LAST time we were talking about some basic requirements to be able to grow our own food in our growing space, however little it may be. In a nutshell, we have to have superior seeds, a healthy soil mix, enough sunshine and an ample amount of water.
Seeds, our planting materials, will make or break our home garden.
Where do superior seeds come from? If we are to have a productive plant, or garden/farm, we have to ensure that we have good seeds at the outset.
I was then asking Pat Acosta of The Master’s Garden in Benguet if he was producing his own seeds to grow lettuces. My question was just confirmatory. His outright answer was “No.” I did not expect it and was too surprised to shoot my follow-up query. Why?
I thought all along that seeds should be produced in gardens, especially if we have to grow safe food crops for our own consumption. It turns out that most farmers now no longer produce seeds. Binhi, that has been a byword among farmers, is fast losing its place in the growing areas.
I tried collecting seeds from everything we have in the pantry: tomatoes, papaya, guyabano, atis, squash, ampalaya. Almost anything at all.
At the back of my mind I had been doubting but we went on saving free seeds from all sources, including those packets friends sent us. We kept on collecting and we were trying to get them in seedling trays and in holes on the ground. There was nary a chance to really observe and document outcomes. We did not even make a mental note nor a single physical signage where and when the seeds came. Everything was trial-and-error.
So that one day, we decided to transplant papaya seedlings that germinated from seeds we took from a very plump and sweet papaya we bought from the local market. Around 15 are growing up to four to five feet tall, not so healthy that we thought these were dwarf papayas. One had male flowers, another female. Two months after, however, the female papaya wilted. Two more have earlier wilted that my mother was asking if it was over watered.
“Nalnak,” is a local Pangasinan term especially accorded to a papaya that wilts due to floods.
But it was summer and the rains have not been frequent in the vicinity. We have had to water daily or we risked losing our plants.
It took two visiting farmers to tell us that our failure was due to a bad seed. One forewarned us in November that to get more eggplants, we had to buy good eggplant seeds. Our eggplants came from uprooted plants that I salvaged and replanted. See?
In February, someone from Nueva Ecija came and saw the papaya trees. He was asking where we sourced our seedlings and was laughing upon knowing that we just tossed seeds into the seedling tray.
Yes, there are seeds that germinate but do not give us anything but leaves.
Some of the seeds, like okra taken from fast-growing plants and eggplants dried fried the plants, did not germinate at all.
My friend Loreto Ann Tamayo, a writer and editor, reminded me that some two to three decades ago we had written about suicide seeds or hybrid seeds that could not be replanted, or if these ever germinated, will not bear veggies as big or as plump as the produce these were taken from. Cordillera peasant leaders have told us before that they had to buy seeds every time they planted and this cycle has further plunged farmers into deep poverty.
It took us a year to realize that hybrid seeds are not only applicable to rice. Even vegetables like tomatoes, beans, eggplants, okra and papaya are now grown widely from hybrid seeds.
I remember giving away pole beans seeds a friend sent me. These turned into foot-long sitaw. Dry pods were returned to me in gratitude and I planted these but got shorter sitaw, instead. The binhi has returned to its original breed.
What then are superior seeds?
To us, superior seeds are those that come free. These are the ones that farmers can produce and keep for future growing seasons. These are the ones that we can store in seed banks and share to other farmers, who in turn could keep for future generations of growers.
Such seeds are heirloom seeds. These may be hard to find these days.
There are still seeds that come free. Take note that there are wild berries in peanut farms. Wild ampalaya still cover a wider area in the countryside. Saluyot, still grows abundantly once the rains have come. Kalunay, amaranth or wild spinach, still cover the whole stretch of a footpath. Dandelions, clovers and plantain, or lanting, still come free. In Baguio City and many provinces in the Cordillera, sayote, is abundant all year. In the lowlands, wild mini-cucumbers are considered weeds because these grow anywhere. We do not plant some rare plants like the kurkuribot or wild passion fruits, and edible ferns. These voluntarily cover an area where they grow.
Among heirloom seeds that are still available are wild sesame, itab, kardis, bitswelas, singkamas, patola, squash, upo and pallang.
There may be other crops that still grow from heirloom seeds. Many varieties of papaya, for instance, are hybrids, but there are papaya varieties that are considered heirloom. Even tomatoes, okra and eggplants can come from heirloom seeds.
It will always be a challenge to get heirloom seeds.
If we were to answer the question “Where then do we get superior seeds?” Will there be people who still believe that we would rather ask the birds to bring us our seeds and the wind to vegetate our space?