Garden Crops from an Ecological Perspective

Biological systems often unfold in cycles. The cultivated crop cycle is often interrupted: seeds germinate, seedlings sprout, plants leaf out, and crops mature. Depending on what part of the plant we value as edible, the vegetable may never fully mature before its remains are tossed on the compost pile. In seed saving we allow the crop to complete its cycle like any other flowering plant. (Some crops are completely dependent on us to reproduce, especially in cold climates.) Let’s let that carrot, lettuce, or kohlrabi complete it’s cycle. The robust plant is ready.

Soon flowers emerge, advertising a plant’s sexual maturity. Petals act as scented banners enticing flying insect cupids to sip nectar. As the visiting insect works its way through the fertile flowers it brushes up against pollen grains that cling to it.  The insect courier carries pollen to the next flower. There are two events that must happen for flowers to produce viable seed—pollination and fertilization. When a ripe anther splits open and a fertile pollen grain lands on the stigma of a female reproductive organ, the first hurdle is achieved. The next journey is internal and results in a pregnant flower that swells with the fruit of a new life—One friend remembers the difference as recreation versus procreation. Fruits can be juicy as tomatoes or hard as mustard seed. The seed itself may look inert but not only does it hold the potential to produce an edible plant, it will contribute genetic coding for generations to come.

Biodiversity assures that there are many ways for this seed-to-seed cycle to unfold. The observant seed saver begins to recognize patterns that are consistent throughout plant families. The basics of botany provide a shortcut to hone our observation skills and develop the seed-saving expertise that humans have been sharing for 10,000 years.  We use botanical terms to define plant anatomy and scientific terms to describe processes. This jargon provides a common language to convey the principles of seed saving. The important thing is to observe, understand what we see, and then apply the principles through time-honored techniques.

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