September–October 2021

A Growing Movement

Seed saving is part of our history—and our future. Meet the Minnesotans who are keeping the tradition alive.

Frank Bures

In mid-May, around 25 people gathered in St. Paul at a small circle of land off Snelling Avenue. The patch is known as the Pierce Butler Meadows, and it’s completely surrounded by busy roads. Most people would consider it useless for anything but keeping the cars apart.

But the group that met on this Saturday afternoon saw something different. For more than three years, they’d been working to restore the median into a piece of prairie populated by bees, birds, frogs, and native plants like golden alexanders, purple prairie clover, dotted blazing star, and little bluestem. Now, after much restoration work, bees and other pollinators flit among the flowers; at a pond on the parcel, frogs chirp, a muskrat swims, and blackbirds call from the cattails.

Today, the volunteers are putting plants in the ground. They were grown in the spring from seeds saved last fall, says Steve Mitrione, a volunteer who’s been the driving force behind the Pierce Butler Meadows project since it was just an overgrown lawn in MnDOT’s mowing schedule. The seeds had been cold stratified—exposed to cold to mimic overwintering—and sprouted by volunteers.

Restoring places like Pierce Butler Meadows is just one of the many uses for seed saving: the act of collecting, drying, and storing seeds to be sown the following year. The growing popularity of “open pollinated” plants as an alternative to proprietary hybrids has encouraged more people to use the ancient practice to grow their gardens, rescue rare species, and even to help save our forests. Over the past decade, seed saving has gone from the province of traditional farmers and back-to-the-landers and become something of a movement, with the rise of seed libraries, seed exchanges, and the rediscovery of seeds nearly lost to history.

Interest in seed saving was already on the rise before a strange new virus caused much of our lives to be upended in 2020, forcing us all to spend more time at home. But after the first lockdowns began, demand for seeds went through the roof as people rediscovered their yards and gardens and grew concerned about their food supply chains. It’s estimated that an additional 20 million people took up gardening last year.

“Seed saving offers a lot of resiliency to communities and self-sufficiency to individuals,” says Stephanie Hankerson, a gardener and seed-saving activist who has been key to the Pierce Butler Meadows project. “A seed that’s saved locally is regionally adapted, which is even more important now with climate change.”
Hankerson is one of the organizers of MN SEED, which stands for Saving Essential Edibles and Diversity, a collaboration between the Minnesota State Horticultural Society and local groups like the Como Community Seed Library, the West Side Seed Library, and the St. Paul Seed Circle. This year, MN SEED also started the Native Plant Community Science Project, funded by a grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District, with a goal “to create a community of seed savers knowledgeable about saving seeds and sharing them.” Participants increase and inventory native plantings.

“The idea is to grow more growers, and to increase access to the resources needed,” says Courtney Tchida, director of community outreach programs for the Minnesota State Horticultural Society and coordinator of MN SEED. “We had almost a hundred people who signed up to be part of it last year.”
Keri Ostby coordinates the Rochester Seed Library, which started in 2019. “We noticed the first year how popular it was, and it’s increased every year,” she says. “But last year there was just an explosion of interest in gardening. We advertised the seed library on Facebook on a Saturday morning, but it was so popular we couldn’t keep up, so we had to shut down the form by the end of the day.”

Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, one of the largest suppliers of “open pollinated” seeds in the country, also saw a huge spike in the demand for seeds. By March Seed Savers had already received 25,000 orders and had to turn off sales until it could catch up. The exchange’s 2020 sales doubled over 2019. Zachary Paige of North Circle Seeds, based in Vergas, also reported that his sales doubled last year. 

“Because people were home, they were gardening more,” says Dawn Lamm, who organizes the Como Community Seed Library. “They were concerned about having access to vegetables and foods, and there was this enormous increase in interest in gardening. With that came a seed shortage.”
Through May, the Como Community Seed Library had already distributed more than 3,000 packets of seeds through boulevard pop ups, an online checkout system, and Little Free Libraries, those front-yard fixtures where neighbors swap books. The Rochester Seed Library (which added 1,500 more items this year) had already checked out 75 percent of its more than 13,000 seed packets. 

Some seed libraries check out packets like books that don’t need to be returned, while others just let you take them. All seed libraries are working toward a goal of self-sufficiency, where enough seeds are saved and returned post season to supply them for the next year. Exchanging seeds for personal use was not permitted by Minnesota state law until 2015, but since then the number of people saving seeds to exchange has grown. “People are becoming more aware of how easy seed saving is to do,” says Tchida. “It’s definitely something people are excited about.”

Despite  the current enthusiasm for it, seed saving is not a modern invention. Before the middle of the 20th century and the rise of modern hybrids, many farmers grew crops from seeds they’d saved.

“People think seed saving is a new trendy thing,” says Philip Kauth, director of preservation at Seed Savers Exchange. “But it’s not. It’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. Seed saving is really at the heart of agriculture, and that information has been passed down in Indigenous communities for millennia. We’ve actually been partnering with some Indigenous communities to help find seeds they want to welcome back into their communities.”
One of those partners is the Hugo-based organization Dream of Wild Health, which uses its land to help grow seeds that were nearly lost, like Dakota corn and Cherokee Trail of Tears corn.

“Seed saving is something everyone’s ancestors participated in,” says Jessika Greendeer, Dream of Wild Health’s seedkeeper and farm manager. “And for Indigenous people, when we were forcibly removed from some of our lands, we were also separated from our agricultural tradition, as well as our seeds. So part of the work we’re doing is the rematriation of finding those seeds and reclaiming them from different institutions.”

Diane Wilson, author of the novel The Seed Keeper, first heard these stories in 2002, when she took part in a commemorative march from the Lower Sioux Reservation to Fort Snelling to mark the 140th anniversary of the end of the Dakota War of 1862.

Along the way, a fellow marcher told her a story: When the Dakota women walked this same route in 1862, they took with them seeds sewn into the hems of their dresses and hidden in their pockets, then planted them later.

“That story just captivated me,” says Wilson, who is a Mdewakanton descendent enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation, and who weaves the tale into The Seed Keeper. “Those seeds were carrying these really important stories, both literally from what they’d experienced through history, but also from the land where they’d been grown, and the weather. I just thought how important it is for us today to protect these seeds, no matter what.”

If there’s one part of the natural world we take for granted, it’s seeds. They’re so common and plentiful that we barely see them. A big oak tree can produce 10,000 acorns. A maple might send down 90,000 whirling seeds. An acre of yellow birch trees can produce 30 million seeds. 

Seeds also make up large swaths of our diet. They’re in our peanut butter and our pesto, in our fruits and vegetables. They dot our burger buns and fill our burritos. They suffuse our smoothies (if you like chia, flax, or hemp). Seeds help us get through our day (in the form of coffee beans) and make our food taste better (pepper, cumin, coriander).

But what is a seed? In The Seed Keeper, Wilson describes them: “Each seed was made of an embryo, a seed coat, and something nutritious, almost like a packed lunch. The Mother Plant, like me, wanted only the best for her babies. … Somehow, the Mother knew to dry her seeds almost completely so they would sleep until the time was right to wake.”

Seeds remember. Seeds learn. If you save seeds and replant them, the seeds will adapt to your microclimate. Sometimes this adaptation can take three to five seasons. Other times it can take less. “Radishes are a great example,” says Tchida. “If you get a packet of radish seeds and plant them, the first time they don’t always make the great radish roots. Sometimes they’ll bolt and make flowers and seeds. But if you save those seeds and replant them, even in the same season, it’s amazing how quickly they adapt to the microclimate. That second planting from those seeds will produce much more consistent and better radish roots. It’s very exciting.”

 Woodlands benefit from seed saving too. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ State Forest Nursery, which sells millions of tree seedlings every year for reforestation, purchases many of its tree seeds from individual collectors who comb the woods for acorns, berries, samaras, cones, and other seed-bearing tree parts.

In northern Minnesota, a tree planting project uses seed collecting to create a more climate-resilient forest. Last year, the Forest Assisted Migration Project collected about 400,000 tree seeds from central and southern Minnesota to plant up north, where typical adaptation is not fast enough to deal with the warming climate.

“Tree adaption to weather trends is a thousands-of-years process,” says David Abazs, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, which is based in Duluth. “But the speed at which changes are occurring doesn’t give them the opportunity for a slow transition. This is our attempt to maintain a forest canopy,” he says, “Because right now it’s not heading toward a forest canopy. It’s heading toward grasslands.”
Seed saving will play a key role in preserving Minnesota’s wild as the climate warms, says David Remucal of the plant conservation program at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The arboretum has a seed bank where it’s preserving about 60 of Minnesota’s 300 endangered plant species, and it has applied for funding to preserve more.

“If a species disappears from a particular landscape, and you’ve already preserved the land, there’s not a whole lot you can do. We view seed banking as a failsafe for the rare species, and a complement to land preservation. In the future, we may regret that we aren’t saving more seeds. Our landscapes could look very different if we don’t have enough seeds saved up.” 

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How do you save your seeds?

The ancient practice of seed saving is not hard, though it does require some time and effort. But the rewards are many, according Philip Kauth of Seed Savers Exchange: “There’s satisfaction in saving your own seeds,” he says. “It’s very economical. It’s fun. And you find varieties that you like and keep growing them year after year after year. And you don’t have to buy seeds.” 

So how do you save seeds? There are four basic stages: collection, drying, threshing, and storing. Different seeds have different needs, so do a little research before you proceed.

Collection: Be sure to check when the seed is mature. Some are ready at “market time,” while others don’t mature until the fruit has gone to seed on the vine. 
Drying: For wet seeds (like tomatoes), rinse your seeds, then put them on a coffee filter, screen, or tea towel in a cool, dry, dark place. A dehumidifier can be helpful. 

Drying: For wet seeds (like tomatoes), rinse your seeds, then put them on a coffee filter, screen, or tea towel in a cool, dry, dark place. A dehumidifier can be helpful. 

Threshing: There are many ways to clean the husks off your seeds—by hand, inside a container, or with a machine. 
Storing: Keep your seeds in a box in a closet, or in an airtight container in the freezer or fridge. Some seeds can be stored for years, while others need to be used in a season or two.

(Sources: Seed Savers Exchange and the University of Minnesota Extension)