Autumn hardly finds Sue Field's Craftsbury, VT, students winding down with their school garden. Instead, they gear up to carry on a business with deep historical roots. An owner of a small seed farm had once come to the school to share seeds and plants that were descendants of locally grown crops.
As the stories of these heritage seeds unfolded, the kids discovered just how close the connection was between people and plants. "The class was delighted to learn that one of the types of beans our visitor shared--Boston Beauty--had actually been created and passed on by one of their classmates' ancestors," says Sue. "We decided to raise some of these historical crops in the spring so we could save our own seeds to replant."
Intrigued by the idea of preserving living histories, Sue's students returned in September and designed their own seed rescue operation based on what they'd learned. "Beans were fairly straightforward to shell and dry, but our massive tomato squishing and drying operation was a bit more work," explains Sue. The kids first scooped out the tomato gel containing seeds, then placed the mixture in water for several days to ferment. They stirred the water daily, watching as some seeds sank to the bottom and others floated. The sinkers were then harvested, placed on paper plates for about a week to dry, then stored in sealed containers in a cool, dry place.
"Since we had raised money last year by selling commercial seeds, we figured there would be a market for our own living treasures," says Sue. "The art teacher got some kids going on creating pictures for packets of bean, flint corn, and tomato seeds." A student assembly line then pasted labels, wrote packet instructions, counted seeds, and so on--to create their final products. Math and communication skills were further honed as the kids sold their creative packages directly and via an Agway seed form to community members. Area gardens that summer kept the project alive by sporting the rare finds with local pedigrees.
"Students' initial concepts that seeds simply came from packages from the store were abandoned as they went through the full cycle from planting to harvesting, then replanting seeds," says Sue. She explains that they've also been more inquisitive about seeds. "They try to figure out where they're hidden in different plants, then bring in seeds they've discovered to grow at school. Next year we want to raise heirloom varieties of popcorn and sunflowers." (For a list of sources of historical seeds, search under heirloom in our Web site's Resource Directory: www.kidsgardening.com/resources/resource.asp.)
As fall spells an end to school gardens, encourage your students to become seed detectives by identifying, collecting, and saving their own seeds. The seeds of annual plants are a practical choice for school gardeners to save because they complete their life cycle, from seed to seed, in one year. However, you might also want to experiment with saving and replanting seeds from biennials (plants that complete their life cycles in two years) or perennials (plants that flower multiple years). Avoid saving seeds from hybrids; you can't count on offspring from a hybrid to produce plants like the parent. (Seed catalogs and packets will tell you if seed is hybrid.) Here are some good choices for school gardeners.
Vegetables: beans, peas, lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes (pumpkins and squash are easily cross-pollinated by insects, which may result in unusual offspring!).
Annual flowers: calendula, sweet peas, cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers, four-o'clocks, larkspur, zinnias.
Collect seeds from plants that seem especially healthy and not stressed from drought, disease, or other factors. The ideal time for gathering seeds varies from crop to crop. Melon seeds, for example, are mature when the fruits are ready to eat, but squash and cucumbers should be left on the plant for weeks past when you would normally eat them. In general, let seeds dry on the plant as long as possible. Have students carefully observe to discover when the plant seems naturally ready to drop or disperse its seeds. Harvest seeds on a sunny day, as soon as the dew has evaporated, then remove any pulp or fiber from their surfaces. With crops such as lettuce that release their seeds gradually as they ripen, you may want to shake the plant every few days over a paper bag to collect the ripe seed.
Sue's young growers are still awash in dried Peace Vine tomato seeds. They would love to swap some of these heirlooms for garden seeds that have been gathered and dried by other students. To respond to their offer, send your seeds with a request for a swap to: Sue Field's 3rd/4th Grade Class, Craftsbury Elementary School, Main St., Craftsbury Common, VT 05827.