One of the most impact heavy ways to ensure long term sustainability and food security is to preserve our native genetic resources. Conservation of animals, birds, protection of national parks, forests and tribal communities are some popular ways of doing this. Another important and often overlooked way is saving seeds.
Saving seeds is not like saving money – you can’t put it in a huge container and forget about it. To conserve living things we need to allow them to live as they would in the wild, rather than keeping them locked away. Wild animals for example find it hard to breed in a confined space like a zoo, because they are kept in a radically different environment than their natural home. Seeds are dormant living things which have evolved to wait for the right time to germinate. Conserving seeds means allowing them to develop, grow, reproduce and die. In this process the seeds multiply and more and more can be obtained. Such seeds can then be stored for a very long time in a variety of different ways.
A seed is a powerhouse of genetic knowledge. A record of the rainfall, soil, sunlight, wind and wildlife that the mother plant is exposed to is encapsulated in the programming of the seed, as is the silent wisdom of trees. The seed knows exactly what to do, and is born with everything it needs to know. Our role as seed savers then, is to simply provide the right ecosystem and initial care. This ensures the maximum chance of germination and a healthy plant that produces more healthy seeds for propagation .
How do I save seed?
“Conserve ecosystems, not individual species”, says Naturalist Shardul Bajikar who leads several conservation and research efforts in Indian forests. This is especially important while protecting natural habitats in situ. But it is also applicable to conservation outside of the natural habitat, i.e., ex situ.
When we save seeds, the aim should thus be to create a healthy ecosystem to whatever extent possible. The immediate surrounding for a plant includes the soil ecosystem, sunlight, moisture, wind and animal life.
Step 1 Build the Soil : Seeds sprout when exposed to certain conditions. So the first thing we create is a healthy soil ecosystem, for which we need :
A growing medium – soil and compost mixture, a.k.a. potting mix
Healthy micro organisms
You can create your own potting mix from available ingredients. The most sustainable is compost made at home using kitchen waste and leaf litter on the street. Add enough leaf litter to make sure the soil is porous.
Pro tip: Amrit mitti, made over a period of 3-4 months works as a great growing medium and does not consume any external soil ! For a detailed guide to making Amrut mitti, read the Natueco farming handbook here.
Once you have the potting mix, it is microbe time. Hike to the nearest forest or a neighborhood park – any place with a healthy ecosystem. The older and less disturbed, the better. Pick up some mulch i.e., a handful of leaves and a little topsoil from near an old tree.
Now create three layers in your planting pot. Bottom 5 cm twigs/straw/dead leaves for aeration, middle 15 cm for growing medium, and sprinkle a little forest mulch on top.
Ideal time: Monsoon. This ensures that the soil is built up in time for the following steps, right up to the time of planting i.e., at the beginning of the next monsoon.
Step 2: Find the right location: Use these pointers to pick a good spot for your plants
Eastern sunlight is good - This is the ideal location to receive light. A window facing south-east will give just the right light for your plants.
Western sunlight is not good – Protect your plants from the harsh heat coming from the west in the afternoon. If west is the only choice to set up your garden, worry not. Just shield your plants with a translucent vertical shade using an old saree or other thin cloth.
High wind is not good - Young plants have vulnerable stems and limited energy. If they spend a lot of energy reinforcing the stem to withstand wind, there is not enough left to put into growth.
Ventilation is needed - Ideally your plants should be in a balcony, windowsill or similar spot outside the house. Even if they are inside a room, make sure the air circulates. Do not keep plants in the bedroom without ample ventilation – remember they give out more carbon dioxide at night!
Microclimate – The shade of a tree and the company of a variety of different plants can begin to create a combination of the right temperature, humidity, microbes, beneficial insects, birds and other factors that help your plant to flourish. Use the plants you already have or plant some new ones to start creating your own unique microclimate!
Step 3 Nitrogen fixing: Water this set up for a week and then introduce some sprouted beans or pulses into it, like moong, flat bean, lentils or any other pulses you have at home. Sprouted pulses are better. Growing a legume introduces nitrogen into the soil. Let the plant grow for two months. Your ecosystem is now ready. Step 3 and 4 can be done together to save time.
Ideal time: Monsoon
Step 4 Seed collection and planting: Every time you eat a fruit, be it chikoo, sitaphal, jackfruit, or mango – keep the seeds aside. Dry them in the morning sun for a week. Chuck the seeds underneath the mulch layer in your pot 2-4 at a time. Water it a little every day. Make sure you mulch your soil to protect it from the elements – do not cover the soil completely, but shred leaves into fine pieces and lightly cover it.
Ideal time: Plant in the Winter. Collect seeds all year round!
Step 5 Be Patient: Tree seeds take weeks to germinate. Water it only a little bit regularly just to ensure that the soil is moist. The seed will sprout only if it senses a friendly environment with a consistent level of moisture and temperature.
Step 6 Protect the plant: Tender leaves are a favorite food for birds, especially mango leaves. If you have only 1 or 2 plants it will be too risky. Raise many plants and share the bounty! Protect them using a wire mesh or your window grill.
Tree saplings raised for 8-9 months are great for transplanting from pot-to-field because the roots are young and adaptable. Older saplings find it much harder to adjust. Just before the rains or after the first rain is the best time to plant. Putting these two facts together, winter is a good time to start your seed planting so they are ready in time.
Step 7 Now go create a forest ! Gift your trees to the nearest farmer. Take a vacation, visit the nearby villages and tribal areas. Make friends with the people who grow our food. Talk to your forest department officials; share the effort to green our lands.
Although we’ve focused on tree seeds, this method can be applied to growing vegetables, flowers and small plants as well.
We would love to hear about your experiments with planting and nurturing your garden! Let us know in the comments!