Saving the Future

Edible-Gardens

By Laura McKissack

There are many reasons to save seeds from your harvest. The first, of course, is an economical one, but other reasons include quality control and self-sufficiency. By saving seeds, you can even choose and manipulate preferred genetic traits—such as taste and productivity—and take the growing process to a whole new level.

First it’s important to understand which plants to harvest seeds from.

Open-pollinated plants (plants pollinated by nature—insects, wind, etc.) will produce the same plant and fruit as the parent plant from which they come. But hybrid plants are different. Many of the fruits and vegetables we buy commercially come from hybrids that are the result of a cross between two or more open-pollinated plants. Plants such as Early Girl tomatoes or Yellow Granex onions are first generation hybrids (F1), and subsequent generations of seeds saved from these plants will not produce the same fruit. When buying seeds or starts at the nursery, read labels carefully to ensure they are open-pollinated.

Once the open-pollinated plants are growing in your garden, care must be taken to avoid creating accidental hybrids through cross-pollination. Squash, beans, peppers and broccoli will readily cross-pollinate with others of the same species unless proper precautions are taken. For example, all plants of the Brassica oleracea family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kohlrabi, kale and Brussels sprouts) will cross-pollinate with one another. Thus, if the broccoli and cabbage plants are flowering at the same time near each other, the seeds from each new plant can produce something unlike either parent. Two ways to avoid this are to separate potential cross-pollinators with distance, and to cover them with row cover before they flower.

The process of harvesting and storing seeds is pretty straightforward, though the methods vary from plant to plant. When saving tomato seeds, for example, it’s a good idea to ferment the seeds for a few days before drying them. To do this, cut open a tomato, squeeze the seeds into a nonreactive container and add about ¼ cup of water. Let this sit, covered, at room temperature for three to four days. The fermentation process breaks down the gelatinous coating that keeps the seeds from sprouting inside the tomato. It also helps to kill any diseases they might carry. At the end of the process, remove any floating seeds, as they are not viable. Save only those that sank to the bottom. Lay them on newspaper to dry for a few more days. Once they’re completely dry, place them in a paper envelope and store in the refrigerator. You can also store them in a medicine bottle or other airtight container, but you will need to add a packet of desiccant or a spoonful of rice tied in cheesecloth to absorb any moisture.

Most seeds don’t require fermentation, though, and if they’re the kind that can be harvested dry, they don’t require rinsing. To harvest seeds that grow in pods—such as beans, peas or broccoli—let the pods get brown and dry, then gently crush the plants in a burlap sack to loosen the seeds. Pull out the bulk of the plant, then winnow, or separate, the seeds from the chaff (the material mixed in with the seeds) by tossing the mixture on top of a sheet or sack and blowing off the lighter materials—or letting them blow off in the breeze. The heavier seeds will eventually be all that remains and are ready to be stored, as is.

Harvesting some seeds requires more than one season. To save carrot seeds, harvest the best and earliest disease-free carrots in the fall (before the first hard frost), and trim the green part down to one inch. Store the root in dry sand, sawdust or leaves, then plant it in the spring. Let the plant flower and go to seed. Harvest the seeds when they’re dry. Be certain to isolate the plants when flowering, as carrots will cross-pollinate with a common local wild herb, Queen Anne’s lace.

Neil Schmidt, the greenhouse specialist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, suggests keeping harvested seeds cool, but warns not to freeze them. “Keeping them dry is essential,” he says. “And don’t store seeds in plastic bags—they hold in moisture.” At the wildflower center, dried seeds are stored in manila envelopes—neatly labeled, arranged in plastic tubs and refrigerated.

Save the earliest and best-quality seeds from each crop. At the Natural Gardener, we grow a few boxes of runner beans (known as “half-runner string beans”) from seeds given to us by longtime customer Earl Hall. He’s saved and improved his bean stock over the course of 30 years, and the result is a delicious, high-yielding bean—a favorite among the staff. Hall always grows a row of beans for seeds and another for eating—at the same time—and notes that if you eat the first rush of beans and don’t save the seeds until the plant is dwindling, you’ll save the worst of your seeds instead of the best.

Seed saving is fun, easy and important. In a world of mono-cropping, profit-minded genetic engineering and herbicide-ready vegetables, we need more farmers and gardeners working to preserve biological diversity, seed availability and quality for future generations.


For more information about saving seeds, visit Seed Savers Exchange at seedsavers.org, or check out Seed Sowing and Saving: Step-by-Step Techniques for Collecting and Growing More Than 100 Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs by Carol B. Turner (Storey Publishing) or Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange).



LOCAL SEED-SAVING RESOURCES

• Neil Schmidt, greenhouse specialist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, wildflower.org

• KLRU’s “Central Texas Gardener” feature on seed saving with Natural Gardener owner John Dromgoole, which can be seen at klru.org/ctg

• Natural Gardener, naturalgardeneraustin.com

• Earl Hall, member of Austin Organic Gardeners, main.org/aog