Today is September first, most of us are watching the slow wind down of or gardens right now. Hopefully mother nature will give us all a nice slow wind down with no nasty hard frosts before their time. There is still a major harvest left though and it is probably the most vital, I am talking about the harvest of seeds for your garden next year.
Farmers and plant growers have been saving seed for as long as they have been growing plants. The number one reason most of us grow open pollinated heirloom varieties of vegetables is because they taste like real food. The second reason is because we can save our seeds. At it's most basic seed saving is just waiting until the seeds are mature, harvesting or collecting, drying and storing them. What also comes from storing seeds is financial savings, empowerment, and a more in depth knowledge of the plants you grow. All of which may lead to new found confidence and the joys of selective cross breeding different varieties.
Before we consider collecting seeds we need to look at a few things; first, is the plant annual, biennial or perennial. We then need to determine if the plants are self pollinated or cross pollinated.
Self pollinated plants are those which pollinate from flower to flower either from the same plant or different plants. There are male and female on the same plant, most often within the flower. These plants generally run true, which means that plants grown from seeds produced on these plants will exhibit the same characteristics as the parent plants.
Cross pollinated plants are those plants which are pollinated from flower to flower from different plants. Certain plants within this category can cross pollinate with different varieties meaning that seeds from these plants don't always run true to the characteristics of the parent plant. This doesn't mean you shouldn't save seed from these plants, just that there are certain precautions you need to take. We will look at this more closely as we look at individual plant families.
So how to harvest seeds? The good news is that most plants will prepare the seeds for you. It's what they are programmed to do: grow, make seeds and distribute them. The hardest part is learning when the plants are ready to distribute and intervene at that time. For most plants that requires little more than commonsense.
For plants which wrap their seeds in or on fruit, the seeds are ready when the fruit is ripe. Think tomatoes or strawberries. In fact a little over ripe is best as slight fermentation will often destroy any bacterial or viral infections before the seed is released.
For other plants which we usually eat the seed as food, the rule of thumb is to allow the seeds to stay on the plant until dry, think beans or peas.
Finally, most other plants we never see the seeds of. Think lettuce, beets or onions. These plants usually send up flower stalks which produce seed long after we would normally have harvested the plant for food..
The final element of commonsense for seed saving is don't use any seed from diseased plants or plants which have been poor performers.
Let's look at some popular plants and seed saving tips for each.
We'll start with the easy ones; self pollinating annuals. This group includes tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and beans. Any one who has a compost pile has had volunteer plants from most of these. Tomatoes seeds are mature when the tomatoes are ripe. If you let them stay on the vine until they are a little past ripe even better. All you need to do is cut open the tomato, scoop out the seeds and allow them to dry. If you want to give your tomato seeds the best start, you should allow the tomatoes to stay on the plant until the tomato is over ripe; when they are almost ready to fall of the vine, gather the tomatoes and place them in a closed container for three days. After three days, pull the fruit from the continue and place it in a screen colander. Use water to rinse the seeds from the pulp and then lay the seeds on a plate covered with paper towel or newspaper. If you have screen drying racks they are great for seeds.
For beans and peas leave them on the plant until the seed pods are dried out and you can hear the beans rattle inside. If you have a predator problem you can bring the entire plant inside to dry. Follow the same procedure as drying herbs.
If anyone has ever had lettuce bolt you have seen flower stalks for lettuce. Most lettuce varieties will produce a small yellow flower. This flowering is followed by seed. Lettuce seed is almost like miniature dandelion seeds. The seed will be either white or black depending upon the variety. Once the flower stalk rises be sure to check the plant at least once a day as a light breeze will carry your tiny lettuce seeds away!
Peppers, both hot and sweet, are easy. Remove the core from the pepper and
use a butter knife or your fingers to gently pry the seeds loose. Dry the seeds
and pace them in a paper bag to store.
As I said, these plants are self pollinating plants so you should have few, if any surprises. One caveat, if you grow many varieties of tomatoes in close proximity you may get cross breed results.
Cross pollinated annuals, including corn, spinach, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and the brassica family. Brassica include cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, collard greens, broccoli, kholrabi and cauliflower to name a few. All of these plants above will easily cross pollinate between varieties and the brassica will cross pollinate between each other. Therefore, if you have more than one variety, or more than one brassica blooming at the same time you should not trust that the seed will be true to the parent plants.
If you want to save seed from these plants, you should take precautions to avoid cross pollination. This can be done by isolating the parent plants either geographically or by covering the female flowers before pollination and then manually pollinating them with selected pollen. The female flower will need to remain covered until fruit is set.
Corn is a slightly different proposition; the rest of the plants in this category are pollinated by insects, usually bees and therefore the pollen grains are large, corn on the other hand is wind pollinated. The pollen grains are small. If you have corn growing with in a quarter mile of yours, it may be cross pollinated. Corns will cross pollinate between varieties, so if you have cow corn growing within a quarter mile of your sweet corn, seed saving may not be a great idea.
A note about cucumbers, we tend to take cucumbers before they are mature, leave cuke you want to harvest seeds from on the vine until they turn yellow or white. You can then ferment them as with the tomatoes, cut them lengthwise to harvest the seed. Place the seed in water to remove the pulp. The heavier seed will sink to the bottom, this is the seed you want to keep. The lighter seed which floats, should be discarded.
I think that is enough for today, I know it is a lot of information to digest. I will look at saving seed from biennials and cloning on Wednesday. Hopefully, you will have a look at saving some seed from your self pollinating annuals. They are the easiest ones to deal with, when you are looking at planting rotations for next years garden, make sure to set aside an area for plants which require some buffer zone for pollinating.
Feel free to ask questions or leave your own seed saving stories in the comments. Have a great day everyone,!