should mark the seeds or cuttings with their common and botanical names as well as some growing information. Wherever you are on the learning curve of seed saving, the exchange will offer an opportunity to learn more.
For more information, read Suzanne Ashworth’s book “Seed to Seed” which includes seed saving and growing techniques for more than 150 vegetables. Additional information is online at seedsavers.org.
Tropical gardening helpline
Scott asks: My coleus and geraniums are infested with some waxy white kind of fluffy thing that I think is an insect. What might it be and how can I get rid of it.
Answer: If it seems that the pest is an insect and is causing your plant to decline, you probably have a mealybug infestation. These insects are small and white and in a group can look fluffy and waxy. You can usually get rid of mealybugs by spraying them with a combination of safer soap and neem oil. Once the combo contacts the insect it should die in a day or so. If this doesn’t get rid of the bugs, try a pyrethrum product. Look for one that is organically approved and follow the label instructions. Pyrethrum products are powerful insecticides and can be irritating to skin or mucus membranes, so apply with care.
Another possibility is the mealybug destroyer. This insect in its nymph stage is a bit larger and fluffier than its prey, the mealy bug. These would likely only be present if you had mealybugs present. If you see both and can wait, the mealy bug destroyer will take care of the pest but it might take longer than the spray. Of course, if you spray, you will also kill the predator.
Proper identification is important as you may also have ladybug larvae. They are predators of many harmful insects in both their larval and adult forms and you would not want to kill them. They do not cause plant problems and are good to have in your garden.
Look online for images of these three insects to be sure you know what you are dealing with before you start spraying.
Email plant questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for answers by Certified Master Gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living on an organic farm in Captain Cook.