Seeding Variety in Vermont
Written onAugust 22 , 2014
Seed saving—the act (and art) of preserving seeds from plants that are allowed to bolt or mature—has taken on increasing importance of late. With challenges brought on by a changing climate, and with increased efforts by seed companies to corner the seed market, diversity has all but disappeared from available seed stock, and seeds that regenerate themselves have started to become a rarity.
But in Vermont, at least three organizations are attempting to increase seed diversity, preserve regional knowledge of seed saving, and educate a new generation of Vermonters.
Sylvia Davatz of Hartland has been growing seed varieties for her seed catalog, Solstice Seeds, since 1996, and she’s been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange for longer than that. A year and a half ago, she and a few other seed savers around New England founded the Grassroots Seed Network (GSN), which preserves and maintains a heritage of open-pollinated, vegetable-seed varieties and fosters the exchange of knowledge and information among regional seed-savers.
Still in its early stages, GSN is governed by its membership. Sylvia says the group felt it needed to be a “democratically governed” seed saving organization where the savers “are the board of directors, set policy, and determine the direction of organization.”
The five Grassroots Seed Network steering committee members have committed to the educational aspect and potential of GSN. “It’s incredibly important to ensure that collections are passed on from some of us who are older, to the next generation of seed savers,” Sylvia says. With seed variety and supply narrowing in the last decade, “We now have an incredibly small number of crops,” she says, “and the urgency to save seeds in home gardens, to decentralize our food supply, has become dramatic. We have a food emergency here. That is not an exaggeration.”
Genetically, heirloom seed varieties offer regional adaptivity, “and as the climate changes, that becomes important,” Sylvia points out. “Open-pollinated varieties [naturally pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural pollinators] are resilient and adaptable, where hybrids are not.”
The GSN website is still being established, but has seed lists and information on how to donate, as well as forums where people can get their questions answered and share information related to seed saving.
Sylvia “adores the whole local food movement,” but notes that “the next logical step is to also grow seed locally.”
An international nonprofit based in Brattleboro, Sacred Seeds is creating and supporting plant sanctuaries that offer a buffer against the rapid loss of biodiversity and cultural knowledge around the world. Sacred Seeds board member Sarah Newmark explains that it’s not seed saving that’s going on at these sanctuaries but another form of seed preservation.
”What happens in 300 years when you need saved seeds and they are no longer viable, or the climate those seeds are used to being in no longer exists?” Sarah asks. “So, we are creating living seed banks” that encourage resilience and adaptability to environmental changes.
Sacred Seeds gardens are nonprofit sanctuaries closely aligned with the for-profit Brattleboro company New Chapter, which sells herbal and organic supplements. The Sacred Seeds foundation gardens, located everywhere from India to Africa to North and South America, were launched with the idea of saving seeds in order to plant them the following year, not to store them.
“We’re capturing knowledge as all these gardens interact with each other,” Sarah says, “by working in one place and sharing knowledge in another place that’s experiencing similar problems.” She said that through the Internet, gardeners in Costa Rica can talk to someone in India, for example.
“It is a breathable and movable system of living gardens, of medicinal and culturally relevant seed plants or food,” Sarah adds. By preserving cultural and ethno- and biological diversity and knowledge, as well as seeds, the gardens become important to the sustainability of a region, and worldwide.
Newmark’s father, Tom Newmark, co-founded Sacred Seeds with New Chapter founders Paul and Barbi Shulick. Answering their need in 1994 for an alternative to commercial ginger, which is heavily sprayed and fumigated, New Chapter bought a farm in Costa Rica. A 200-acre biodynamic ginger and turmeric farm in the rainforest of Costa Rica, Cinqa Luna Nueva was the first Sacred Seed sanctuary and today has achieved Demeter certification—the highest level of organic farming in the world.
It is “a living medicinal herb garden that represents the importance of already threatened plants and the knowledge of the living environment in Costa Rica,” Sarah says, adding that the farm has taken on a deeper meaning for the neighbors and communities around it.
While creating a safe haven in Costa Rica was important to New Chapter, it became clear that that wasn’t enough. In every ecosystem all over the world, climate change threatens the loss of traditional food and medicines, and the knowledge of how to grow and use them. So now, 32 foundational gardens are established, 12 of them in the United States.
And two of those U.S. gardens are in Vermont—Sacred Seeds at the Intervale Center: The Abenaki Heritage Garden and the Sacred Seeds project at Kindle Farm School.
Sarah and Kindle Farm School’s assistant director, Drew Gradinger, happen to be life partners, a fact that perhaps was not insignificant in shaping the eventual garden partnership. But Kindle Farm was a natural fit for New Chapter and Sacred Seeds, as it met the school’s mission to serve “students who often face a mix of academic, social, emotional and behavioral challenges that hamper their ability to learn in a traditional school setting.”
The Sacred Seed garden idea was put before the students last year. Drew said they “jumped on it.” For the past 12 years, Kindle Farm had already had a large organic garden covering several acres.
Cyndy Fine of Genius Loci, a conscious and sustainable garden and landscape designer in Westminster, was asked to help design the Sacred Seed garden. She says she mentored the students, who did all the research and chose all the plants in the garden. They researched local cultures, including the former owners of Kindle Farm, learned about compass points—“where the sun comes from”—and figured out how many types of plants to include, using math to figure out the square footage. They also did all the planting.
The circular Sacred Seed garden at Kindle now consists of more than 18 native plants and flowers. Drew Gradinger says the garden has been a huge success, and at least one student has gone on to intern at the Luna Nueva farm in Costa Rica, marking first steps in a possible career path.
Library patrons at Windsor Public Library now have access to free, non-genetically modified seeds, gardening tips, and seed saving information, thanks to Lisa Richardson, an organic farmer who moved to Windsor from New Hampshire in 2012 and established her Mack Hill Farm.
Lisa has been very involved in GMO labeling efforts and is a big advocate of heirloom seeds. She echoes the importance of “knowing what seeds and plants do well in a particular region to help that region thrive” and building “localized knowledge and a resilient community,” and those are the aims of the seed library.
Lisa said she became acquainted with a seed saving library in Portland, Oregon while completing a Master Gardener course at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. One of the requirements was to provide education to a community or group of people.
So in March 2013, Lisa approached the Windsor library to see if they had the interest and space. Finding both, she started a lending library of seeds with donations of her own seed stock as inventory. Now donations come from gardening library patrons resulting in hundreds of varieties of seeds. Lisa says the drawers are usually quite full of both flowers and vegetables.
With a library card, patrons may “borrow” up to five packets of seeds from the library. To return the seeds in the fall, the gardener lets a few of the plants go unharvested and collects the seeds from these plants, returning them to the library. When the seed library gets low, Lisa just calls Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Fairfield, Maine or Vermont’s own High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott—which are both members of seed saving networks and which have been “generous” with contributions.
Monthly gardening chats attract more than just seed borrowers from the library. Lisa says experienced, older gardeners come and share their knowledge and seeds, too. Now in its second year, the seed library is bringing in a younger generation with an interest in gardening and seed saving. The library encourages younger gardeners to make connections with those with 40 or 50 years of experience, so that knowledge and experience can be passed on.
Lisa notes that the seed library idea has caught on and several libraries around the state are adopting the idea now.
While the GSN, the Windsor seed library, and the Kindle Farm Sacred Seed project are not all directly connected, the roots of each project share the same goal and offer diverse approaches to building a decentralized, sustainable system of regional food production.
Sylvia Davatz encourages people to join a network, whether it is through a Sacred Seed foundational garden, a seed saving network, or a library. With groups of loosely interconnected seed savers, sustainable diversity blossoms; Sylvia sees hope in the “rise in curiosity” about seed saving and a growing awareness of how important it is.
“There is no food without seeds,” she reminds us.