Saving Seeds and Keeping Records: Fall Confessions of a Not-So-Perfect Gardener

My father was among the world’s most enthusiastic record keepers. As a historian, he stacked details of time, place and event neatly in his mind. On index cards he noted the noteworthy including nagging holes in his coin and stamp collections. Even after he died, we discovered more: deep within his desk he’d squirreled a notebook with his child-self’s slanting scrawl tallying the fish he had caught: date, place, species and size.  But most remarkable, perhaps, was his prized berry book in which he recorded every cup/pint/quart of wild berries picked over the course of fifty years.

My Not-So-Accurate Kitchen Book

You’d think I’d have inherited at least a smidgeon of his devotion to accurate record-keeping. No such luck.

Indeed, I admire but seem incapable of the consistency, the precision, the commitment to the big picture drawn with the small details registered by one person in one location over time. My garden and kitchen notebooks are gap-riddled.  I have no idea how many jars of spiced crabapple-pear jelly or tomatillo salsa actually occupy the storage room shelves. To Bill’s puzzlement (and dismay), some jars are label-less.  I identify their contents by holding the jars to the light—of course that pinkish one is lavender jelly, the paler one white currant, can’t you see? The maps I draw of the gardens are downright inaccurate. The ink bleeds from the markers I press into the ground at the base of seedlings. I blame the chipmunks and crows, claim they steal or sabotage my attempts at order, though secretly I wonder if hiding behind my passionate embrace of ecological gardening (gardening with, not in spite of, the elements and wildlife) is a messy mind, a sloppy soul.

A resident seed saver

Yes, my garden is a notorious labyrinth that’s nearly impenetrable; it’s hard to tell what’s what–is that a sweet potato vine beneath that cherry tomato confusion? A tomatillo intentionally planted or a vigorous volunteer? Where is that lemon cucumber I know I put here somewhere?

Truth be told, it’s getting out of hand. Bill keeps asking when we can start yanking things. You can’t find the raised beds within the jumble.  It’s a bit hazardous, really, the paths overtaken by the jumpers (sage, tomatillos, mint, oregano, lettuce) and the beds overwhelmed by the sprawlers (tomatoes, beans, squash, lemon balm).  You could end up face first in the spiky artichokes, bang your shin against an edging, find yourself grabbed at by clutching tendrils. You should see my bruised legs and scratched arms. Soon I’ll need to erect an Enter-at-Your-Own-Risk sign.

I marvel at friends who are, essentially, citizen scientists. I admire Kate and her tidy trays of seedlings properly labeled, her neat rows just so in their jewel boxes of raised beds; I admire seed-saver Sylvia and the perfectly marked, exquisitely ordered plots of her extensive gardens. Everything is in its place, known, noted. When people bite into one of the spectacular tomatoes I grow and ask what it is, I shrug and mumble heirloom as though it’s a name. I do not know its name, or its origin –friend or catalogue or shop? And I cannot identify it among the tomato plants I grow until it produces those two-pound wonders. My father is turning in his grave.

Okay, it’s a bit embarrassing.  But beyond pride or tidiness or even safety gnaws a bigger issue: I am pretty sure that my garden would be more productive if I got my record-keeping act together.

A Titmouse and a Sunflower

And so (once again) I vow to mend my haphazard ways.  Lacking a Gardeners Anonymous chapter, I’ve joined, a visionary group encouraging gardeners to track and save heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. Their simple, friendly instructions have me convinced I can do my bit like my friend Kath who hasn’t purchased seed garlic for over twenty years. Every fall she plants and labels a row of her favorite strain just for seed.  It takes willpower not to poach those lovely fat cloves for tonight’s pasta. It takes foresight to plan ahead and discipline to keep good garden records. But if I do, I’ll help protect heirlooms, save money, grow only those sorts suited to this plot and have the satisfaction of watching the progeny of outstanding varieties return year after year like old friends.

My father would approve. This afternoon, I’m going to speak with the goldfinches and the titmice out in the sunflower patch.  They are not seed savers.  Like me, they are seed scatterers. I’m having a word, too, with the resident chipmunks and red squirrels who do save seed (in our barns and sheds, that is) but also bury it indiscriminately throughout the raised beds.  I’m talking to the breeze, which just loves to help those tomatillos and lettuce, dill and cilantro volunteer.  I’m discussing pollination with the bees—as much as I love and appreciate you, please do not cross-pollinate the squash or the melons.

Things are about to change around here.  My daughter Nora has offered to make me a garden spreadsheet; Elizabeth has helped me to make labels, and Bill has volunteered to clear the gardens of rogue plants.  As for that spectacular tomato-that-has-no-name?  I’m drying the seeds of a fine specimen, labeling the variety “The Record Keeper.”  Maybe a little of that Ganley gene has come down to me after all.

Milkweed seed ready to volunteer in the garden

A Note on Saving Seeds

Among the many useful resources out there for learning how to save seeds (and each sort of vegetable, herb and fruit has its own demands), I find Seed Savers Exchange especially helpful and reliable.  Their mission “is to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.”    They send out catalogues, sell seeds through garden centers and offer memberships that give gardeners access to an astonishing array of heirloom seeds.

Spiced Crabapple and Pear Jelly
Inspired by Pam Corbin’s The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, her recipe for Hedgerow Jelly
Makes around 5 pints

A beautifully red, warmly spiced taste of fall to accompany roasted meats, use as a glaze or spread on toast.


  • 3 1/4 pounds Dolgo crabapples (or another fairly large, tart but not bracing variety)
  • 1 1/4 pounds firm-ripe pears
  • 6 – 8 whole cloves
  • 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 5 cups water

Special equipment:

  • Fine cheesecloth and strainer, jelly bag or a chinois.
  • 10 8-ounce or 5 16-ounce jelly jars with new lids (please refer to your favorite source of canning information for instructions on preparing jars and lids)
  • jelly thermometer


1.  Remove the fwild apples in novemberruit stems and chop the fruit coarsely. (Do not remove the cores or peel the fruit as that is the source of the pectin that will allow the jelling to occur.)  Place the fruit in a large, deep preserving pan.

2.  Add the spices and water (but not the sugar) and bring to a simmer.  Simmer for an hour or two until the fruit is very soft.

3.  Set up the jelly bag or strainer lined with cheesecloth or chinois over a large bowl.  Scoop the soft fruit mixture into the strainer/jellybag/chinois and let it drip, undisturbed overnight.  Do not push down on the fruit—let gravity do its work. If you try to squeeze the juice out, the jelly will become cloudy.

4. The next day, measure out the liquid caught in the bowl, pour it in the cleaned preserving pan and measure into a bowl the same amount of sugar.  Depending on the juice content of your fruit, you’ll get generally between three and five cups of liquid. If you get three cups of juice, measure three cups of sugar.  You get the idea.

5.  Bring the liquid slowly to a boil over medium or medium-high heat, and just as it reaches the boiling point, pour the sugar into the pan, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved. Stop stirring at this point and let the mixture boil rapidly for 9-10 minutes until the fruit reaches the jelling point (219-220º–it will vary a bit depending on the pectin level in the fruit.)

6. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal according to instructions from your favorite canning resource.

Published in The Addison Independent, September 15, 2011


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Categories: Column, Garden, Memory, recipes

4 Comments on “Saving Seeds and Keeping Records: Fall Confessions of a Not-So-Perfect Gardener”

  1. Nilah Cote
    September 15, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    I’m laughing reading your gardening stories! My husband and I have some of the same conversations. Asking what variety tomato is this as we are enjoying the tastes of a couple of different ones. No idea…. even though he is determined to label all the initial seed pots. It’s no easy task to keep up with the garden maps, even though he does try. I always felt we would know the tomato once we see it but now he’s planted too many varieties and we can’t recognize which is which. Our raised beds are over flowing and some plants are totally hidden. In our large garden area John planted buckwheat just as all the vine plants began to spread and we haven’t seen the vines since! We’re hoping something has managed to produce under the shade of all the flowering buckwheat.

    Again, it’s time to assess our efforts for this year and think how we will do this differently next year. We wonder if we will ever master gardening!

  2. September 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm #


    I’m so glad there’s a kindred gardening spirit out there–that you, too, have no idea where exactly is what you have planted! Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    And the hidden plants–yes, I have those, too–I sometimes come across cucumbers of ridiculous size, and tiny eggplants valiantly sending out flower and fruit in obscurity until I really root around under the wilder, more boisterous plants.

    I, too, want to find a bit more order–but not too much, just enough to ensure the plants get what they need but not enough to lose the wildness of it all. I just bought a fancy “garden marker” guaranteed not to bleed in the rain. I can’t wait to try it out next spring and see if I can keep track of those heirloom varieties. There’s always hope that I’ll do better next year.


  3. October 25, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    Barbara – it’s been a while. I hope you are well.

    Perhaps we’re alike in this lack of record keeping in spite of parental behavior to suggest otherwise. My dad, no scientist, diligently recorded many things, including his insulin injections, when and where they were given on his body. He had a tiny bank calendar inside the medicine cabinet of the downstairs bathroom and would make pencil notations on that.

    It used to be that my memory was quite good I and liked to trust it. Now I know it is no longer so reliable – did I take my pills? – but the lack of record keeping is a vestige of an earlier day.

    I conjecture also that this apparent sloth comes from a rejection of routine, which is viewed as a trap and a blockage to explore things. It’s funny, because for other things I try to be diligent about the responsibility, but then the routine seems a necessity.

    Good luck with the heirloom seeds. I will be interested to see if next year you are equally enthusiastic about it.

    • October 27, 2011 at 8:59 am #

      Lanny, great to see you here again.

      I must say that I am surprised that you are a poor record keeper! My expectations of an economist have orderliness stamped all over them–shows what I know… It’s so interesting that your father, too, was such a fine record keeper. Perhaps there was something going on with that generation, something about the war, about the Depression, about the times. I want to think about that some more.

      I agree about rejecting routine being one cause of this lack of orderliness. My husband is a creature of habit, and happily so–I watch him in wonderment as he moves according to clear-cut rhythms. I have no such inclination, happy to move into every day without a plan beyond the most rudimentary of sorts–the work schedule. When I taught, as you know, I chafed at the semester system, the number of classroom hours, the contact hours. I detested grades–wanted something of more substance than a grade. All that record keeping and time tracking as though they were proof of something significant.

      We’ll see how successful I am keeping things straight in the garden next year. Part of me absolutely loves the surprise, the chaos, the sprawl of a haphazardly planted garden.

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