No, life is not cheap. I know too many people who have gone through too many heart breaking losses to think that. But life keeps going on and on all around us every day, without any intervention or cost, and we often barely notice. If you have ever been there when someone has either been born or has passed you have seen breath go into, or come out of someone…and seen how awesome it is that spirit inhabits matter. That is probably my favorite part of farming. The closeness to this. Putting seeds into the ground–these little, dry, brown specks–and growing enormous, edible plants. Watching chicks hatch: I took some eggs I bought from a lady on Craigslist–then left on my dresser for 5 days–put them under a broody hen, and 21 days later out came peeping, jumping, blinking little balls of life.
And the free part is this: do you know that you don’t have to buy everything in packages? I mean, seeds, eggs, chicks, meat, produce. I have a friend who is very smart–I’m sure she knows how plants reproduce by seeds. But she came over to my place, and I told her I was going to save my own seeds to plant the next year, and she said “You can do that?”. It was like this light dawned over her face. It had never occurred to her that you don’t have to buy seeds in little packages every year!!
Being able to reproduce life from life on your own is what makes any kind of farming start to make some economical sense. If you buy seeds and starts to plant even a small vegetable garden, it is easy to spend $50 to $100 a year. That produce that you grow off of those plants is not “free”, even though you did not have to drive to the store to purchase it. But if you save your own seeds, and plant those, the next year your vegetables are closer to free. The most important thing to understand with seed saving is the difference between heirloom or open-pollinated plants and hybrids or genetically modified (GMO) plants. Here is an explanation of the difference between heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds. But basically, heirloom and open-pollinated plants will produce seeds that look like the parent plant. Hybrids are produced by crossing two known varieties to get a known result–like if you know that if you mix yellow and red you get orange. But if you save the seeds they could look like either part of the cross, or something else. But usually less desirable than the original seed. So you have to buy hybrid seeds every year; you cannot save them. And GMOs will pass down the genetically modified traits–like fish genes in tomatoes–if you save them. So if you want to save your own seeds, you need to grown heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. This year I spent $80 on all heirloom seeds, and it felt expensive. But I consider it an investment because I will save all my own seeds from those to plant next year, and the year after, etc. And in addition to those seeds, I planted snap peas, garbanzo beans, corn, bush beans, and tomatoes that I saved from last year’s crop.
Last year a friend of ours gave me heirloom tomato seeds he had saved from his plants, just wrapped in little scraps of paper towels and labeled with a sharpie. I grew plants from that which produced a lot of fruit; and then I saved seed from those plants that I planted again this year. I also kept the scraps of paper towel with the extra seeds to plant again (I never plant ALL of any variety of seeds that I have, so if the crop fails, I have some to try planting again). The scraps ended up opening and all the seeds spilled out. But in the one labeled “Cherokee Purple” was one single seed clinging to the paper. I planted it. And it grew.
This is what I mean about life being amazing. Now this year (hopefully) this little plant will produce many pounds of tomatoes that will feed my family, and I can save hundreds of seeds if I want to, and plant all those plants next year. All from one little dot stuck to a paper towel.
I also have these beautiful poppies in my garden that self-seed themselves every year. I know how to identify the seedlings, and I let them grow wherever they pop up (it’s good to have flowers in your vegetable garden to attract pollinators). I also have volunteer tomatoes, cilantro, and lettuce from plants that went to seed last year. I just let them grow (if they’re not blocking the light of something else I want to grow there).
BUT, I must confess that my fascination with the ability of life to reproduce itself has led to something that, if it was a disorder, I might call “Phytokleptomania”. My husband will attest to this: when I go on a walk, I’m always scoping out the plants that are hanging out into the street as a potential for cuttings or seed saving. I remember where a pretty daisy was hanging into the street, and in the fall when it goes to seed I go back with a plastic bag and slyly snag it and shove it in my pocket. I have lots of jars labeled “purple spike” or “big yellow daisy” because I don’t know the real name of what I saved. This last year I was in a garden store and there were these beautiful orange Echinacea plants that were like $16 each. One had gone to seed so I looked around and quick picked it and put it in my pocket–heart racing. And I planted them and they grew! I’ll let you know if they look like I hope they look (weren’t hybrids). I totally have a very overgrown fig tree staked out that is hanging all over the street, and in the fall I plan to snag a couple of cuttings to propagate in my greenhouse.
I don’t think it’s actually stealing because I know they have someone in plant stores who goes through and dead-heads plants and throws it away. So it’s worthless to the store. AND, as far as I know, the laws on plant patents are that you can’t SELL patented plants without permission (if these were patented even); but there is no law against reproducing them. And I don’t plan to sell anything and make money off of it. It’s just for me. Plus I don’t think you should be able to patent life. Down with Monsanto!! And I don’t think the neighbors mind–stuff that is hanging in the street is kind of a gray area between public and private property where plants are concerned.
The fact that it is possible to be a part of life begetting life is why farming sustains people with no other resources. Whatever clever marketers made a whole generation used to seeing seeds come envelopes and plants come in plastic containers succeeded in making themselves rich. But it is our loss. If I am ever forced to leave my home (as my grandmother was in Yugoslavia) by violent people–God forbid–, I will smuggle seeds with me. Because that is how it would be possible to feed my family and start over somewhere. If this ever happens to you, may you have some seeds to smuggle.
Learn how to save your own seeds this year. It will somehow seem more miraculous when you see these plants burst out of the ground next year!!