Saturday, September 5, 2009

How To Save Heirloom Seeds

There are a number of good reasons to save the seeds from your garden. You can ensure that your seeds are organic, avoid genetically modified seeds, ensure the continuation of heirloom varieties, and save money. Seed that you save is seed you don't have to purchase next spring.

We have heirloom varieties of plants today because over the years people saved the seed. Often it has been passed down through generations of families, planted each spring, saved each fall. Heirloom varieties are generally the most flavorful. Commercial varieties are usually grown because of their ability to ship well, not for flavor.

Saving your own seed is simple. Just keep in mind 3 simple rules:

  1. Only choose seed from the fully ripened fruit of healthy plants. Seed from unripe fruit is not viable, and diseased plants should be properly disposed of, you don't want to propogate and spread disease.
  2. Save seed only from heirloom varieties, never from hybrids. Hybrids are often sterile, or do not reproduce true to the parent plant.
  3. Let the seed dry completely before storing. Seed that isn't dry will mold and be useless
Self-pollinated plants such as bean, pea, lettuce and tomato offer the beginner the best chance of successful seed saving. Airborne or insect pollinated plants like beet, spinach, cucumber and squash must be separated by at least 1/4 mile from other varieties to avoid cross-contamination.

The Dry Method

Flowers, herbs and vegetables like beans will stop producing once you let them go to seed, so do this near the end of the growing season. Flower and herb seeds like dill, chive and basil are harvested by the dry method. Let the seeds mature and dry on the plant as long as possible. When they are brown and dry, hold a bowl or paper bag under the seedheads and tap them to release the seeds. Or you can pick the seedheads, place in a paper bag and shake to release the seeds. If frost threatens, you can pull the entire plant, including the roots and hang in a cool dry location for 2-3 weeks to mature and dry. Finish drying the seeds on a screen or paper bag, the chaff is easily blown away.

Plants with pods like beans, peas and kale should be left on the plant until brown and dry. Then just crack open the pods to release the seeds.

To save pepper seeds, just remove the seeds from fully ripened peppers and let dry completely. This usually takes 2-3 days.

The Fermentation Method

Tomato seeds are saved using the fermentation method. Cut tomatoes in half, scoop the seeds and the surrounding gelatinous material into a small glass bowl. Add a spoonful of water to this, cover with plastic wrap and punch a few airholes in it with a toothpick. Set aside in a warm spot out of direct sunlight, stirring the mixture daily. It will begin to ferment and smell a little. The fermentation kills seed-borne bacteria and viruses to ensure healthy plants next spring. The good seed will sink to the bottom of the dish. In 2-4 days when it is fermenting nicely and most of the seed has sunk to the bottom, pour off the pulp water containing any floating bad seeds and mold. Rinse well in a sieve, spread out to dry on a coffee filter.

Once all of your seeds are completely dry, place them in labeled envelopes and store in a cool, dry place such as a basement or in the refridgerator. Most seed should be used within 3 years because viability decreases over time.

A great place to order heirloom seed is the Seed Savers Exchange. It is a non-profit that maintains over 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties at their Heritage Farm in Iowa. Each summer they grow out a selection of the seeds they store to replenish supplies and keep germination levels up. If you like to grow garlic, it's nearly planting time and they offer a large selection of varieties to choose from. they can be found here:
Saving seeds is simple, fun and cost effective. More importantly, it ensures good eating next year.


mangocheeks September 5, 2009 at 11:17 AM  

Thanks for sharing. I am going to try and save some seeds this year, they seem to be getting expensive.

janet September 5, 2009 at 2:59 PM  

That's one of the great things about saving your own, you never have to buy it again. And gardeners are such generous people, they love to trade and even give you varieties you don't already have.

Teashop Girl September 5, 2009 at 4:28 PM  

Great information, thank you.

Sonya September 8, 2009 at 10:14 AM  

This is amazing information - thanks so much for sharing. I live in an apartment right now, so gardening is a bit hard. But when we move into a house (hopefully soon!), growing my own food is one of the things I am looking most forward to.

Farmer John September 20, 2009 at 10:33 AM  

Very well written article. I love getting seeds that have been kept this way for generations. Literally, we got a tomato this year from a friend that was brought from Sicily to CA and grown here for over 4 generations now.

janet September 21, 2009 at 12:09 PM  

Farmer John, that's so cool!

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