Getting Seed Up to Speed!
- Dr. Jodi Lew-Smith Ph.D
Some is prickly, some is smooth, either oval or fully round. Some is
papery thin and fragile, some is hard and tough. Some is so small you’d
think it dust you just swept up
from under the rug. Some is so dusty it mostly IS the dust you would
sweep up from under the rug. Much of it is brown. But some is pure
creamy white. Some is glossy jet
black. Some is buff-colored, mustard-yellow, various shades of green,
or, if you happen to be a dry bean, nearly any earthy color you can
imagine. This is seed, of course.
And if you happen to be one of those odd folks who really just like
seed – like the look, the feel, the sounds of it – like the oddity of
the shapes and the colors and the many
textures. If you like taking a handful in your palm and studying it –
attempting to assess that elusive aspect we call “quality” – a measure
of the maturity and the purity of
the seed – this is your season.
believe me it is not for everyone. It may sound like a party, but it is
actually a very dusty and very finicky job. A job that takes a whole
lot of patience and a whole lot of
making expensive judgment calls – because you never clean out just the
bad things, you always take a cut of good stuff at the same time. So
you are constantly weighing fractions
of seed mixed with not-seed (or weed seed) - deciding how much is too
much - trying to get it as clean as you possibly can and simultaneously
trying not to throw away
more than you possibly need to. And constantly thinking of how much
each ounce is worth – and how much you are proposing to throw in the
compost. So no, not a job for
the squeamish. But, if you happen to be one of those nut-cases who
like it anyhow, you’re in your element right now. Because now is the
time when the artistry of it all
starts to come in.
By this time we have cleaned all the easy seed. The “easy” seed
typically starts with the larger seed – your corn, beans, peas,
squashes, etc. These are so big and heavy that
it is usually easy to blow away all the lighter weed seed and chaff.
And then you just have to deal with separating out the rocks. Hopefully
not too many. And then there are
the medium-hard clean-up jobs – the pepper and tomato seeds of the
world, the round brassica seeds, the other various mid-size seeds that
can usually be cleaned up with a few passes through shakers and blowers and multiple screens.
And then you get to the artisan seed… the stuff that will make you a
nut-case if you did not already start out that way. This is usually the
very smallest seed. Much of it more
finicky in the first place than larger seed, requiring either time or
temperature shifts to let it break dormancy. And then it is usually
mixed with other small seed, or chaff,
all of which must be separated out, and, as you can imagine, small
seeds do not separate cleanly away from one another in simple ways. We
do much shaking and blowing.
And then we employ our most exquisite tool – the gravity table. “The
table” shakes and blows all at once in just such a way that it can
separate away seeds that are identical
in every way, except for weight – i.e. density – which is a measure of
how much life is left in a seed. A heavy seed has new life in it – an
embryo and food for that embryo
– while a light seed is empty of life - has either metabolized away its
stored food or else never acquired it in the first place –i.e. never
“matured” on the plant.
And so that is where we are at folks. Trying to work our magic on the
lots that have yet eluded us. The lots that required time in the
freezer, and then took several cleanings
before they passed their germ test. Or the ones that have yet to pass
their germ test and we have to make hard decisions about how much more
to try to keep cleaning
them – or whether to cut losses and stop working on them. There are
always the losses. And then the heartbreaks, the seeds that we really
really wanted – the ones we
have been working on for years – selecting and tasting and trying to
grow seed of - but that did not quite mature in the field. Or that
remain dormant for mysterious reasons.
And of course, there are the great joys of the season – the nice big
crops of nice plump seeds that will continue to make new food for many
years to come. We win some and
we lose some. It is seed cleaning season!