Vegetable gardening starts with seeds. But as anyone who's gotten sticker shock browsing at the nursery can attest, seeds can add up to a major expense.
To really save money by growing your own food, save seeds, too.
"It's pretty amazing what you can get," said Bill Maynard, Sacramento's community garden coordinator. "You can save a lot of money."
What you don't use, you can share. Maynard's community garden group meets in spring and fall to swap seeds. There's always plenty to go around.
One lettuce plant can produce hundreds of seeds. By letting one head go to seed instead of harvesting it, you can produce scores of extra salads.
"You can save it for next year or many years to come," Maynard said. "So many seeds last for a long time. Flowers are really easy, too, especially zinnias and marigolds."
Right now, the winter crops are winding down. Warm weather prompts lettuce, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, beets and other cool crops to "bolt" or flower.
"My spinach is going to seed right now," Maynard said. "It's really not hard to save some."
The first step is patience.
"You want (the seed pod) to turn brown," Maynard explained. "You don't want any green. Pick them when they're dry, but before they're open. Even after you pick them, they'll need to dry some more."
Maynard suggests putting the pods in a shoebox or other container than can "breathe." Keep varieties separate, so you'll know which seeds are which.
"Don't put them in a sealed plastic bag right away; they'll rot," he added. "Keep them out of full sun and away from any dampness."
Once they're fully dry, transfer them to envelopes and label with the variety and harvest year.
Seed saving was second nature to gardeners two or three generations ago. Today's gardeners are rediscovering seed saving along with heirloom vegetables, fruit and flowers.
Don't save seeds from hybrid vegetables and flowers plants that were bred by combining different parent varieties for certain attributes because they won't grow true. Seeds for hybrid plants, which are usually patented, should be purchased from a reliable source.
But as their name implies, heirloom varieties have been passed down through generations of gardeners via seeds.
Based in Iowa, the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange connects thousands of gardeners and farmers throughout the county who want to grow these historic varieties and preserve America's plant heritage and diversity. It also sells seeds via its catalog. After all, potential seed savers need to start somewhere.
The interest in seed saving echoes the continued boom in backyard farming and community gardens.
"It's growing all the time," said Maynard, who is working on garden projects this month in Lincoln and Lodi. "We could fill Fremont Community Garden (on Q Street) three times over. With turnover, we still have some room available in our other gardens."
Sacramento County has about 60 community gardens with more on the way, he noted. In addition, many schools are planting student gardens.
Sacramento's public libraries have dug into gardening, too. In April, the Colonial Heights library broke ground for a "Read & Feed" demonstration and teaching garden where local residents can expand their gardening knowledge.
"Rather than a community garden, where local residents share space to grow their own fruits and vegetables, this garden will be used for teaching and demonstration projects not only to better understand planting, nurturing and harvesting of food crops but also to enhance nutrition and literacy," explained Sacramento Public Library director Rivkah Sass.
The 1,200-square-foot garden encourages visitors to the library to learn about nutrition, too, Sass said. Produce will be used for the library's education programs or donated to local food banks or other groups.
And as the garden grows, it will add to the branch's own "Seed Library." Instead of books, patrons check out seed packets and return harvested seeds to be grown by other community gardeners.
Instead of just reading about gardening, library patrons will learn firsthand by harvesting the fruit of their knowledge and sharing the seed. If you visit the Colonial Heights library, you can ask, "Grown any good seeds lately?"
SEEDS AND COMMUNITY GARDENS
Bill Maynard, Sacramento's community garden coordinator, is taking applications for plots in the city's dozen gardens. He also helps groups that want to start their own gardens under Sacramento's community garden ordinance. To apply for a plot or find out more, contact Maynard at (916) 508-6025 or wmaynard@cityofsacramento. org.
For more information on Sacramento's community garden program, click on www.cityofsacramento.org and follow the links to "parks & recreation." Community gardens are listed under "parks" on the Parks & Rec home page.
Check out Colonial Heights Library's "Read & Feed" demonstration garden at 4799 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento. For more information about the Sacramento Public Library's gardening program, call (916) 264-2920 or click on www.saclibrary.org.
As part of the library's program, gardening expert James Bridges will teach how to grow organic vegetables, from planting through harvesting (and saving seed) at a free class at 10:30 a.m. May 19 at the Arcade branch library, 2443 Marconi Ave., Sacramento.
You'll find the basics of saving seeds and making them grow in "The Heirloom Life Gardener" (Hyperion, 2011) by Jere and Emilee Gettle, founders of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) offers a wealth of heirloom seeds collected by gardeners and farmers throughout North America as well as lots of tips on how to save more. This nonprofit organization is a wonderful resource for both novice and experienced gardeners interested in growing heirloom vegetables, fruit and flowers from seed.