Let’s start at the beginning. No, not the story of my first few seeds saved from old calendula plants; nor that of the two overwintered rutabaga I replanted to let go to flower; but the story of my first big seed harvest. That seed crop when I realized the bounty plants can provide given a chance and that maybe it is possible to close a farm’s seed cycles.
I was a field manager at a CSA farm on the Island of Montreal. We planted an early arugula crop in a far corner of the field. This story could be a warning to not plant early crops where you will forget about them, neglect them, and then come harvest time, find that they have bolted. Which is what happened. Instead of a disaster story though, this set the groundwork for seed production.
Beginning August, I was disking crops under prior to establishing fall cover crops. I came upon the neglected arugula plants. These spicy salad greens were now 4-foot tall bushes with no leaves and brown seedpods. When I ran the pods through my fingers they shattered easily releasing their contents. Beneath the plants, the ground was speckled with hundreds of thousands of orange, red and brown seeds. I parked the tractor, cut the plants down and stuffed them into old feed sacks that I later stashed in the equipment shed.
On a rainy end of September day, we were cleaning up some of our covered areas. Alison, the farmer I worked for, handed me the arugula sacks: “I think these are yours.” I brought them home, dropped them in the back room, and ignored them some more.
I cleaned the seed on a sunny November day.
- First, I took handfuls of broken branches and pods out of the bag. The pods seemed empty to me. I figured the heavy seed had sunk to the bottom of the bag. The top 3/4 of the bags contents wound up in the compost pile.
- Then, I emptied the feed sack into a couple salad bowls. I twirl the bowl in a circular motion. The ensuing whirlpool brought the chaff and remaining pods to the top. I skimmed these off in handfuls to reveal a mass of seeds beneath. This was probably clean enough to reuse on the farm but the seeds still had a lot of chaff mixed in. I wanted these seeds to look like they came out of a new envelope.
- To finish cleaning them off I poured a pile of seeds onto a baking sheet. I tilted the sheet to the left – the seeds rolled to the left leaving some of the chaff behind. I wiped the chaff away. Then – tilt to the right. The seed rolled to the right. I wiped more chaff away. I repeated the process over and over. The seed got cleaner and cleaner.
My big harvest was about a pound of arugula seed. At the time this was more seed then I knew what to do with. I gave some to friends, I traded some with other seed savers, and three years later, when I started farming at Tourne-Sol, this was the arugula seed we used. Last summer, I harvested 15 pounds of arugula seed but this time I had planted the crop intentionally.
After that first arugula seed harvest I wondered: “why doesn’t everybody grow their own seed?” Well, with a number of seed crops under the belt, and a couple big seed crop failures, I can see why caution is wise. Of course, I’ve learned a thing or two with each of those crops. And that is what I’ll be sharing on this blog.
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