Seed saving: cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and beans/peas

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Open-pollinated varieties of fruit and vegetable seeds can be saved for replanting at a later date. Saving and sharing seeds has become popular among organic gardeners. Seed savers care about biodiversity and the preservation of varieties of fruits and vegetables that could, without efforts to preserve them, become extinct.

Following are some thoughts on saving cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and beans/peas:

Suyo Long Cucumber (or any cucurbit — melon, squash, cucumber)

Suyo Long cucumber will remain in garden long enough to mature for seed saving -- approx. 21" long

Suyo Long cucumber will remain in garden long enough to mature for seed saving — approx. 21″ long

This cucurbit must be left on the vine until it matures. Cucumbers are harvested when they are immature when the intention is to eat them. For seed-saving purposes, the fruit must remain on the vine for a much longer period of time. It is allowed to grow very large and typically turns yellow. I still have a huge, yellow pickling cucumber that I allowed to mature last summer sitting on my kitchen counter. It is filled with mature seeds that I can remove, wash, dry and plant, and I did just that in the spring with another pickling cucumber before planting that variety in June. These plants germinated, have grown well, and are producing perfect pickling cucumbers. This year I am saving Suyo Long cucumber seeds as well as the pickling cucumber seeds. They are growing in different areas of my yard, kept apart for purity of the variety. Pollen from a pickling cucumber could potentially be used to pollinate a Suyo Long cucumber which would result in a mutt cucumber. Not what I want.

How to Save Cucumber Seeds

Mature pickling cucumber harvest last fall compared to a 4-inch pickling cucumber harvested for eating and pickle-making.

Mature pickling cucumber harvest last fall compared to a 4-inch pickling cucumber harvested for eating and pickle-making.

If you have a short growing season as we do in New England, you must allow one or two cucumbers to remain on the vine to mature fairly early in season. You cannot wait until September to choose one or two fruits to allow to mature.

When you allow a cucumber to mature, the plant is signaled that its job of reproducing itself is successful, and that vine will stop producing. You will most likely sacrifice potential cucumbers when you allow a fruit to mature on the vine. Since you can buy a packet of heirloom Suyo Long cucumber seeds for about $4 or less, this might not be financially wise. You must make the choice. Seed savers sacrifice part of their harvest in order to save seeds or plant extra for that purpose.

By saving seeds from cucumber plants that have done well, you are engaging in the practice of adapting seeds to your region, climate and soil. This can be beneficial should you need to grow your own food. I know, that sounds so apocalyptic, but if Monsanto wants to control the world’s food supply, I darn well want to have control over some of the food I eat by adapting seeds to my area, and owning those seeds. I can share those seeds with others, especially community gardens where many people cannot afford to buy $35-50 worth of seeds each spring (and I have done so in the past). Yes, $4 for a packet of cucumber seeds doesn’t sound terribly expensive, but most gardeners grow at least 10 different vegetables in their gardens. That adds up quickly.

Leave the fruit on the vine until the vine dies back or right before your first frost. The plant will become unattractive, the cucumber will look like a monster, but you will have a lot of seeds stored up in the ugly fruit that you can use to grow many more cucumbers next year. You can store the seeds in the mature cucumber over the winter and remove them in late winter giving them time to dry before planting, or you can remove the seeds in the fall and store the seeds over the winter. Your choice.

Some people use the ferment method to separate seeds from the cucumber pulp but I found that unnecessary. I simply placed the seeds in a bowl of water and rubbed the gel substance off of the hard seeds. I then dried them on a plate on the kitchen counter.

How to Save Lettuce Seeds

Amish deer tongue Romaine-type lettuce flowers. The yellow flowers are a food source for pollinators. The bulbous ones with dried flower petals are maturing the seeds within. When they send out a white fluffy material, they are ready for seed harvest.

Amish deer tongue Romaine-type lettuce flowers. The yellow flowers are a food source for pollinators. The bulbous ones with dried flower petals are maturing the seeds within. When they send out a white fluffy material, they are ready for seed harvest.

Saving lettuce seeds is very different from saving cucumber seeds. Lettuce bolts when temperatures get hot enough, sending up a central stalk that will eventually produce flowers. Those flowers will produce seeds. Not terribly complicated. The challenging part is knowing when to harvest the flowers. I had to watch a YouTube video the first year that I saved lettuce seeds so that I knew what to look for and how to get the seeds from the plants so that I could save them for use next season.

Again, your plants will sprawl and grow heavy under the weight of the pollinated flowers. You need to leave them on the plants until you see white fluff. At that point, cut off the bunches of flowers and their white fluff, place them in a paper bag if you don’t have time to deal with them right away, or check one flower to see if the seeds are mature. Pull the flower apart, rub the seed pods, and you should see tiny, hard slivers in black, brown or white depending on the lettuce variety. I have saved seeds from several varieties of lettuce growing in the same bed with success; they seem to bloom at different times allowing for purity. I found that fact fascinating, and wondered if that is why those lettuce varieties have survived for so long.

How to Save Tomato Seeds

Simply remove the seeds from a ripe tomato (no green), place in a jar with a little water, cover with a paper towel or cloth and allow to ferment for 1-3 days. Rinse the seeds well, and then place on a plate to dry.

How to Save Beans and Peas

Sugar snap pea pods drying on the vine in the garden.

Sugar snap pea pods drying on the vine in the garden.

Allow the pods to remain on the plants until the pods turn brown and dry out. If you have a very wet fall, you might need to shelter the plants or hang them in a dry shed to finish drying out. I throw away any moldy-looking seeds and keep only those that look healthy. Peas can turn a yellow color when they dry out. These are perfectly healthy and germinate just as well as the seeds that stay green. But any black or mold spots are grounds for tossing.

Sugar snap peas with tiny black mold spots on them. I will not save these due to the spots and the small pea size. Save the best for seeds.

Sugar snap peas with tiny black mold spots on them. I will not save these due to the spots and the small pea size. Save the best for seeds.


Seed saving takes up space in the garden that you might otherwise use for subsequent plantings and can look very messy. Making provision for these issues is important to seed saving. My garden starts to look very messy around this time as plants overflow into walkways, vines turn brown, and it looks like I am not caring for my garden. Surrendering a bit of the aesthetic is a part of allowing the plant cycle to run its course in my garden each summer and fall. I embrace this time knowing that I am doing my part to preserve biodiversity, will have seeds for next year’s garden and to share with others, and that pollinators have plenty of food at a time when many crops are finished and gardens are cleaned out. It is a trade-off well worth any inconveniences and lack of order.

Will you try seed saving?

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