Sexy Summer on a Seed Farm

Summer on a seed farm is all about managing plant sex. Calling us seed farmers chaperones is an apt metaphor, except that instead of the abstinence pushing of a high school dance chaperone, we actually encourage rampant procreation—on our own terms. When a gardener gets a packet of Marketmore cucumbers from us, we want what grows from the seeds in that packet to actually look, act, and taste like Marketmores, so we go to great lengths to make sure the Marketmore seed babies we grow have Marketmores as both their moms and their dads.

Since plants can’t move around, they’ve evolved all sorts of ingenious ways to make sure a sperm reaches an egg to fertilize it and make a seed baby. Some of them send copious amounts of pollen flying around in the wind, hoping a few grains will find themselves stuck to the stigma of a compatible plant. Some make beautiful flowers that lure in just the right type of pollinator, with just the right length of tongue to reach the nectar bounty they hide inside, in the process rubbing pollen on their bodies which they’ll carry with them to a neighboring flower. Some have taken matters into their own hands. Naturally hermaphrodites, they are able to use their own sperm to fertilize themselves without relying on wind or insects.

As seed farmers, we needn’t worry too much about these self-pollinating plants. It’s the promiscuous outcrossers we have to keep an eye on. On my farm this year, we’re growing Plum Purple radishes for seed, and they’re just starting to flower. Last year, we grew French Breakfast radishes for seed, and as happens around a wild & wooly seed farm, some of the seeds spilled onto the ground before we harvested them, so French Breakfast volunteers are popping up all over. We diligently pull them all out before they go to flower and potentially cross with our Plum Purple seed crop.

Seed farmers use all sorts of tricks to isolate sexually compatible cultivars from each other to keep their seeds growing true-to-type, including isolating varieties by distance, time (letting only one variety flower at any given time), hand-pollinating, or by caging with fine mesh to keep unwanted pollinator visitors out. Sometimes we even put pollinators into the cages so they can pollinate the plants inside.

And while all of this is necessary to keep our seed crops growing true-to-type for the folks who love them and plant them in their gardens, some of us also do the opposite, actually encouraging sex between a wide diversity of compatible plants to see wonderful, flavorful, and/or disease-resistant new varieties come into our fields. Co-op grower Joseph Lofthouse stewards hundreds of populations of promiscuously cross-pollinating plants, from melons to beans to winter squashes. These fruits may all look and taste wildly different from each other, and he saves the seeds from the ones he loved eating, adapting his populations toward his tastebuds year after year. After all, every beloved favorite variety started out as an accidental or deliberate cross in a field somewhere, so allowing cross-pollination can yield exciting results as a seed saver as well!  

In our work of building a robust regional seedshed, we are helping to cultivate a network of growers with the skills to keep varieties growing true-to-type as well as to encourage promiscuous cross-pollination between them to bring new, tastier, hardier varieties into our region.

Our upcoming Seed School will give attendees the skills to do the same, so if you’re in the mood to do a little plant chaperoning, taking your place as a link between the past and the future in the vital, ancient art of seed saving, please consider joining us this July 20th & 21st!