Seedy Savers

By Vernice Shostal

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Mary Alice Johnson, an organic grower and seed saver, was shelling scarlet runner beans on a sunny September afternoon during her first year of farming when she decided to work with seeds for the rest of her life; they were so beautiful. She took her seeds to the first Victoria Seedy Saturday and has not missed a Seedy Saturday since.

Mary Alice began commercial organic farming in Sooke in 1990. She started to save old varieties of seeds developed over the centuries “because they are strong and acclimatized to my environment and have not been raised with chemicals, so they will do well without them. It is important for our food security to have seeds grown locally,” she says. “We plant our farm with seed saving in mind, aware of the isolation distances needed for different varieties of crops, the time it’s going to take for them to mature and the qualities we are going to select as we observe the crop.”

A former teacher who grew up on a farm in Colorado, Mary Alice met her husband in Malaysia and spent much of her teaching career in Asia where she taught, raised her two children and set up a school on the east coast of Malaysia.

Since returning to Canada in 1984, Mary Alice has gone back several times to visit farmers in Asia. At home on the Island, she helped set up adult literacy programs for the Sooke school district and the province, and still teaches organic gardening and farming classes at Camosun College. A farmer at heart, she loves “getting dirty, touching the earth,” and is “fascinated by the structure, growing patterns and cycles of plants.”

Originally from Texas, Rebecca Jehn, a farmer and music teacher, began saving seeds to replant the next season and found that she ended up with more seeds than one farmer needs. After giving extra seeds to family and friends, she realized that selling seeds might be a lucrative way to augment her income when there was no produce to sell. Soon, she began collecting hard-to-find hardy varieties of specific seeds to package and sell. “Many of the heritage and heirloom varieties were being lost and it was up to the small scale farmer to save these varieties from extinction.”

According to Rebecca, saving seeds is a tactile job. “Where one is in touch with the cycle of nature and the seasons from planting seeds, cultivating the growing seedlings, choosing the best specimens for seed production, putting up supports for the growing mass of flowers that will produce the seed, harvesting them at the peak of their growth before the birds get them or the heads become blown and scatter their seeds to the four winds, then drying them further to ensure long shelf life and removing and separating the seeds from the chaff and finally packaging them for sale,” says Rebecca. In addition to farming, she holds workshops on seed saving, plant propagation, harvesting and marketing produce, and canning and preserving the harvest.

“The best way to grow food is organically without the use of fungicides, herbicides or pesticides that pollute the food and the environment,” says Rebecca.

It is also important for seeds to become adapted to their environment. Seeds that have been “re-grown and re-grown in the same location produce better in that location.”

Rebecca began growing food as a child, helping her father in their backyard garden. In the early '70s, she joined her brother in the Kootenays, where she worked at a mine. There, she also grew a big garden, which fed her family for an entire year. Later, she studied music while working as a chef in food services at the University of Victoria.

Rebecca began her farming career in the early 1990s. Since 1991, she’s taken her certified organic seeds and produce to Victoria Seedy Saturday, where gardeners and farming groups interested in biodiversity, heritage and organic gardening buy and/or swap seeds, learn tips and meet friends.

For more information on Seedy Saturdays on Vancouver, Denman and Salt Spring Islands, visit





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