Thursday, September 21, 2006

Saving Seed

Saving your own seed can be as easy as scooping out a melon and reserving a portion of the seeds to dry. Not only is it easy, it’s also free, and it’s a great educational tool for teaching children about life cycles, seasons, and self reliance. When you save your own seeds to grow for the following year, you get to select the plants that exhibit the traits you desire. If you like your produce bigger, earlier, smaller, more colorful, or any other criteria - the ones that suit your requirements are the ones you save seed from. This year the Red Russian Kale I am saving seeds from were resistant to aphids. Pest resistance is something plants can pass on to their off spring. And it’s not always something seed farms select when choosing seed to offer for sale.

Those who know, generally claim that it takes about 3 years of saving a certain strain of seed in a given environment for the plants to acclimate. This often seems to be true in my own garden. After the second or third year the seed I save myself tends to out perform those award winning hybrids. Of course, I am selecting by my own standards – but that is something every gardener can do.

Saving seed is very cost effective. Your one chosen seed squash, tomato, or Giant Red Mustard plant will produce more seed than you can use, possibly in your life time. Seeds don’t live forever, so it is a good idea to save fresh seed each year. The extra seed can be shared with family and friends as well as other gardeners. Some types of seed are edible such as your pumpkin and squash seed. And some, such as radish, mustard, and arugula can be used to grow tasty sprouts for winter time salads.

If you have a little Internet savvy you can trade your extra seeds with other seed saving enthusiasts. One way to find information on seed swaps is on a search of Google Blogs: Try searches on “Seed Swaps,” “Seed Exchanges,” “Seed Trades,” or even “Free Seeds.” Yahoo also hosts some groups that hold swaps by mail. Try those same searches on: (If you don’t have a computer at home, check with your local library. They often have computers available and they may even have someone to help you learn how to use them. Alternatively some libraries may stock magazines that host or advertise seed exchanges.) Last winter I arranged so many seed swaps that it may take me ten years to grow all the seeds I received – if the seeds even live that long. So I am temporarily retired from seed swapping. Instead I am giving lots of seed away.

The very easiest seed to save are from melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, and winter squash, which we normally use when fully ripe. You can save seed from the ones your grow, or even the ones you purchase. Simply separate seeds from the pulp, rinse them in a handy kitchen strainer, and lay them out on paper towels to dry. When fully dry all these seeds except watermelon should snap in half rather than bend. Watermelon seeds may not snap when dry but they should not bend. Once dry you can store them in mason jars or zip lock bags. Be sure to label each jar or bag – one squash seed pretty much looks like the next. And you will probably want to know what you are planting next spring. However, not all seeds will grow plants identical to the veggies they came from. The offspring of hybrids often show a lot of genetic diversity. And seed saved from the garden will occasionally cross pollinate. I have this really yummy green striped crook neck squash that taste a bit of cucumber. It is my very favorite squash this year, and it is definitely a cross. But that is half the fun of saving your own seed. (If you don’t want crosses you can use row covers to keep out the bees and hand pollinate. For information on hand pollination see: )

To save seed from your summer squash and cucumbers you will need to let one cucumber and one squash from each plant get huge, old, and hard. After the first frost, pick it, split it, and remove the seeds to dry. You might need an axe to open some of the huge old zucchinis. But you will get seeds enough to share with everyone you know. Once you get at the seeds let them dry and store as above.

Most of your other vegetables will need to bolt before you can save seed. You must let them grow tall and rangy. After the flowers fade, seed heads or pods will develop. These must be allowed to dry on the plant. Then the stems can be cut, the seed heads placed in a newspaper lined box, or a brown paper bag, and moved to the garage or other dry place until they are crisp to the touch. You can save the seeds in their pods if you have room. Or you can open the pods and carefully separate the chaff from the seeds. (Old skills from past bad habits may serve you well in this little task.) It is a good idea to let the seeds dry a bit longer once separated, but then they can be stored as all the seeds above.

I store my seeds in zip lock bags in a light weight lidded plastic container. (It is a Rubbermaid index card file box.) Some people buy or reuse desiccant packages with their stored seed. I think this is more important with seeds stored in glass containers, because glass can encourage condensation. However desiccant packages can be saved, dried in the sun, and reused in your seed containers. Pepperwood leaves, hot peppers, and diatomaceous earth can help protect your seed from insect damage. Diatomaceous earth is available from many larger health food stores and some garden supply companies. Make sure not to buy the DE sold for swimming pool filters as it is not as effective at pest control. You only need a pinch or so in each seed package. Just enough to lightly coat each seed.

All righty, that’s all you need to know to get started! Below you will find sources of more information should you want to become an expert seed saver:

Ask your book store or library for:
Save Your Own Seed, By Lawrence D. Hill, The Henry Doubleday Research Association.
Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, Chelsea Green Publishing.

On the Internet:

Stay tuned – next time we will be taking a look at Zaushneria and other favorites for autumn bloom. Until then, you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, August 29, 2006. Posted here with permission.


vicky said...

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Wonderful post--thank you for that. I LOVE Tom Clothier's site!

PestControlConnoisseur said...

This is a really awesome article. You have given some really great ideas that I will definitley have to try out this year. Thanks for the information!