Some families hand down furniture, others inherit jewelry, but Jim Ternier’s family legacy was a handful of melon seeds.
And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Ternier is the owner of Prairie Garden Seeds based in Humboldt, Saskatchewan and has made a living growing and selling seeds for the last 30 years.
“Saving seeds is storytelling,” he told participants at the Growing Local conference in Winnipeg.
The story behind Ternier’s melon seeds begins around 1930 when his father’s hired man helped himself to a couple of their neighbour’s musk melons grown from seeds brought from Russia. The melon’s seeds then entered into the Ternier family garden.
Some 50 years later, the son of the original grower mentioned he no longer had any of the melon seeds, and Ternier was able to return the favour.
“The great thing about seeds is the more you give them away, the more you have,” he said. “It’s protection against crop failure, against mice or insects.”
Ternier still sells melon varieties, but his most popular seed is for Simonet sweet corn.
“It was bred by a man in Edmonton and it’s really, really well adapted to growing on the Prairies,” he said
Homesteader peas, first brought to Canada by British settlers, have also stood the test of time.
“When I came back to the family farm in 1977, there was a lot of homesteader pea seed around that my mother had been saving, it’s a good seed to start with and we still sell it,” the seed saver said.
But diversity is on the decline as fewer seeds are saved locally.
During the 1800s, most people saved seeds from one year to the next, resulting in many local and regional varieties well suited to microclimates, Ternier said.
“Now, with the advent of fairly large seed companies … it means most people lost interest in seed saving,” he said. “So all of the regional varieties tend to disappear, as large multinational seed companies only offer seeds that are fairly well adapted over a wide range of growing conditions.”
If that trend is going to be reversed, people need to start saving their own seeds once again, he said.
However, seed saving does take some work, planning and knowledge. Ternier said beans are a good staring point, because they are self-pollinating and simple to dry.
Beet seeds are some of the most difficult to save, needing to be planted a mile away from other crops to avoid cross-pollination. Cross-pollination can also be an issue with pumpkins, squash and zucchini.
Tomatoes have a very low risk of cross-pollination, but seeds are covered in a waterproof membrane best removed by a fermentation process that takes three days to complete, Ternier said.
“Sulphuric acid is used in commercial seeds, but it has to be timed right down to the second and I really don’t recommend trying that method at home,” he added.
People commonly ask Ternier about the possibility of planting seeds from items purchased at the grocery store, which he says is possible if you’re prepared for some unexpected results.
“If you’re planting seeds from a hybrid, different traits will come out,” he said.
Over the years, many people have sent the seed grower new and old varieties to try out, so many that he is still playing catch-up on his two acres of seed land.
“Seed growing or gardening in general is really labour intensive,” Ternier said. “The limitations on how much you grow all depends on how many pairs of hands you have.”