Chance meeting leads to a lifetime of collecting seeds

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I had never seen anything like the shiny black seeds that covered Bob Janca's kitchen table back in 1985. They were 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' pole bean seeds, and they were my introduction to heirlooms and seed saving.

The two of us hit it off while we talked about his collection of heritage seeds, and he gave me a small packet as I left his house in Spencer, Ohio. Every season since I've grown 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' from seeds I saved the year before. The bean is prolific and beautiful. It has a wonderfully unique nutty flavor.

It started a seed-saving obsession that threatened to grow out of control. In the corner of my basement, old metal shelves were filled with an odd selection of glass jars jammed with seeds. There are big and small Mason jars, old baby food containers and even some pickle jars.

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In an effort to clean house and figure out what was still good for planting, I carried every one of those jars upstairs one day recently. The entire dining room table was crowded with 30 or so jars filled with thousands of old seeds. Even though I had this stockpile of seeds in the basement, I was still ordering new and different varieties each season from a multitude of seed catalogs. It was time to get them organized and then plant as many as possible. What doesn't get planted will be given away.

There's no way to tell if seed is still viable by looking at it. One thing is for sure: Fresh seed is always the best. But there's still life left in many of these varieties.

To test their germination rates, I took about 10 seeds, put them on a wet paper towel and sealed them in a plastic bag. The bag goes on top of the refrigerator (where it's warm), and then in a week or so it's time to see what percentage sprouted. If it's lower than 50 percent, they go into the compost. If it's higher, they can be planted.

The stash of seeds also told a story, the history of what I found interesting to grow and save. I found thousands of tithonia 'Torch' seeds, also known as Mexican sunflower. 'Torch' can reach 10 feet or taller and is filled with deep orange 3-inch blooms that are irresistible to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

'Cherry Blossom' salvia was one of my favorite annuals for years, providing pretty pink blossoms all summer long. I guess I just forgot about it, lately falling in love with varieties like 'Wendy's Wish.'

One packet was filled with 'Hungarian Ox Heart' tomato seeds, sent from a reader a decade ago. I remember how much I loved the tomato, which was meaty, thin-skinned and delicious. There were hundreds of other packets; seeing some was like being reunited with an old friend. Others brought back no memories at all. I even found some of the original pole bean seeds I received from Mr. Janca. I never plant every seed in a packet in case of crop failure.

When I first started saving seeds, they were organized by type. One jar held tomato seeds, another peppers. I've decided to change the way I store seeds. Now they are sorted by the date they were planted. One bag is filled with inside sowed flowers, another with spring outdoor seeds and so on. I think it will allow me to get more seeds planted and avoid overlooking varieties.

The most important aspect of saving seeds is to avoid moisture. Silica gel is a powder I use to keep the seeds dry in storage. Some seed savers bring their seeds upstairs for a few days during the winter when the air is dry in the house. Then they will seal them back up and store them somewhere cool and dark.

With all my seeds in order, now in plastic bags, they'll be kept in a covered plastic bin until it's time to get them started. I'm thrilled to see many of my old favorites, and I'm looking forward to trying the forgotten varieties, too.

Over the years, I have searched for Mr. Janca on the Internet. I recently stumbled onto his obituary -- he died four years ago. I never got a chance to tell him what meeting him meant to me.

As I was getting my seeds organized, I found one small jar filled with 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' pole bean seeds. My oldest son, who was 5 then, helped me save them. I can still remember how he carefully printed his name on the label. He's now 30. Maybe he'll help me plant them this spring in honor of Janca.

Every season brings with it hope. But this one will also be filled with the memories of a lifetime saving seeds and the man who introduced me to a love of heirlooms.

Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at Twitter: @dougoster1.

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