zach paige teaching

By teaching seed saving workshops, Paige hopes to preserve more heritage vegetables.

VERGAS, Minn. — It may be an odd business model, but North Circle Seeds wants you to grow your own vegetable seeds.

They’d like you to buy their seeds, of course, but then they’d like you to save some seeds at harvest time so you can plant them next year.

North Circle Seeds is so committed to clients learning how to grow their own seeds that Zachary Paige, a company founder, conducts workshops to teach you and your friends the ins-and-outs of seed saving and preservation.

All of the seeds North Circle has on sale can be saved. “We only sell seeds from open pollinated varieties,” Paige said.

When planted, open pollinated seeds — unlike hybrids and genetically modified seeds — will grow into plants nearly identical to their parents. In addition to being open pollinated, North Circle Seeds are certified organic.

Their selection of open pollinated varieties pretty much encompass the entire range of what would be found in the home garden. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes, three varieties of squash and pumpkin, six varieties of hot and sweet peppers, a Cherry Belle Radish, and two varieties of Asian greens, among other familiar garden crops. For the adventurous, there’s Pinky Popcorn and the multi-colored Magnificent Popcorn or you can try the pretty green-and-white striped African Zebra Eggplant.

Paige describes Zebra Eggplant as having a delicious, unexpectedly semi-sweet flavor. 

“The fruit are versatile and can be eaten raw, boiled, sautéed, or in soups,” he said. “Many traditional African recipes can be found online; but they also are excellent simply grilled or sautéed with other veggies. The rich flavor lends itself well to spicy dishes. Young leaves can be cooked down into stews.”

“The seeds for this variety originate from Simeon Bakunda, an immigrant from Congo in Africa,” he continued.  “They’ve been selected for the past seven years in Fargo, where he grows them with the Growing Together (community garden) project.”

Like the Zebra eggplant, most of the seeds in the North Circle Seed catalog, now in its second season, have stories and cultural significance associated with them.

The Russian tomato heirloom variety known as Gypsy, for example, was developed in the USSR during the Soviet era and introduced into the United States over 20 years ago. It was named for the Gypsies who live in parts of Russia. It is an indeterminate variety which produces heavy yields of small, six-ounce, mahogany to deep brown/purple round tomatoes with green shoulders (according to North Circle’s catalog). It has outstanding flavor with a good balance between sweet and acidic with an almost smoky flavor.

Saving seeds from open pollinated tomato varieties is a two-step process, according to Paige.

“If you have just a few tomatoes you can squeeze your tomato into a mason jar and add a little water over time,” he said. “A film of healthy bacteria will form on top and that’s when you know you’re done. It should take three days to a week — depending on how hot your house is.”

Once you’ve got your film of bacteria you’ll want to do what Paige calls water winnowing.

“All the good seeds will fall to the bottom and everything else will rise to the top, so you slowly pour off the dirty water,” he said. “You do this a number of times and eventually you’ll have clear water with your seeds at the bottom and then you pour them out into a sieve. After that, I put them into a dehydrator dryer rack with some parchment paper so the seeds don't fall through. I don’t turn the heat on because that could damage the seeds, just let room temperature air flow over them.”

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can put the seeds on parchment paper on top of the refrigerator where it’s warm and likely safe from curious pets. North Circle Seeds has an excellent video on how to clean tomato seeds at their website, northcirleseeds.com. It’s under the “About” menu item.

Saving bean or pea seeds is a little simpler than saving tomato seeds, Paige says. Like tomatoes, both are self-pollinated and don’t tend to cross with neighboring varieties. Additionally, they are large, easy-to-plant seeds which are harvested once they are completely dry on the plant. After that, the seed saver merely has to separate the seeds from the dry pods.

Corn varieties are more challenging to save because they are wind pollinated and do tend to cross with their neighbors. Nevertheless, North Circle grows out a number of corn varieties in isolation and includes them in their catalog. Rustler, a white dent corn advertised in a Minnesota seed catalog in 1888, is one of them.

“Rustler traces back a few hundred years and more to Native American tribes in the North Dakota territory,” Paige said. “It is considered foundation stock of early white dent corns and known for its short season and hardiness in cold climates. 

Paige is trying to preserve the genetics of Rustler because of their historical significance; but he’s working to improve the genetics of some other corn varieties.  

“We’re growing a few orange-colored crops that are high in beta carotene like the orange corn blend and Ukrainian Squash,” he said. “We breed for nutrient dense genetics in a number of our varieties and are looking to add a purple corn to our catalog next year that has anthocyanin antioxident levels that are through the roof.

 “We breed using classical organic methods to increase vigor to these open-pollinated varieties by crossing open-pollinated varieties together in varietal populations seen in our blue and orange corn blends,” he continued.

North Circle’s Orange Corn Blend, which is grown for them by Riverbend Farm near Delano, Minn., includes varieties originating from Argentina, Italy and Mexico.

You can learn more about North Circle’s certified organic and open pollinated seeds, their workshops, and other educational services by visiting their website or calling (631) 807-5163. They are also on Facebook.   

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