George McLaughlin started Green Country Seed Savers three years ago, but his interest in preserving seeds started when he was a child.
“Part of it was my father’s example,” said McLaughlin.
When McLaughlin was in kindergarten, he was “enamored” with his teacher’s pepper plant. During a parent-teacher meeting, his father asked if he could have a pepper from the plant. The next night, McLaughlin and his father extracted the seeds from the pepper together.
This was not his family’s only foray into gardening.
McLaughlin grew up with a 1-acre garden, a fishing pond and bees in his backyard.
“We actually had 23 different kinds of fruit,” said McLaughlin.
As he reached adulthood, McLaughlin retained his love of gardening and developed a love of history and traditional family gardening as a hobby.
“There are probably a thousand times more variety you can grow if you save your own seeds,” said McLaughlin.
Many varieties of crops have become extinct or are hardly ever found outside of the gardens of certain families. McLaughlin joined Seed Savers Exchange to help spread plant varieties, and was part of the group for 25 years.
“They’re probably the largest group I know of,” said McLaughlin.
During those years, he lived in five states with several climates in the U.S., plus two more in Mexico. It was while living in Mexico that he began to recognize one of the problems with Seed Savers Exchange: It was centralized in Iowa, so the rare samples McLaughlin was sending from Mexico were either being stored in a freezer or thrown away because they would not grow in Iowa’s climate.
When McLaughlin moved to Northeastern Oklahoma, he wanted to start a seed-savers group for the local climate and environment.
“In my opinion, nothing compares to Green County because of our extremes,” said McLaughlin.
He began to look for plants that “grow like weeds” in this environment, most of which are not commercially available.
“We will never stop discovering what will do well here,” said McLaughlin.
And so he founded Green Country Seed Savers.
Rather than making a seed bank, the group is focused on developing seed savers who will develop their own repositories with a network of other growers, and who understand how the system works and are willing to share seeds.
“If one person loses whatever the crop is, they should be able to get it back from someone else,” said McLaughlin.
McLaughlin said anyone saving seeds needs to know three things about the process, the first of which is maintaining purity in the crop by avoiding cross-pollination. To do this, McLaughlin suggests isolating the place or time certain crops are grown, or pollinating flowers by hand.
The process is different for every plant.
“For example, for tomatoes, it’s a whole lot easier than corn,” said McLaughlin. “Even okra is not very prone to cross-pollinating.”
The second step seed savers need to know is how to process seeds so they will keep, which is a different process for each crop. McLaughlin has written manuals on how to process seeds; the manuals are available on the Green Country Seed Savers website.
The third thing to know is how to correctly store the seeds.
“Some seeds stored at room temperature will last only a year of two; others will last 20 years, but there are techniques I can use to make even the short-lived seeds last up to 40 years,” said McLaughlin.
By teaching others how to save their own seeds, and by giving them a network of other seed savers, McLaughlin said the community receives a service by planters who already know what plants grow best in the local climate and who are able to get seeds for those plants.
“We’re open to everybody,” said McLaughlin.