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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Saving Seeds 101

Last month we offered a short workshop on saving heirloom seeds at the Downtown Teaching Farm, and we wanted to share that information with everyone for later reference, or if they weren't able to make the class.  Also, with this long Fall we are enjoying, there is still time to run out and pick a few of your favorite veggies and save the seed for next year.  Scroll down for a photo-guide of how to save (everyone's favorite!) heirloom tomato seeds.

Saving Seed from the Garden

Sources:  University Of Illinois Extension, University of Idaho Exension, Edward's Greenhouses
Downtown Teaching Farm, Boise ID
Seed Saving Class: September 26, 2011

Why Save Your Own Seeds?
Every year a few gardeners ask about saving seed from their flowers and vegetables. We would not have the wonderful heirloom varieties if someone hadn’t kept the seeds year to year. Seed saving can be a rewarding and cost saving way to garden, but beware of the pitfalls.

Pitfalls to Seed Saving: Hybrid Parents and Cross Pollination:
Not every plant’s seeds are worth keeping. Hybrid plants are developed by crossing specific parent plants. Hybrids are wonderful plants but the seed is often sterile or does not reproduce true to the parent plant. Therefore, never save the seed from hybrids. Another major problem is some plants’ flowers are open pollinated by insects, wind or people. These plants include squash, cucumbers, melon, parsley, cabbage, chard, broccoli, mustard greens, celery, spinach, cauliflower, kale, radish, beets, onion, and basil. These plants cross with others within their family. The only way to maintain the original variety is to isolate by large distances. Isolation is often impossible or impractical in a home garden.

What plants can you save seed from? Standard or heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants are good candidates. Many gardeners successfully keep beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers. Plants you know are heirloom varieties are easy to save. Ask the person or organization you obtained the seed from how they did it.

Personal Success:  In our area local gardeners often save seed from heirloom (non-hybridized) tomatoes (the riper the better), peppers (nice and fully ripe), pole beans such as the ones we grow at the Downtown Teaching Farm, lettuce, mustard, basil, orach, borage, amaranth, and many lovely annual and perennial flowers.  It is always best to have a named variety before the seed is saved, but if it is a lovely outstanding specimen of a plant – by all means – save it – researching the variety during the winter is a fun project.

Helpful Tips:
       Harvest from the Best:  Choose disease-free plants with qualities you desire. Look for the most flavorful vegetables or beautiful flowers. Consider size, harvest time and other characteristics.

       Always Harvest Mature Seed: For example, cucumber seeds at the eating stage are not ripe and will not germinate if saved. You must allow the fruit and seed to fully mature. Because seed set reduces the vigor of the plant and discourages further fruit production, wait until near the end of the season to save fruit for seed.
o       Seeds are mature or ripe when flowers are faded and dry or have puffy tops. Plants with pods, like beans, are ready when the pods are brown and dry. When seeds are ripe they usually turn from white to cream colored or light brown to dark brown. Collect the seed or fruits when most of the seed is ripe. Do not wait for everything to mature because you may lose most of the seed to birds or animals.

Dry Methods:
Beans, peas, onions, carrots, corn, most flowers and herb seeds are prepared by a dry method. Allow the seed to mature and dry as long as possible on the plant. Complete the drying process by spreading on a screen in a single layer in a well-ventilated dry location. As the seed dries the chaff or pods can be removed or blown gently away. An alternative method for extremely small or lightweight seed is putting the dry seed heads into paper bags that will catch the seed as it falls out.

Wet Method:
Seed contained in fleshy fruits should be cleaned using the wet method. Tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumber and roses are prepared this way. Scoop the seed masses out of the fruit or lightly crush fruits. Put the seed mass and a small amount of warm water in a bucket or jar. Let the mix ferment for two to four days. Stir daily. The fermentation process kills viruses and separates the good seed from the bad seed and fruit pulp. After two to four days, the good viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the container while the pulp and bad seed float. Pour off the pulp, water, bad seed and mold. Spread the good seed on a screen or paper towel to dry.

Wet Method for Heirloom Tomatoes:  
Step 1: Find really ripe fruit (that you would normally demote to the compost pile for being over-ripe), and slice it open - this is one of my favorites, Aunt Ruby's German Green.

Step 2: Squeeze the seed mass into a jar.

Step 3:  Fill the jar with warm water and stir.

Step 4:  Let sit on the counter for about a week, stirring each day.  A fungus will grow on the surface (killing bad bacteria as it grows).  (These next photos are from a favorite - Eva Purple Ball, that I had prepared earlier).

Step 4:  Wow! - The viable seeds will sink to the bottom.

Step 5:  Decant the water with fungus and tomato mess into the sink, the nice clean seeds will be on the bottom.  Repeat a few times to rise.

Step 6:  Strain over cheesecloth and allow to air dry.

Step 7:  Don't forget to label your varieties!

Seed Storage:
Seeds must be stored dry. Place in glass jar or envelopes. Make sure you label all the containers or packages with the seed type or variety, and date. Put in the freezer for two days to kill pests. Then store in a cool dry location like a refrigerator. Seed that molds was not sufficiently dry before storage.
Seed viability decreases over time. Parsley, onion, and sweet corn must be used the next year. Most seed should be used within three years.
Seed saving is essential for maintaining unusual or heritage vegetables and flowers. It is a great way to propagate many native plants too. There are numerous seed saver exchanges, clubs, and listings in magazines like Organic Gardening. Although you shouldn’t base your entire garden on saved seed you may want to give seed saving a try.

Heirloom Catalogues of Note: (all with free beautiful catalogues and fantastic websites)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed
Seed Saver’s Exchange
Territorial Seed Company
Seeds of Change

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