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Saving native and heirloom plants for food security and biodiversity: How gardeners can help

Do you save seeds from your plants and encourage others to do so?

Saving seeds - from native and heirloom varieties - improves our agricultural biodiversity and helps farmers and gardeners obtain varieties of crops that grow better in different regions, especially as the impacts of climate change become evident. Scientists and food specialists need access to a diverse range of plant types to study, so it is important not to lose our native plants. Some hybrids and GMO plants do not reproduce well from seed, so a healthy heirloom seed stock is critical to food biodiversity.

Throughout the history of agriculture, seed saving was the method by which farmers and backyard gardeners produced future generations of their crops. Once seed packages became available and affordable, seed saving dropped significantly in popularity. Today, we are beginning to realize the importance of maintaining seed from these original varieties, so they are not lost forever.

According to Danielle Nierenberg, President, Food Tank: The Food Think Tank, “Approximately 100,000 global plant varieties are endangered today. Extreme weather events, over-exploitation of ecosystems, habitat loss, and a lack of public awareness threaten future plant biodiversity. Conservation techniques, such as the creation of seed banks and seed exchanges among farmers, gardeners, and even nations, play an essential role in preserving ancient, heirloom varieties of important food crops.” (Ref. 1)

Ha:l squash grown at the Crazy Chile Farm

In Arizona, we have several organizations working to ensure the security of our southwest native and heirloom food plants. The largest of these is the Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Tucson. The NS/S serves as a repository for seeds, guarded in a safe environment for the proverbial "rainy day." In this case, the rainy day is when a crop can no longer be found growing in a farmer's field. Domesticated crops depend on an intimate relationship with humans - they don't exist in the wild. Over thousands of years, traditional agriculturists have selected and saved seed from plants that expressed a diversity of traits of interest to them or their communities - the ability to mature before the first frost, a sweeter taste, faster cooking time, or resistance to specific insects or diseases. Local, regional and global food security depends on this diversity. A seed bank's primary function is to conserve this genetic diversity for the future. (Ref. 2)

NS/S provides many types of traditional and heirloom seeds for sale and owns a 60-acre farm that keeps their seed stores in regular production. Emphasis is placed on the Native American varieties that have been grown in Arizona for centuries.

The Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) is a community-based grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to developing a sustainable and just food system in Ajo, Arizona. (Ref. 3). This organization has established one of the most extensive community garden systems in the nation, if not the world. Currently, the Ajo CSA is working on a unique project to restore the seed banks of the Tohono O'odham Nation with traditional native plants.

How gardeners can help

By buying and growing heirloom varieties and saving seeds, we can help perpetuate food biodiversity and food security.

NS/S has created a bulk seed exchange program for farm-scale operations. They will provide the crop seed "on loan" with the farmer paying back 1.5 times the number of seeds given. If you grow on a large scale, this may be your option.

Bill Robinson, manager of the Crazy Chile Farm (a non-profit outreach of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Mesa), is developing a program to enable small gardeners to contribute to seed saving. He is requesting community, school and demonstration gardens set aside an area (100-200 square feet) to grow native varieties to produce seed for either the seed bank at NS/S or the Ajo CSA.

Tepary beans grown at the Crazy Chile Farm

Bill's Crazy Chile Farm rotates native plants through their two fields in addition to growing chile peppers. If you are interested in assisting with this project, Bill's contact information is at the end of this article. Note: Bill uses the Spanish spelling “chile” which is more common here in the southwest US and in Mexico.

As backyard gardeners, we can assist by growing seed stock of the native varieties that are in short supply – as NS/S has a limited amount of some seeds – and by participating in the seed production for the Tohono O'odham Nation. Other ways we can help are: become members of NS/S (this option allows you access to some of the rarer seeds not available to everyone); donations of money, goods or services; and volunteering with any organization, community, school or demonstration garden supporting the restoration of native seed banks.

As you speak to others about gardening, please educate them about the importance of native plants and the work being done by NS/S, Ajo CSA, and Bill Robinson to ensure continued generations of farmers and gardeners can enjoy our hearty native crops. Encourage them to grow native varieties in their backyard gardens. Even the small act of purchasing seeds from NS/S can help further the work of that organization.


Yeome blue corn grown at the Crazy Chile Farm

No article on seed saving would be complete without a few words on cross-pollination. Cross-pollination is an important consideration when growing seed stock, so we must take steps to avoid it to ensure our native plants remain genetically pure. For example, to save seeds from a favorite tomato, that variety of tomato must be raised far away from other tomatoes to prevent cross-pollination, which can result in a hybrid in future generations of the plant. Hybrids often have characteristics different from the original, and not always favorable. The best solution is to grow only one type at a time to avoid crossing, but it may still occur when flying insects such as bees pollinate the crops. Bees can cover a vast territory and may be visiting your neighbors' tomatoes! It is easier to control the cross-pollination of a plant such as corn, which is wind-pollinated.

Aside from growing only one variety, another method for preventing cross-pollination is to start new plants from cuttings of the original plant. This method works well for plants such as tomatoes and peppers, which can be protected from frost to allow them to survive our mild winter. Choose the strongest and best-producing plants to over-winter. Subsequently, use cuttings from these to start next years' plants. The new plants will be duplicates or clones of the original.

Laura Ward

Owner/Farmer, Tenth Generation Farm

Arizona Master Gardener

Contact Information:

If you are interested in helping Bill Robinson's efforts to produce seed stock for native plants, he can be contacted at or cell phone 480-600-1648

The author, Laura Ward, may be contacted at


1. Neirenberg, D. (2013, October 6). The Case for Seed Saving. Retrieved November 6, 2018, from

2. Our Work: Seed Bank. (n.d.) Native Seeds/SEARCH. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from

3. The Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture. (n.d.) Retrieved November 7, 2018, from

Photo Credit:

All photos by Bill Robinson

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