“Our funding partners asked how we would be able to sustain ourselves in the future. We told them we could be sustainable by saving seeds and planting gardens, so we transformed the lot we have at Debaj into a garden,” said Debajehmujig sustainable food facilitator Richard Ashley Manitowabi at a recent workshop in Aundeck Omni Kaning. He ran the events alongside Sam Brennan, also from Debaj, and Kristin Bickell from Noojmowin Teg and the Child Poverty Task Force.
Mr. Manitowabi explained that performers on the road for theatre shows often eat a lot of fast food, and didn’t feel good based on their diet options and always being in a hurry. They decided to plant a garden at the Creation Centre in Manitowaning and store preserves to help provide nutritious food while travelling. Eight years ago, Debaj started its very own seed bank as a way of storing and preserving seeds for future garden use.
“Our parents were always farmers and gardeners, but lately they’ve always bought their seeds,” said Mr. Manitowabi. “Once, I met some artists on the Island and they said they saved seeds. I asked them about it, and I thought it was awesome to save seeds because I wouldn’t have to spend any money.”
Seed saving cannot be done with just any variety. The seeds for sale in grocery stores, Mr. Manitowabi said, are generally genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or hybrid varieties between traditional heirloom types and GMO strains. As a result, the seeds from the fruits, vegetables or flowers may still grow future generations of plants, but they will not bear fruit.
Then, there are heirloom seeds.
“Heirloom seeds are pretty much all we have here. They are like antiques, something that has been passed down for many years,” said Mr. Manitowabi. These are the traditional, naturally-occurring seed types that have not been engineered for any particular purposes.
Humans have been altering organisms through selective breeding for thousands of years, but have been employing modern technologies such as using x-rays to modify genomes for close to 100 years.
There is a social aspect to saving seeds, too. At the first year of Debaj’s annual Six-Foot Festival an Italian man named Gino gave Mr. Manitowabi four seed pods. He instructed Mr. Manitowabi to hang them by a window to keep them dry over the winter. That spring, he planted them and they grew into productive beanstalks.
Gino returned the following year and told Mr. Manitowabi the story behind the seeds. His father had brought beans and tomatoes with him to Canada after the Second World War, searching for a better life. For the first three years Mr. Manitowabi saved the seeds, and now he has enough to use the seeds and save them for the next year, too.
He also showed the room a mason jar of tobacco seeds which he said came from Mariette in Mindemoya at Debaj’s first annual seed swap. These were called 1,000-year seeds – she had received them from a ‘bean lady’ in Six Nations but their origins traced back to a buried clay pot from centuries ago. Debaj has been growing this 1,000-year-old tobacco every year since then.
Mr. Manitowabi explained different saving techniques for wet seeds, like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash; dry seeds that come from flowers or bulbs like tobacco; corn and lettuce.
“I think it’s really important that you keep a gardening journal or notes on your seeds, and start with one at the beginning,” said Mr. Manitowabi. “Lots of them have stories and a lot of hard work in them.”
He added that he used to be so excited and would harvest the first fruit he saw growing in his garden, but he does not do that any more.
“I always wait for the second. I give the first one back to Mother Earth, and I teach people that way too. It’s having a conscious awareness of where it came from,” Mr. Manitowabi said.
Gail Robinson said she attended the first Debaj seed swap and picked up some of the Romano beans for her space that could support four plants.
“Never in my life have I eaten a more wonderful bean. They were really, really good. I’m a meat eater, but I could eat a meal of just that and feel like I’ve had a steak. It was so wonderful,” she said.
Unfortunately, Ms. Robinson didn’t save any seeds and returned the next year to get some more.
“Now, I always put a clothespin or something on a nice big seed pod to remind me not to pick it, as good as it looks, and leave it to ripen on the vine,” she said. “Now, I supply my friends with them and they tell me it’s the best. I hadn’t heard the story about Gino and now I will relay that story to those people that I have given the seeds to.”
Another participant, Christine Esquimaux, had a humorous experience when she accidentally created her own chia pet when preparing a health drink with chia seeds.
“I accidentally dropped my cup on the floor and it went splattering all over the place. I grabbed a towel and I wiped up all the chia seeds that were on the floor. I didn’t think anything of it and I hung it out downstairs so it would dry and not be mouldy and stuff. When I went to throw the towel in the washer, there were chia little sprouts everywhere, all over the towel!” she said with a laugh.
Mr. Manitowabi acknowledged the importance of the social aspect of seed saving and sharing.
“They say it takes a community to grow corn, because the more people that plant it, it makes the corn grow stronger. It’s important for people to grow seeds and bring them back to the exchange,” he said.
Ms. Bickell said the MCFFI started with roundtable conversations with the Child Poverty Task Force and community leaders that were trying to get community gardens established.
“Everyone was experiencing similar challenges. Our program is designed to tackle the logistics like fencing, storage, tools and garden beds,” she said. The program also offers seed money to help cover startup costs like hand tools or deer netting if they had chosen not to opt for fencing.
“These workshops are the food literacy piece, it’s more about sustainability. Ashley (Manitowabi) travels to communities and shares knowledge about seeds, so the hope is that participants are not buying seeds every year,” said Ms. Bickell.
“Saving seeds in a community garden is important because the budget is low. Seed saving can be a great way to make a community garden sustainable,” she said.
After the presentation, participants were invited to take a few seeds of various varieties that came from Debaj. There was laughter, story sharing and discussions about growing that everyone took part in around the table.
“I really have Debaj to thank for storing that seed collection,” said Ms. Robinson, who now shares her own seeds with her friends who keep gardens. “You have started something, and it’s growing, so that’s great.”