Book Review: Seedswap

Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery

Continuing debate and concern over genetically modified crops has resulted in increased interest in heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties. The communities and groups that have emerged from this movement are both the impetus and the target for Josie Jeffrey’s recent book, Seedswap.

Seed swaps are nothing new, of course. Humans have likely gathered in some form or another to exchange seeds since the invention of agriculture, but recent interest in saving, sharing, and trading seeds parallels the GMO debate and the rise of urban agriculture. In that regard, Jeffrey’s book is a timely resource for anyone interested in joining the seed banking, seed swapping, and seed activism movements.

While much of this book is devoted to explaining the how-to’s of seed saving (including specific information on how to grow and save seed from 49 vegetable, herb, and flower varieties), the content that really sets it apart from other seed saving guides is, unsurprisingly, the focus on seed banking and seed swapping. Jeffrey provides a brief history of seed banks, the reasons behind them, descriptions of some of the more prominent ones, and some tips for starting a seed library. For seed swap novices, Jeffrey’s advice concerning where to find them and what to expect when attending them, as well as tips and etiquette to keep in mind are incredibly useful. After spending a few moments with Seedswap, every gardener should find themselves inspired and motivated to start saving and sharing seeds.

Jeffrey’s book is beautifully designed and well put together. Apart from the fact that it jumps around a bit and could stand to be better organized, it’s a nice little reference for anyone involved or looking to be involved in the world of seeds.

seed swap book

‘Tis the season for seed swaps. Find fellow gardeners to swap seeds with here.

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Wise Management of Invaded Plant Communities

Late last year the journal Nature published an article by Katherine Suding called “A Leak in the Loop,” which discussed the findings from long-term observations of an invaded plant community in Hawai’i. (A report authored by the researchers can be found in the same issue of Nature.) Once introduced, exotic species can become invasive by modifying their surroundings in such a way that ensures their survival and spread. Examples include modifications to fire and disturbance regimes, nutrient cycles, hydrology, and soil microbe communities. This self-reinforcement strategy is called a positive feedback loop. However, positive feedback loops are not eternally stable and can at some point be interrupted by negative feedback. In the case of invasive species, these “leaks in the loop” can result in population declines  and opportunities for restoration.

Back in the 1960’s, woodlands in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that were traditionally dominated by Metrosideros polymorpha, a flowering evergreen tree in the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), were invaded by a perennial grass from Africa commonly known as molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora). Molasses grass was successful because its presence increased the frequency and size of fires which reduced populations of native plant species without negatively affecting itself. Additionally, accelerated nitrogen cycling rates resulted due to the presence of the exotic grass, which benefited the invader. But now things have changed.

Returning to these sites 50 years later, researches have discovered that nitrogen cycling rates have returned to pre-invasion levels. Since molasses grass requires high levels of nitrogen, it is now on the decline. What exactly caused this reduction in nitrogen availability is unclear. It could be because winter rains flush nitrogen from the soil, making it unavailable when the grass begins to actively grow again in the spring. Several years of reduced growth resulting from reduced nitrogen availability diminishes the grass’s initial contribution to accelerated nitrogen cycling, hence a breakdown in the positive feedback loop.

With the invader on the decline, the woodlands should be able to restore themselves. Ideally, anyway. Instead what the researchers observed is that another invader, Morella faya – a nitrogen fixing evergreen shrub from Europe, is moving in. Acacia koa, a native nitrogen fixing tree, is the ideal candidate for restoring these woodlands, however its seeds are heavy and don’t spread easily. Seeds of M. faya are bird-dispersed, and so they find their way into these sites first. In order to restore these sites and avoid further invasions, land managers must recognize when and where molasses grass is declining and start planting Acacia koa trees in large numbers, getting them established before M. faya arrives.

acacia koa

Acacia koa (photo credit: eol.org)

This research is important for anyone in the business of managing invaded plant communities. As Suding concludes in her article, “this new perspective will inform where and when we might best intervene in systems to capitalize on their changing dynamics.” Millions of dollars are spent each year in an attempt to reduce and ultimately eradicate invasive plant species. Long-term studies of invaded plant communities can help us recognize when the best times to employ restoration strategies might be. When we find a leak in the loop, we should take advantage of it, otherwise we may just be wasting resources.

Related Post:

Invasivore: One Who Consumes Invasive Species

Northern Pitcher Plant: A model for understanding food webs

Carnivorous plants are endlessly fascinating. Even people who aren’t typically interested in plants are likely to find plants that eat animals to be of some interest. These plants not only provide fascination for plant lovers and the plant ambivalent alike, but they are also of great interest to science, providing insight into the workings of the world beyond the swamps and bogs that they inhabit.

A recent study published in the journal, Oikos, examined the complex food web that exists inside the northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) in order to come to a better understanding of food webs in general and to construct a model that will aid in further research involving food webs in all types of ecosystems.

The food web that exists inside a pitcher plant is quite interesting. The tubular leaves of the pitcher plant capture rain water and draw in a variety of insects including beetles, ants, and flies. The pool of water also becomes home to the larvae of midges, mosquitoes, and flesh flies, as well as various other tiny creatures including rotifers, mites, copepods, nematodes, and multicellular algae. And thus begins a complex food cycle. Midge larvae attack the drowning insects and tear them to pieces, then bacteria go after the tiny insect parts, after which rotifers consume the bacteria. Finally, the walls of the pitcher plant absorb the waste of the rotifers. Meanwhile, fly larvae consume the rotifers, midge larvae, and other fly larvae, while bacteria is being consumed by all participants.

You can see why this food web is an ideal subject of study. Not only is it complex, with numerous players, but it is also all taking place in a small, confined space – easily observable. By studying such a system, models can be derived for larger, more widespread food webs.

Carnivorous plants have diverse mechanisms for extracting nutrients from other living things – this is just one of those mechanisms. I will plan to profile other carnivorous plants on this blog, because like I said, they are endlessly fascinating. Meanwhile, you can read more about this particular study at Science Daily.

northern pitcher plant

northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) photo credit: wikimedia commons

Seed Swaps

I am a huge proponent of sharing and the free exchange of ideas and items, which is why when I learned that there was a seed swap happening in my current hometown, I was happy to participate.

Seed swaps are events where people can bring seeds that they have either saved themselves (i.e. collected from plants they grew in their garden or found growing elsewhere) or have purchased and trade them for seeds brought in by other participants. Bringing seeds isn’t always a requirement though – in some cases, if you have no seeds to offer, you can take what seeds you need and then plan to bring some to the following year’s swap.

Seed swaps are great ways to be introduced to plant varieties that you may not be familiar with and to get ideas for what to grow in your garden. They are also a huge benefit to people who would really like to have a garden but have limited money to purchase seeds. Another benefit, of course, is that it gives you an opportunity to unload all of your old seeds – seeds that you may no longer be interested in but someone else might.

There are also social and educational benefits to seed swaps. Mingling with other gardeners gives you a chance to meet new friends and learn from their gardening experiences. Depending on the seed swap, there may also be classes and workshops to attend where one can learn more about seed saving and general gardening.

The seed swap that I attended was called Seedy Saturday, and it was hosted by the Treasure Valley Food Coalition. I highly recommend finding a seed swap in your area and giving it a try. If there is no seed swap where you are, start one!

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