Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Seed Saving Saves

Finally, I’m posting about seed-saving. I’ve meant to write about this for some time, especially since many of the seeds that you can save are probably long gone. Still, there’s lots left to save. Normally, I’m a big seed saver. It just seems so self-sufficient and Laura Ingalls-like. But this year with “the great tomato blight”, I’m feeling a little hesitant to save anything that might be contaminated. I’m leaning towards only saving flower seeds and avoiding anything that grew in the same garden as the tomatoes, but you probably aren’t facing this dilemma, so let me get right to the details of seed saving.

Seed saving is very simple, really. The most important thing to remember is to be sure your seeds are completely dry before you store them. If they aren’t they’ll mold and die quietly while you are certain they are tucked away safe in their beds ready to brighten your garden next spring. If you are a real seed saver you can save seeds from virtually any plant. I’m more of a basic seed saver and I save only the ones that are special to me or are incredibly easy to save.

Another critical piece of information: You can’t save seeds from hybrids or genetically engineered plants. Well you can, but if they’re hybrids they’ll be one or the other of their grandparents, but they won’t be what they came from. I’m sure that makes no sense, but think about it and maybe it will. Many of the engineered seeds just plain won’t grow. They’re designed that way so that you have to go buy new seeds from the seed companies each year. This is one of the criminal practices that put small farmers out of business. Even if the seeds would grow (and a few would), it’s illegal to save them because they are patented. If you plant your own seeds in a field next to a field planted with designer, patented seeds and they pollinate each other, you can’t save your seeds that year even if they were your own to start with – again, it’s illegal and farmers have been prosecuted for this. Big agri-business is as territorial as the mafia. So, buy heirloom seeds and start saving them to ensure their survival.

I would encourage you to enlist your children’s help on this endeavor. First of all, it’s a great living science lesson. Second of all, children love treasure hunts and that’s what this is. And third of all, anything that gets them interested in gardening is a good thing.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to get started: Clean bowls, clean newspaper, clean containers (preferably dark colored). That’s pretty much it. There is some fancier seed saving equipment, but for now you don’t need anything you don’t already have.

The basic steps of seed saving are thus:
1. Locate and gather the seeds
2. Clean the seeds if necessary.
3. Spread the seeds out to dry on newspaper.
4. Put the seeds in a sealed container and LABEL them. (Trust me you won’t remember what they are. You won’t. Please take my word for it. Even if the container is a really special tea canister.)
5. Store in a cool, dry, dark place. (I’ve used refrigerators, but a drawer in a cabinet in a dry basement with a dehumidifier is best)

When gathering seeds from flowering plants, wait a few weeks after flowering until the flower has faded and the petals begin to drop, that’s when they’re perfect for harvesting. When you locate the seeds, it’s sometimes easiest to gather the seed pods in paper bags and bring them back to your work space to actually loosen the seeds. Flower seeds will not need to be washed. You can simply spread the seeds out on a drying tray or newspaper and let them dry. Most seed saving instructions make a big to-do about getting rid of the chaf (unnecessary flower material that accompanies some seeds when you gather them), but I don’t worry too much about the chaf. If it’s easy to separate, I do, and if it isn’t, I dry it with the seeds. I then store it with the seeds and figure it’s just more compost when it’s time to plant.

For most edible plants (i.e. peppers, tomatoes, garden veggies of all sorts), you want the fruit to remain on the plant for a week or two past its prime. This is true for all of the veggies I’m going to mention except pumpkin and winter squash. When you are gathering the seeds from vegetable plants, you’ll want to put them in a bowl with water and allow the bad seeds and pulp and what-have-you to float to the top. Leave the bowl out for 2-4 days, but be sure to stir the bowl at least once a day to keep mold from forming. (I know this seems nasty, so don’t start a big seed saving project the day before you’re hosting a Ladies luncheon or birthday party for a 3-year-old.) Once the seeds are finished soaking scoop out the good seeds from the bottom of the bowl and spread them out to dry on paper. I know there’s an analogy about the good seeds and the bad seeds in there, but it’s not coming to me.

I’ll give you some simple directions for a few of the seeds that I’ve collected successfully in the past. I’d encourage you to take your kids out and see how many kinds of seeds you can collect. There are thousands of options. You can even collect seeds from wildflowers and perennials, and certainly trees. You’ll have fun with this project and next spring it will be exciting to see what worked. You can start the seeds inside in late February just when you’re pretty tired of winter and ready for some spring.

Pick a really good tomato that looks gorgeous and is so ripe it might just start leaking all over your counter. Scoop out the seeds and whatever pulp comes with them and place them in a bowl of water. Once the seeds have finished their soaking regimen, spread the good seeds out on strips of newspaper (skinny strips) and let them dry. When they are finished you can just roll up the newspaper and put it in a sealed container. In the spring when it’s time to start planting, just snip off a seed with paper attached and plant it. Great trick, huh? I’ve found some seeds stick and some don’t, so I collect the ones that don’t in a container. I’ve also used paper towels (good organic, non-perfumey, non-colored kind) because that seems healthier than newspaper with all its ink. Especially if I plan to share the seeds.

Choose a pepper that has over-ripened and deeply colored. Cut open your pepper and remove seeds. You shouldn’t need to wash these seeds since they’ve just come from a sterile place. Simply spread them out on paper and dry them.

Pumpkins (melons, zucchini, cucumbers are the same except you want really ripe fruits) – scoop out seeds and place in water bowl. Separate the good seeds from the bad (per above) and dry seeds really well. Bigger seeds take longer, don’t forget.

Beans and peas– Allow the beans to dry on the plant. They should be so dry they rattle when you shake a seed pod. This could take 6 weeks or more. If they are close to being dry and you expect a big storm, you can lift the plant (root and all) and put it in a dry place to finish drying out and save it from the rain. You won’t need to rinse these seeds.

Marigolds –These are probably the easiest seeds to save. You should never have to buy marigold seeds again unless there’s a cool variety you’d like to try. Wait for the flower to die and the stems to begin to get brown and stiff. Then pluck the flowers off the stems and take them to your working area. Spread out a newspaper and rub your fingers back and forth on a bloom and see all the seeds release. You’ll recognize them. Marigolds have that distinctive black end and look like tiny sticks. I’ve had years when I was in a hurry and simply grabbed the blooms off the plants and filled a paper bag and then hung the bag to dry in the basement. Come spring I pulled the bag down and released the seeds and they did just fine. Still, the organized seed drying and saving plan is probably best.

Zinnias – Are just as easy as marigolds. Save lots of colors, but be prepared for them to come back in shades you don’t expect. Mine tend to come back all pink. I’m going to work hard this year to keep my Green Envy Zinnia seeds separate. I planted them away from the other zinnias, so hopefully there was no unplanned pollinating going on. We’ll see next spring, I guess.

Petunias – The seeds are in the little seed “capsules” that you’ll notice on the stems below the flowers. I don’t know a better way to explain, but look and you shall see, I bet.

Snapdragons – Also found in seed capsules that grow under the flowers (where the earliest flowers were).

Poppies – the flowers turn in to giant seed pods with a gazillion seeds in them.

Sunflower – I think you can figure out what these seeds look like.

So, happy seed gathering! And don’t forget this is important work. Gathering seeds ensures that heirloom vegetables and flowers are here for generations to come.

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