Mad About Science: Seeds, sprouts & beyond

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Our area has some passionate farmers and gardeners. Our area also has a pretty nasty reputation for having abysmal soil that no amount of potting soil can save.

If you’re struggling with the latter and consider your thumb more brown than green, I’ve got one childish word for you: poop. Backyard chickens are all the craze, and this is the time of year that people are regretting buying those cute baby bunnies for Easter. If you want a beautiful garden or some awesome crops, consider adopting some of these unfortunate buys and reap the rewards of your own fertilizer factory. Three years ago, I couldn’t grow anything but noxious weeds on my property. This last harvest season, I harvested the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen.

But this isn’t an article about poop. It’s an article about what eats the poop to grow big and delicious.

The basis of a seed is pretty simple: It’s an egg for plants. Bees will pollinate adult plants during a growing season, transferring pollen which contains gametes (plant sperm) which will trigger the plant to produce fertilized seeds so it can carry on its genetic legacy and make more delicious salad-stuffers for next year.

While the premise is pretty simple, seeds come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some plants make hard armored shells to protect the seeds from harsh conditions: Think walnuts. Others coat them in delicate sugary flesh that bears, birds and humans find irresistible. They’re also programmed by untold millennia of evolution to trigger growth when “fertilized” by animal poop after digestion. This also helps berry plants spread their genetic code far and wide by using animals as a transport device and minimizing inbreeding.

So you’re at the farm and feed store and you’re looking at giant rack displays of seeds. You’d think it’d be as simple as “I want this one,” but Kathy from accounting is all up judging everyone at the workplace for buying GMOs and spiraling our world toward global apocalypse. What do you do?!

Well, to clarify, GMO stands for genetically-modified organism, and it’s not always a bad word. Labradoodles are GMOs. The bananas you buy at the grocery store are GMOs. The sweet corn that is at the center of the GMO controversy is also a GMO.

The reason GMOs are such a scary prospect is because when it comes to our food, we don’t understand them, and that’s intentional. Very large companies with lots of money to gain or lose have patented seeds they’ve developed through CRISPR or through good ol’-fashioned breeding to benefit their bank accounts and create as much food as possible with minimal resources invested. This is extremely dubious behavior, because these companies have deep claws in ambiguous legislation and legal enforcement and can pull off ludicrous arguments like this one: “Pollen from our patented plants blew into your organic field and cross-pollinated, therefore our patented genetic code is in your crop. You must either destroy the crop or give it to us, as it is now our property.”

Sounds a little “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” doesn’t it?

That quagmire isn’t even just farmers’ problem. When we genetically engineer corn to be hundreds of times sweeter than it naturally should be to refine things like high-fructose corn syrup, found in literally everything, what sort of implications does that have on our health? Sure, it tastes good for a minute, but after that you’ve got four cavities and diabetes.

Many non-organic patented seeds are also designed to produce sterile plants, so farmers need to buy new stock every year and the home gardener or microfarmer won’t be able to sustain crops from year-to-year without buying more seeds.

So what’s the solution?

Heirloom seeds. These are bred by dedicated farmers and seed-savers around the world from old lines of genetic stock to retain certain qualities. They’re really good at some things and bad at others, depending on the plant. Luckily for 98% of us, we can just grow it and enjoy it. But heirlooms also come with a responsibility. If you’re growing heirloom vegetables, you should find your biggest, fattest tomato, or your tallest, strongest lettuce and harvest the seeds for next year. One plant can produce hundreds of seeds, enough for you to multiply your harvest one-hundred fold next year.

If you plan on doing this, you should keep the heirloom plants you plan on growing isolated and pollinate them yourself, as they can cross-pollinate with other breeds of the same plant to create hybrids or new breeds altogether.

Sometimes, hybrids are really good, but a lot of the times they end up being sterile.

This shouldn’t dissuade you from cross-pollinating and developing new breeds. That’s what farmers have done since we used oxen to plow fields.

If you’re like me and waited entirely too long to plant your seedlings this year, don’t worry. There’s a craze going around this time of year called the plant swap. The Clark Fork Library had one on May 4. The Sandpoint Library will be hosting one plus workshops on seed saving and gardening this Saturday, May 11, and there will be a third one at Davis Grocery & Mercantile in Hope on Saturday, May 18. These are completely free events where the basis is: Bring plants, take plants. Simple as that. It’s also a great time to meet your neighbors, share some tips and tricks and maybe find your new passion.

Those were the only three I knew about, but if there are more going on, send Ben an email and let him know. I know everyone at the Reader wants to see a greener world.

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