How eerily prescient it was to invoke that adage a year ago—and then to experience it play out as both a curse and a blessing.
So much has shifted in a year. In our last catalog we brought you interviews with innovators in agriculture whose wisdom spoke to a more inclusive, regenerative and holistic future. Those visions, with all the excitement and challenge they bring, are rapidly taking hold and rooting in the disturbance of 2020.
We see it all around us: my son’s cul-de-sac organized to grow food together. Neighborhoods started seed banks. Signs sprang up in towns for Give & Take tables for garden produce, to share what you can and take what you need. Winona La Duke, in her (online) Common Ground Fair keynote, stressed the building of local infrastructures. If we look outside the strident newsfeed, we see new structures evolving from common values.
So in this year’s interviews we take a closer look at what’s unfolding. Cooperation! Community! Care! The voices we’ve highlighted bring it home and yet expand it beyond the individual. They inspires hope and cause us to pause in appreciation—before continuing on—knowing so many others are digging in alongside us.
Soon we will tuck ourselves in once again for the winter. May we keep our dreaming alive, vital and connected, knowing that even in our isolation we do not stand alone. Together, we can sustain the momentum to build on this moment. May our efforts shine through the eyes of the future’s children as they watch the seed, saved and replanted, sprouting into new life.
– Nikos Kavanya
Fedco is founded on cooperative principles, and thus we ask for your cooperation as our partners in this essential service of distributing seeds. The year’s unpredictable climate, both literal and figurative, presented seed growers and distributors with myriad challenges, as reflected in this year’s catalog: many crop failures, delays, shortages, substitutions. This expresses the vagaries of the seed industry, but it is not cause for panic. We ask you not to over-buy—if we work together we can avoid a true seed crisis.
A seed’s value is in being planted, being shared, feeding families and communities. What does it take to grow a seed? In one sense that’s a ludicrous question: seeds are motivated to disperse and do so readily (for the most part) without human intervention. But when seeds are gathered into a packet for you to plant, a lot of unseen work is enfolded into that promise of new life and continued food. A full season of care that runs far past the days to maturity listed on the packet is needed to produce seed, and a second year for biennials, often with an interim period of storage. Seed crops need fencing, irrigation, pest protection, weeding, staking…while the grower has one eye on the rain clouds and the other on the thermometer. Then comes harvest: picking, threshing, screening, sorting, and finally a test for viable germination.
Each fall, reports come in from our seed growers and we learn of the season’s challenges: the elk that trampled everything, the flocks of birds that descended, late spring frosts, early fall freezes, drought, hail, wind, flood. This year was the most challenging we’ve ever seen: wildfires blanketed the West Coast, one of the world’s prime seed growing areas. Thankfully, none of our growers lost their lives or farms, but many were harvesting their seeds in fields obscured by smoke, with evacuation bags packed and at the ready. As Frank Morton summarized: “I’ve never thought about evacuating my livelihood.”
Resilience grows with cooperation, especially in stressful times. Spring 2020 brought so many new seed customers that we had to close ordering for a month to catch up. We ask our customers, new and old, to carefully determine what you need, order accordingly, then leave some for the next in line. Seeds are not like gold: they don’t last when hoarded. When they sit in a box in the cupboard, they lose vitality, wither and die.
In essays in our catalog and on our website we’ve highlighted some of the basics of saving your own seed, which we encourage you to do, as well as guidelines for storage to maximize seed longevity.
Seeds are patient. Seeds are generous. Let’s meet them on their own ground.
I have an early memory of planting marigolds with my grandfather, but I confess: I spent more of my childhood with a video game controller in my hands than I did with my hands in the dirt. A few years back, I started dabbling with container planting. The back patio of my California apartment filled with pepper plants, young fruit trees and bird feeders. I got a taste of the joy, delight, and peace a garden can bring—that is, until the rats came. I harvested very little from that first garden, but a seed had been planted in me.
When my partner and I moved back to his home state of Maine, growing our own food was high on our list of priorities. We were starting to get a sense of how the infrastructure and supply chains in our country are not as resilient as we previously thought. We read gardening books and listened to permaculture podcasts—and then proceeded to do everything we were told not to. Desiring a side yard filled with the fragrance of lilac, I hastily purchased and planted a lilac bush right in the shade of another already growing there. Filling my shopping cart with seeds that first year felt like playing some gardening simulation video game, and I forgot how much work each plant would require of me throughout the season. And a soil test? There were already so many holes to dig for transplants!
This past spring, the world gained a lot more new gardeners. With grocery shelves empty and people out of work, many turned to soil and seeds for support and sustenance. New community gardens popped up all over the country, seemingly overnight, stewarded by pods of mask-wearing neighbors. Fedco received countless emails about how grounded and hopeful people felt getting their hands in the dirt.
Like all new gardeners, I’ve made many mistakes; I’ll make many more. There’s plenty of room for fun in the garden, but with escalating stress on food security and seed supply chains, the margins for waste grow thin.
One of Fedco’s values as a cooperative is education, and each year we try to make our catalog and web site a valuable resource to growers. This year, we hope it will serve as both a helpful introduction for new growers, with useful charts in our side bar and tips for getting started (such as Cheat Sheet for New Gardeners and Groundbreaking Work), and as a balm against dismay and panic (see grower profiles). Whether you’re new like me, or you’ve been doing this for decades, let’s keep learning, planting seeds, saving seeds, and remembering that we’re all in this together.
– jaye dos santos, Seeds Coordinator
Through innovation, collaboration and sensible planning, we can grow a substantial portion of our own food. If we focus on growing for calories and nutrition, the foods indigenous to this continent come to the fore: potatoes and the Three Sisters, beans, corn and squash.
Potatoes are relatively easy, though not foolproof. Colorado potato beetles can put a big dent in a crop, as can blight. But if you navigate those problems, potatoes grow more food per space than any other vegetable (except mangels). Average yield is 10# harvested from 1# planted; yields of 20:1 are possible. They are relatively hardy under a wide range of conditions and easy to store. If you ate a diet solely of potatoes, you’d need just shy of 6# per day to get your 2,000 calories. With that would come 52 grams of protein.
Next in relative ease are dry beans. Bush beans take up less space than pole beans and mature all at once. Pole beans have greater overall yield but need more ongoing attention. For every pound of bush beans planted, a yield of 10# of dried beans could be expected; for pole beans, double that. Beans are also good as green beans and shell beans, so you would need to deduct from those totals any eaten along the way. A pound of cooked dried beans meets about a third of your daily caloric needs. Once dried, beans are easy to store and last quite a long time.
Corn takes a lot of room to grow. For food storage purposes, we’re talking flour or flint, not sweet corn. One ear yields about one cup of meal or flour, and each plant has one or two ears, so you’ll need a substantial number of corn plants to provide an appreciable amount of grain. That cup of corn meal will provide about 450 calories; nixtamalizing doubles the protein content and some varieties like Painted Mountain are higher in protein to begin with. Corn stored as whole kernels keeps quite well as long as it’s protected from mice.
Squash is the third member of the Sisters triumvirate. The squash genus includes pepos (zucchini, acorns, pumpkins), maxima (buttercup, hubbard, kabocha) and moschatas (butternut). The former are prolific producers for fresh eating or short storage, though Costata Romanesca zucchini holds some promise dried. But it’s the maximas that shine for storage and winter eating. Once cooked, the leftover squash can be frozen. Until then, storage space will be a limiting factor—especially given the consideration that some squash don’t come into their prime until months after harvest.
Others in my Top 10 would be garlic (easy to grow and store and very beneficial to health), tomatoes (canned, dried or frozen), hot peppers (easy to dry), storage roots (with access to proper storage), and herbs (easy to dry). Medicinal herbs provide variety for pollinators and for the home medicine chest. And finally, for healthful fresh three-season eating: greens, in all shades and forms.
If I lived farther south I might include yams. Consider what grows well where you live. But, more than that, grow what you love. If you love asparagus, plant asparagus. If Aunt Mary’s relish is a family cookout tradition, plant cukes. If you’re short on space, grow smaller varieties, or grow vertically. Swap with neighbors; grow extra of what does well for you in return for their sharing what you can’t grow. Start small and plan big. Incorporate perennials. And always plant for the future.
– Nikos Kavanya, Seeds purchaser