FARMINGTON — Gardeners looking for ideas on what to grow this summer might consider trying seeds that have a history.

Heirloom seeds have been passed down through generations, like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. They are often native strains that are regionally adapted and are more disease and pest resistant than the off-the-shelf hybrids and patented varieties, according to gardening experts.

And choosing open-pollinated varieties like heirlooms offers growers another way to keep the legacy alive — by saving the seed to use another year or share with others.

Whether seed saving is done to save money or preserve genetic diversity, interest in it is growing.

This winter, the newly formed Franklin County Seed Savers Group sponsored three workshops at the Farmington Grange in West Farmington. Each time, turnout far exceeded expectations.

“We are a group of local small farmers and gardeners who came together last fall to learn more about saving seeds and increasing the supply of endangered heirloom vegetables in our region,”  Spokeswoman Rosalie Deri of Farmington said.

She said she was encouraged to start the group by Will Bonsall of Industry, founder of the Scatterseed Project, a regional seed exchange that maintains more than 3,000 plant varieties, including 1,200 varieties of peas, 700 potatoes, 90 parsnips and one of the largest known sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke collections.

Bonsall was the third speaker in the series. His talk last week focused on the two-year process needed to save the seed of biennials such as carrots, chard and the cabbage family, from digging them up in the fall to replanting in the spring so they can go to seed.

He also described the painstaking steps needed to hand-pollinate squash flowers to avoid cross-pollination by insects and maintain a pure strain.

“We are living in very precarious times with global warming, famines and global grain shortages,” Bonsall said. “We need to be more responsible for our own food and not leave it in the hands of other people and multinational corporations.”

“Even if you are not aiming for self-sufficiency, saving seed is a very important step. If you are growing your own food, processing your own food and cooking your own food, why not go another step and save your own seed?” he said.

Bonsall, a seed curator for the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), the nation’s leading heirloom seed bank and nonprofit seed exchange program, recommends people venturing into the world of seed saving read Susan Ashworth’s comprehensive how-to book, “Seed to Seed.”

In December, C.R. Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com) in Maine, spoke about the politics of the international seed business, the increasing role of genetic engineering in the world’s food supply, seed patenting, and concerns about food security and genetic diversity.

A large group attended a talk in January presented by organic farmer Amy LeBlanc of Whitehill Farm in East Wilton on small-scale seed saving for beginners.

Known across New England as “The Tomato Lady,” LeBlanc publishes the Tomato Lovers Paradise catalog and sells more than 200 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes and pepper seedlings at her farm and now online through the Western Maine Market, www.westernmainemarket.com.

LeBlanc said in an interview that she protects a variety of heirlooms, including a paste tomato first brought to this country in 1910 by an Italian immigrant whose descendants live in Peru, Maine.

“There is a growing concern about climate change, and people have many questions about genetic modification of seeds,” she said. “And more people want to know how they can save their own seed themselves.”

Among the easiest seeds to save are peas and beans. Allow the targeted plants to fully ripen, then pull and hang them upside down in a cold, frost-free location. When the seeds are bone dry, she suggests clipping the stems and dropping them into an old pillow case. Cut a small hole in one corner and tie it shut with a rubber band.

“Put it on the floor and dance a jig on it until you feel the beans loosen from the pod. Then shake them out of the hole,” she said.

It is also fairly easy to save pepper seeds. LeBlanc leaves selected fruits on the plant until they turn red, then slices them open and scrapes out the seeds to dry. Store them in a cold, dry spot with ventilation.

The group will meet to share seed starting tips on Saturday, March 12, at the Farmington Grange on Bridge Street in West Farmington after the farmers market that runs from 9 a.m. to noon. A seed and scion exchange will be held at the Grange from 12:30 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, with a workshop on grafting apple trees at 1 p.m. For information, call 778-6399.

Tips on planting and seed saving can be found at the Seed Savers Exchange website. Also, the organization’s 2011 seed catalog is now available online, with 597 different heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable varieties provided by growers from around the world. The organization also offers schools, community gardens and organizations kits with free heirlooms and activities on how to plant, save the seeds and share with others.


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