Seed Saving 101

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Dwarf bok choy flowers with emerging seed pods

Dwarf bok choy flowers with emerging seed pods


Seed saving, brown bagging, whatever you want to call it was a necessity before the 20th century. The development of hybrid and genetically modified seeds is a modern occurrence. Legend tells of Native Americans teaching Englishmen how to plant squash and maize, crops that were well adapted to the New England climate when seeds brought over by Separatists, Puritans and other explorers did not thrive. Immigrants brought the seeds of their homelands, resulting in the largest variety of fruits and vegetables on one continent. I celebrate the Russian garlic and Italian squash that I grew in my garden this year. Some advances in crop development are welcome, but most are designed to make industrial farming easier and to make biotech companies big profits. Crop diversity is being lost except by those who are committed to growing heirloom varieties and saving seed.

Before we go any further, you might want to familiarize yourself with seed saving lingo.

Cilantro seeds also known as Coriander

Cilantro seeds also known as Coriander


Seeds are collected from mature fruit and seed pods. To save a seed that will grow what you planted, the variety must be an Open Pollinated or OP variety. Heirlooms are popular for this very reason.

To save seeds or buy each year? There are pros and cons to saving your own seeds to replant the next season.

Pros

  • Reduces gardening costs
  • Encourages sustainable agricultural practices
  • Preserves varieties that are threatened by extinction
  • Preserves the genetic integrity of a variety if gardener is isolated enough not to be exposed to genetically modified crops
  • Seeds saved from plants you grow in your region are adapted to your environment and climate
  • Gives gardener control over which characteristics she wants to encourage and which she does not (save seeds from plants that did well during a drought or resisted disease, and not from plants that failed to produce well, etc.)
  • Gardener can share seeds with others, spreading the joy and encouraging others to “Grown Their Own Food.”

Cons

  • Garden space is not available for consecutive plantings
  • Garden will look untidy
  • Plants could need more structure resulting in higher materials costs
  • Failure to germinate could occur if seed saving was done improperly
  • Inbreeding can occur in small home gardens
  • Saving seeds from patented plants is illegal

Dwarf bok choy and cilantro spilling over and looking very messy

Dwarf bok choy and cilantro spilling over and looking very messy

Easy

  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Basil

Intermediate or Difficult

  • Cucumbers
  • Squash
  • Melons
  • Spinach
  • Cabbage family
  • Herbs

Helpful Hints and My Limited Experience

For every kind of seed that I wanted to save I did an internet search and read as much as I could; I found a bit of misinformation, so multiple sources are recommended. I searched for YouTube videos with explanations and illustrations of what I am looking for, and then checked my plants every day looking for the different stages from flowering to forming seed pods, or waiting for ripe fruit. Once I went through the process myself it was easy.

Cucumbers: I am determined to save more cucumber seeds this year. Last year I waited too late in the season to allow a couple of cucumbers to fully ripen, temperatures dropped, and I only managed to save six seeds. In order to save cucumber seeds, cucumbers must be allowed to remain on the vine until they turn yellow and are completely ripe. The fruit will not be edible. Allow cucumbers to continue ripening a few weeks after picking before collecting seeds. Seeds should be fermented for a few days in order to remove the jelly-like substance that protects the seeds.

Chinese cabbage and bok choy: All of these varieties cross-pollinate, so unless you are growing only one kind of cabbage, it is probably best not to try to save seed from the cabbage family (and why genetically modified rapeseed should not be allowed to grow anywhere in the United States). I did it anyway and can’t wait to see what grows next spring. Back to cabbage seeds: It takes a long time after flowering for seeds to mature. Long seed pods emerge from pollinated flowers. I cut off stems when many seed pods are turning brown and seeds are rattling around inside. I have removed a few from the plants already. Today I noticed some of the pods beginning to split indicating that it is time to pull the plant out and allow the rest of the pods to dry completely. Green pods will most likely not mature enough.

Peas and beans: Allow pods to remain on the vines until the pods are completely dried. Usually it is best to allow the plant to die back before removing the pods but if you are having a very wet summer, it might be best to bring them indoors by pulling the entire plant and allowing them to finish drying (a barn or shed is perfect for this stage). Last year I had some of my pods and the peas inside get moldy from weeks of wet weather and cool summer temperatures (this is New England — cool summers are more common than not). I grew all of my snow peas from seed saved last summer.

Spinach: I was able to save quite a few spinach seeds in spite of my pets targeting the spinach patches. I haven’t test germinated them yet. The seeds form along the main stem in small clusters. What threw me is that male flowers and female flowers are on different plants. A YouTube video really helped me with understanding saving spinach seeds.

Lettuce: Let the plants flower and then just leave them until you begin to see white, fluffy stuff. Or cut off flower heads after they turn brown and bag them up. I tried to harvest seeds before I saw the white, fluffy stuff and the seeds were immature. I then pulled the entire plant, brought it indoors, and allowed them to finish drying completely. After they are dried, you can bag them in paper bags for separation later. I picked a rainy day, put on a DVD and sat with a couple of plates pulling apart seed pods, pulling off the white, fluffy stuff (there must be a scientific name for this stuff), and found some seeds from the same plants were white and some were black. Apparently black seed is a dominant gene and white seed is recessive. See, it is fascinating learning plant genetics. I scattered both kinds this spring and got a variety of lettuce because I ended up with a mixture of seeds near the end of the process. I have separated varieties from the beginning of the summer lettuce collection period — one variety went to seed first and I was able to collect and correctly label it, then a second variety. After that point, the lettuce seed heads got all mixed up. Since I plant my lettuce as a mix anyway I didn’t care much. What is interesting is that even the mixed seeds seemed to grow true varieties. My Amish Deer Tongue looks exactly, and tastes exactly, like Amish Deer Tongue. The Forellenschluss had the same result. And this was from the mix of seeds that bloomed and were pollinated at the same time. I expected more cross-pollination and mutt-like lettuce.

Tomatoes: I saved seeds from a variety of tomatoes last year. If a tomato is red, then you can save seeds from that tomato. All of my tomato plants were grown from seed that I saved. It is extremely satisfying to successfully accomplish this goal. I will be adding a couple of new tomato varieties next spring (which I will order from one of the independent seed companies, or drive to Comstock, Ferre & Co. here in CT). Like cucumber seeds, tomato seeds need a short fermentation process to remove the jelly-like substance that protects the seeds. Apparently, from what I have read, tomatoes do not cross-pollinate easily.

Sources that I found useful:

Seed Savers Exchange – a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving seed heritage. Members received a discount on seeds for sale, and are entered in a registry of seed savers for true seed exchange.

Baker Creek Seeds – Customer reviews are extremely helpful to choosing varieties for your home garden. I highly recommend ordering their beautiful catalog when it is available. It is like a coffee table book of plant photos.

Seed Saving, an educational booklet for school-aged children by Fedco. (PDF)

Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook – excellent information on seed saving, selective breeding, etc.

Aichi Chinese cabbage mature seed pods

Aichi Chinese cabbage mature seed pods


I am a beginner seed saver, and I look forward to learning more every year about preserving heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. Hopefully, next year I will be replanting strawberry popcorn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and many other vegetables with seed that I saved myself. I would love to hear about your experiences in seed saving. Happy gardening!!

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