Frequently Asked Questions
- What does “open-pollinated” mean?
- What is an heirloom seed?
- What’s the difference between heirloom and open-pollinated seeds?
- Are hybrid seeds bad?
- What’s the big deal about GMO’s?
- I’m really passionate about getting involved, but I’m not a very good gardener. Where can I learn more?
- I bought more seeds this year than I can use - can I donate them?
- I live in an apartment with no outdoor gardening space, can I still participate?
- I can only grow in containers, can I still participate?
- I can’t physically garden. Are there other ways I can help out the cause?
Questions about library process:
- Can I get seeds if I’m not a member?
- What if I can’t afford the $10 membership fee?
- What happens if I borrow seed, but my plants die and I don’t have anything to return?
- I picked out some seeds I want from your database, now what?
- I’m overwhelmed by the choices in the seed database, can someone help me choose?
- Do you have seedlings available or only seeds?
- I want a particular seed, but I don’t see it in your database. Where can I get it?
Questions about seed saving:
- I saved seeds from last year, but now my plants have come up and they all look different - what happened?
- I have a small garden, so I can’t isolate my corn by 2 miles. Can I still grow more than one type of corn?
- But what if I just want to grow seven different kinds of squash?
- I’ve never saved seeds before. Are some plants easier than others? Where should I start?
- I bought some hybrid or treated seeds before I knew about these issues. What should I do with them?
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“Open-pollinated” describes stable varietals that will grow true from their own seed. This means when you grow a plant and save the seeds and then plant those seeds the next year, you will get the same plant year after year. Some seeds, known as hybrids, don’t grow true-to-type. When seeds are saved and replanted from hybrids, the offspring plants may look and behave completely different from the parent plant. This means hybrid seeds must be purchased again every season from a commercial seed house. Other seeds are patented. Saving seeds from some patented plants is illegal.
An heirloom seed is an open-pollinated seed that has been saved for a minimum of 50 years. However, there is some debate over the meaning of the term. Sometimes “heirloom” is used to describe any open-pollinated seed. Sometimes “heirloom” is used only to describe seeds that have been passed down through families, not commercially developed seeds, even if those commercially developed seeds are 100 years old.
Open-pollinated seeds are simply newer varietals that haven’t met the 50-year requirement to become an heirloom.
No, they have their strengths and weaknesses, just like we all do!
1) Ethical objections - GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Some people have a serious ethical objection to modifying the genetic code of any living thing, that it amounts to “playing God.” Other people see the potential benefits of genetic engineering, for example, introducing resistance to verticilium wilt or nematodes into susceptible varieties, but are worried about more extensive tinkering, like using corn to manufacture antibiotics. Other people want to use genetic engineering to increase yields to combat hunger or decrease land use, but those efforts may have a downside in terms of impact on the soil, native plants and animals, as well as pollinators like bees. The problem with many GMO crops today is they are being genetically engineered to benefit just a few huge corporations, without proper caution for the harm those crops can cause in the natural environment.
Once a GMO is released into the environment it is nearly impossible to ever get it out again. And unfortunately, it is also hard to contain that genetic material from spreading. For example, a strain of corn was manufactured that contained Bt, a type of bacteria that kills the larva of cabbage moths. Unfortunately, Bt also kills all other moth and butterfly larvae. The GMO corn crossed with wild milkweed, which is the only plant the endangered Monarch Butterfly uses to lay its eggs. Larva hatched, ate the poisoned milkweed and died by the millions. This is just one example, but unintended consequences seem to be a pattern in the world of GMOs.
2) Threat to the environment - One of the major GMO crops being grown today is a strain of corn patented by Monsanto that is resistant to the weedkiller Roundup, which is also manufactured by Monsanto.
3) Corporate warfare - Patented GMO corn is also being used as a corporate weapon against small, independent farmers to further agricultural consolidation by industrial giants like Cargill and ConAgra. Farmers who buy the patented seed must sign a contract promising they will not save the seed from the patented corn. But farmers who are growing natural corn in nearby fields are now being sued by Monsanto, on the grounds that those farmers are violating Monsanto’s patent because wind carried GMO pollen onto the non-GMO fields. Many farmers have been forced off their land because they cannot afford legal fees to defend themselves against these specious claims. Fortunately, many organic farmers are now banding together to sue Monsanto for contaminating their fields, threatening their organic certification, and not properly isolating their GMO crops.
4) Health concerns - Some doctors wonder whether the rise in childhood allergies is because most mass-market food now contains these novel genetic structures, which the human body may be rejecting. Many people are concerned that we don’t know enough about the effect of GMOs or their long-term safety, yet these products are already in most grocery stores, restaurants, and in almost all processed foods.
5) Consumer choice - Companies that manufacture GMO’s have fought legislation which would require labeling for food that contains GMOs. Millions of people are eating genetically modified organisms without knowing it. We think consumers should have a choice.
There may or may not be a place in the world for genetic modification, but the current methods and lack of regulation are deeply troubling. Growing your own food and saving heirloom seeds is great way to invest in an alternative to this system.
Part of the mission of SLOLA is to teach members and LA residents how to save seeds. A big part of saving seeds is knowing how to grow plants from seed successfully! Each of our meetings features an educational presentation on a seed-related topic. Members of our Best Practices Committee are always available for questions, and we also have many Master Gardeners in our membership, as well as gardeners with long experience in saving seed. Also check out our Seed Resources page for some great seed-related websites. And most importantly, keep gardening! The best way to learn how to garden is through experience.
If you’re curious about the topic of seed-saving specifically, we recommend the books Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and How To Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe.
Absolutely! We welcome seed donations. If you can, please include the packet the seeds came in, since it provides valuable information about the age and origin and name of the seeds.
As long as you know what type they are and how they were grown. We especially love adding varietals that we don’t yet have in our database!
Yes! There are many community gardens and school gardens involved in seed-saving, which you might be interested in joining. Also, many apartment complexes have planter boxes or beds that are full of ornamental plants or grass or even weeds - many landlords are open to converting these spaces to edible gardening space for residents. It doesn’t hurt to ask! If you truly have no access to gardening space, there are many other ways to participate, such as membership outreach, helping to catalog the library, asking for donations from seed companies or foundations, and much more. Get in touch with us and we’ll find the right fit for you!
Of course! Many vegetables can thrive in containers. The one drawback is that some types of vegetables need a minimum population size (e.g. 20 plants, or 50 plants) to be able to save the seed over many generations. It’s often hard to grow that many plants in a small container garden! However, because of the nature of the seed library, you will be able to combine your efforts with many other growers. Seed from your one or two or five plants can be combined with seed from other seed savers to make a minimum population.
Yes! There are many other ways to participate, such as membership outreach, helping to catalog the library, soliciting donations from seed companies or foundations, and much more. Get in touch with us and we’ll find the right fit for you!
Questions about library process:
Seeds are for members only. However, a lifetime membership is only $10, which quickly pays for itself.
Please send us an email or come to a meeting and talk to our Membership Chair. No one will be turned away for lack of funds!
Don’t worry! Some of the best gardeners in the world are the ones who have killed with most plants! You can always buy a packet of seed to replace what you checked out, or bring in a double quantity of another seed that you were able to save successfully, or rustle up some heirloom seeds from a grower at your local farmers market (athough make sure that you know what the seed is that you give back to the library). There are many creative ways to give back, but the idea is to keep the library going and growing!
Print out the types that you want, or write up your own list, bring it to a meeting and we’ll send you home with some fantastic heirloom seeds! You may want to figure out beforehand approximately how much space you have to grow each varietal you’ve chosen, so we can help you figure out how much seed you will need. We’ll also send you home with some instructions on how to save seeds from the types you picked out.
Check out the page What to Grow in Los Angeles, or come to a meeting and talk to some of your fellow gardeners about what varietals they grow and love. Also, you may want to check out some seed catalogs like Seed Savers Exchange or Baker Creek Heirlooms for inspiration. See our Seed Resources page for other companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.
Currently, we only have seeds available, but we may expand to seedlings at some point in the future.
Check out our Seed Resources page. We’ve listed many excellent seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. If you end up with leftover seed, consider donating it to the library!
Questions about seed saving:
Some types of vegetables cross-pollinate. If different varieties of the same species cross-pollinate, you end up with a mix of different hybrid seeds as the offspring.
For example, if you grow a “Lemon” Cucumber (round and yellow) next to a “Straight 8” Cucumber (long and green) they will naturally cross pollinate each other, unless they are isolated. The cross-pollinated cucumbers that original year will look “normal” - the Lemons will be round and yellow, the Straight 8’s will be long and green. But if you save the seeds from those cucumbers and plant them, the NEXT year you’ll have some surprises! Some will be Lemons, and some will be Straight 8’s, but most will be a mix of the two - maybe round and green or long and yellow or small and striped, etc. etc.
This is not necessarily a bad thing - it’s how new cucumber types are developed! But if you want your vegetables to grow “True-to-Type,” (in other words, remain fairly consistent year after year and closely resemble the parent plant) then you need to minimize cross-pollination. There are a number of techniques to control pollination, but the simplest of all is to grow only one varietal of each species.
That’s great! Squashes are super rewarding to grow - sometimes too rewarding! You have several options -
1) Hand pollinate, taping flowers closed, or covering them with bags.
2) Physically isolate plants with cages (although squashes are insect-pollinated, so you’ll have to throw in some bees).
3) Plant them on opposite sides of your house or with some other large barrier in between (not a perfect method, but will mostly get the job done).
4) Plant them 4-6 weeks apart so they don’t flower at the same time.
5) Grow one type of squash from each species. Plants will only cross-pollinate with other varietals of the same species.
6) Don’t save the seed, just buy new seed every year of vegetables that are hard to isolate.
7) Let them cross, plant the seed, and see what kind of weird experimental squash you get the next year! (only we ask that you NOT turn these seeds in to the library for now!)
For more specific information about seed saving and isolation techniques come to our meetings, check out our informational videos, or get a copy of the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.
Plants that self-pollinate (also known as “Inbreeding”) are the easiest to grow “true-to-type” year after year. Vegetables that self-pollinate include beans, peas, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and lettuce. Pick an easy-to-grow varietal with good disease resistance and grow only one variety per species to ensure your seed is pure. If that goes well, try expanding your skill set the following season and practice techniques like hand pollination and caging.
However, if you have one particular type of vegetable that you JUST LOVE and can’t wait to grow, start there! There’s no substitute for enthusiasm and commitment. Knowledge will grow with time. You may also want to ask around for other members who have experience saving seed from your particular favorite!
Corn is a wind-pollinated crop, so it easily and readily cross-pollinates with any other corn in the area, even your neighbor’s yard down the street! If you’re growing two very different varietals - for example a popcorn type and a sweet corn type - and they cross-pollinate, you won’t be able to save the seed, and you may even end up with corn that is inedible. However, in a smaller garden, it’s possible to get around this problem by hand-pollinating the corn and then covering each ear with a paper bag to keep it from being contaminated.
Treated seed has been coated in a type of fungicide that is meant to prevent mold from going on seeds before they are planting. However, beneficial fungi (mycorrhizae) are an essential part of healthy soil and therefore healthy plants. Fungicide interferes with these crucial soil-dwelling organisms. Keep your seeds in a dry place and you won’t have a problem with mold in the first place!
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