IMAGINE THIS: we’re in downtown Randwick and we see a woman who crunches a handful of dried stems and pods taken from some vegetable plant, swirls the stuff around in a wide tray, gently blows on it and extracts a handful of small, black seeds. Not really an everyday ritual in this populous part of the city’s east, however it was one that attracted quite a number of people to learn how to do it.
Jane Mowbray is an articulate, tallish, ex-teacher who wears her dark hair cut short and neat and who was dressed this first Tuesday of winter in jeans, bright blue T-shirt over a burgundy-coloured long sleeve and a pair of dainty red shoes that matched the colour of her glasses frame. She explained to the participants in Randwick City Council’s seed saving workshop how she discovered the idea of saving seeds some decades ago when she heard about plant variety rights and how that could have affected the ability of home gardeners to collect seed for replanting. Having come across seed saving, she was enthused, she said.
Now, years later, she travels around Sydney teaching others how to collect, process and save their own seeds for replanting. Jane is not only a member of Glovers Community Garden, Sydney’s first, she is also coordinator of a local seed network, which is part of the national Seed Savers Network, and is active with Inner West Seedsavers and their seedbank.
Council sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, welcomed participants to the workshop and asked people what they hoped to learn. The response was varied: to learn where seeds come from; to improve their existing attempts to save seed; to start seed saving in their balcony and courtyard gardens; how to collect and store seed; for one participant, to rediscover the seed saving skills of her father; how to save tomato seed. “I don’t know what seeds are or how they operate”, said another.
INTO THE GARDEN
We went into Barrett House’s small but edible cottage garden where Jane showed how seeds grow on plants and when they’re ready for collecting. Cuttings and seeds were passed around. Some of the participants had mentioned they were interested in collecting the seeds of tomato, so Jane demonstrated the wet extraction process for the seed, explaining that the fermentation process kills pathogens in the plant material.
The process actually started when some days ago when Jane had taken a tomato and squeezed out the seed. This she placed in a jar until the fuzz of fermentation was visible as a grey scum and it was this jar of fermenting seed that she brought to today’s workshop. Extracting the seeds from the jar, she spread them on a paper towel. Here they will dry and then be stored in small paper envelopes labeled with the species and date of bagging and stored in a cool, shady place until the next planting season. It’s how we make new plants from old.
Inside, Jane demonstrated how to separate seeds of dried Thai basil by removing them from the husks and collecting them in a wide tray with a rim, then got the workshop participants to do it for themselves. An aniseed-like smell permeated the room as people squeezed and pinched the dried stems and as the tiny, dark seeds filled the tray.
Now it was time for winnowing, a process that separates the seed from the husk, leaves and other plant material, so it was outside again. Jane took the tray and gently swished it back and forth, occasionally blowing gently to shift the lighter leaves and husks out the way. Eventually, there was a distinct pile of seeds and another of waste plant material, the latter destined for the compost.
Doing this, Jane explained, links us to an ancient human practice going back thousands of years. It’s mainly a process of women, she said, describing the winnowing process that has been a seasonal part of our grain and vegetable production cycle since the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago. It gave a sense of comforting continuity to those assembled here today in Randwick to reacquire this old human practice.
Inside again, it might have come as a surprise to some to learn that we eat immature vegetables, as Jane explained how we can’t get a cucumber from the shop, cut it open, extract and dry the seeds and hope they will produce new plants from old. The reason? The cucumbers we eat are immature plants. To collect the seed we leave the plant to mature in the garden until it gets very large and starts to dry out. Then it’s ready to open and extract the seed.
It was also a surprise to one of the participants that you don’t need a lab to test the viability of seed — what percentage will sprout to grow into plants. Doing that is a type of DIY-science-in-the-kitchen that we can all do to learn how good the seed is. It’s a simple process. A number of seeds are enclosed in a cotton wrap, moistened, left awhile then, with the aid of a calculator, the number that sprout are worked out giving us the percentage of seeds that sprouted and an indication of how viable the seed is.
The group went through good herbs and plants to collect seed from — florence fennel, rosella, tatsoi, globe artichoke, leaf amaranth and more — referring from time to time to the authoritative Seed Savers’ Handbook, a production of Jude and Michel Fanton of the Seed Savers’ Network. Small paper envelopes were supplied and people winnowed, enveloped, labelled and took some seeds for their own gardens.
It’s was interesting to see familiar faces among the new at the workshop, people from other courses and workshops offered by council — including a couple from the Food Forest Gardening course running concurrently — indicating that the community education program offered through council is attracting people to skill-up on long-lost as well as new life skills.
It looks like council’s sustainability educator will have to organise another seed saving workshop, seeing how popular today’s was. There is evidently enthusiasm in the Eastern Suburbs to relearn old skills and to revive them as a something of value in today’s world, as something that can improve our lives and that allows us to play a role in preserve, through use, our common heritage of agriculture biodiversity.