Local Highlight: Hilltown Seed Saving Network

Did your family ever have a garden growing up? Did you save your seeds? At various times in our history, our own government has encouraged us to grow “Victory Gardens” at home. A nation full of home gardens during a time of war is a great way to ensure that there’s enough produce being generated to ship to our troops overseas. The saving of seeds from one season to the next meant that these home gardens could effectively be self-perpetuating. And in some places, that idea is being pursued to this day. There are many reasons to hold on to the tradition of cultivating our own food: food diversity, the development of complex flavors, maintaining heritage, and building strains that can weather the current changes to our local climate.

Hilltown Seed Saving Network (HSSN) is a local organization made up of folks who love growing their own food, who enjoy observing and reacting to nature, and who want to share these principles throughout the Hilltowns.

The idea is to help provide the benefits of a food network to their neighbors and families, while stewarding local agricultural diversity and sustainability. They offer classes, they host swaps for seeds, scions, and plants, as well as provide information on and access to resources for those interested

Mission: “The Hilltown Seed Saving Network (HSSN) is a community group interested in seed saving and building a stronger community.”

The organization grew out of a local sustainability group. Back in 2012 the idea to start a seed saving group came up, and a number of these folks started meeting regularly, here at The Old Creamery.

Most recently, they have been able to host their last two meetings once more at the Co-op. A founding member of HSSN, Sadie Stull frequently works with Chris Wayne, who joined the organization shortly after its inception, to organize community events that promote these values. Since 2012 they have hosted many workshops, primarily at local community centers including the Cummington Community Center, The Village Church, and a number of local Public Libraries. The availability of such welcoming public spaces is crucial to the mission of the Hilltown Seed Savers Network, who currently utilize them to offer three great events every year:

Scion SwapWinter – in mid March
Plant SwapSpring/Summer – in May, Coming up soon!
Seed SwapFall – the weekend before Thanksgiving

These workshops are intentionally timed to line up with the flow of the seasons and how we engage with our plants. In the spring, when folks are pruning their fruit trees, they can harvest scions (first year growth) to share and store them safely for later. In May folks can bring their starters and plants to trade around. And in the fall, towards the end of November, they make time to gather again and bring seeds from their harvests.

Scions are first year growth on a tree, and must be stored in the fridge (or snow) until ready to be grafted. Some scion wood can stay good for over a year this way, while others are much more time sensitive.

In practical terms, folks take these clippings and graft them onto root stock or the branch of a compatible tree. This allows folks to reproduce their favorite fruit varieties, to harvest mature fruit years in advance, and to control the makeup of their orchard. This process is possible because these scions are made of the exact same genetic material as the original tree. In this way, conceptually, each of these trees have been pulled forward through time. Allowing us to still produce the same flavors and unique genetic qualities available in the 1700’s & 1800’s. So when folks trade scions in March they are making an exchange of the living archive of apples, pears, peaches, cherries, figs, and so many other cultivated fruit and nut trees.

Of course this is only one piece of the whole pie they have to offer, but it’s one of the most popular pieces for the HSSN. This March the Scion Wood Swap workshop fell on a day when an ice storm had just hit the Hilltowns hard. Despite a tree being down across part of main street, and power outages throughout the Hilltowns, including the Community Center itself, the scion workshop went off without a hitch.

It even achieved being one of the best attended events to date, with over 35 participants, some who traveled from out of state to attend. These workshops are put on by knowledgeable folks, many of whom call the region home. Most recently the Scion Wood workshop was led by Matt Kaminsky of Gnarly Pippins.

The next event in the timeline is the Plant Swap. This is the perfect opportunity to make sure your garden is balanced, a chance to smooth out those gaps in your garden’s mix of veggies. Perhaps you had a bumper crop of tomato seedlings, and you really only need 6 of the 16 cherry tomatoes you got to sprout.

This is an ideal place to trade a few for a couple healthy Cherokee Purples, ensuring you also get your favorite sandwich tomatoes this summer. Or, perhaps your growing lights were set up wrong and they accidentally burned all of your hopeful seedlings. There’s no reason to go without the veggies you really want this summer when it’s so easy to share between neighborly folks. It’s like a small safety net for your garden. And you’ll get to try all sorts of interesting varieties, you can learn what’s so great about them from folks who are excited to share, and you can build important connections with like minded folk. You might even be given a unique variety to steward, a veraity someone has been intentionally cultivating for years, and once you’ve got the fruit you can always hope to harvest some seeds and keep the heritage alive.

Which leads into their fall offering, the Seed Swap. The namesake for the group is saving seeds, and it’s one of the most rewarding elements of gardening and breeding plants. It’s a topic both simple and complex. Consider once more your cherry tomatoes.

Assuming they are an open-pollinated variety (one who’s seeds produce the same plants from most pollen types), if you take a single tomato from your harvest and preserve all its seeds, you will have a plethora of possible plants for next spring.

If you grow all those seeds out, by next fall you will have a bushel of tomatoes, each of which contains a new batch of seeds. It’s not hard to be seed rich, and given a bit of soil they can can all grow into food producing plants.

But, from there we can also start to select seeds from those fruits we enjoy most, perhaps this one was sweeter or larger, perhaps some of the plants weathered an early frost. These are all traits we can select our seeds to encourage, and continue to cultivate further, building our own homegrown variety. Within a relatively short period of time you can guide the plants towards your desired outcome and see the results each growing season, for many people this is highly rewarding.

For the seed savers this simple idea can become quite complex, not all plants are open-pollinated. Sadie can tell tails of trying to hand pollinate carrots (which only seed every other year) while trying to keep them from cross pollinating with Queens Anne Lace, to some humorous effects. But she can also share scions from her “Screaming Porcupine Red” apples, which fruit early and are remarkable cooking apples.

All of these ideas and practices are a process of continued education. And sometimes, nature is the best teacher. Ask Chris about the importance of viewing our gardens as parts of the greater ecosystem. He might tell you a story about how birds would sit on the fences near his bee hives, just to eat their fill of his bees as they came and went. Instead of addressing a bird problem, he looked to what might be the root of their behavior, which led him to diversify the ecosystem around his apiary. This in turn lead to the birds eventually becoming his allies against pests which were plaguing other elements of the farm. When we can find balance everything thrives.

Saving seeds is about food, it’s about knowing the folks down the road and sharing harvests, and it’s about the balance of nature at our doorsteps. It’s about sharing life.

In illustration of this theory, there was a family who came to one of their recent events to learn about grafting. They talked about how they were using scions to connect their greater family across state lines. A group of siblings, who now all had children and had spread out far from their hometown, wanted to share the memory of the pears they all grew up with on their Grandfather’s farm. By each family taking a scion from the old pear tree, and grafting it at each of their homes, everyone could eat the same sweet fruit.

So, come plug into the network! Summer starters are ready to be passed around at the Plant Swap coming up on May 19th! Find links and resources below, including some of the folks who do this sort of thing regularly, and a number of Outside Resources for learning more.

Hilltown Seed Saving Network

Mailing List


Check out their Website here:


And follow their Social Media here: Facebook

Seed Saving Resources & Links:

Local Folks

Crabapple Farm – Tevis and Rachel Robertson-Goldberg

Bee Forage Farm – Chris Wayne

Mass Aggie Seed Library

Gnarly Pippins.- Matt Kaminsky

If anyone is interested in getting involved in organizing, or being on a committee, you can email: hilltownseedsavers@gmail.com