Seasonal Cooking with Rita Calvert~The Local Cook
Novice Guide to Seed Saving
As your summer fruits and vegetables get plump-ready to pluck, it’s time to learn about saving those seeds. The tradition of saving seeds is one of the best ways to feel completely connected to the circle of life. As a gardener, seed saving is one intriguing topic. I had a friend ask if she could save her bolting lettuce seeds. Her very valid reason was to insure future crops would be GMO-free. I had learned from Carrie Vaughn, lead vegetable farmer at Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm, that it is imperative to check your seed package to make sure that the plant is not a hybrid. The seed packet or catalog should state that it is open pollinated. Except for tomatoes, the plants shouldn’t be cross-pollinated by insects (which would happen if several varieties grew in the same area). Such saved seeds might grow into something that resembles the parent, or something tough and tasteless.
Fascinating as a topic, seed saving has a myriad of guidelines so it’s recommended to educate yourself from those who have developed seed saving to a science such as the sources below.
Below are categories of different skill levels for seed saving from beginner to expert. You’ll learn the cross-pollination story from this guide, which helps explain the importance of insects, birds and bees in our gardens. The amount of space needed is defined for each plant.
First, Seed Storage
If you’re gathering and saving seeds from your own plants, spread the seeds on newspaper and let them air dry for about a week. Write seed names on the newspaper so there’s no mix-up. Pack the air-dried seeds in small paper packets or envelopes, and label with plant name, date, and other pertinent information.
Or dry all wet seeds on a glass or ceramic plate. Spread the seeds evenly over the surface of the plate and stir twice daily to ensure even drying and to keep them from clumping together. Don’t dry seeds on paper plates or paper towels—they’ll stick. A food dehydrator set at 85ºF works well, but don’t dry them in a warm oven or any place the temperature exceeds 95ºF.)
Best Containers for Seed Saving
Think dry and cool no matter where you store seed. Humidity and warmth shorten a seed’s shelf life.
Keep seed packets in plastic food storage bags, plastic film canisters, Mason jars with tight-fitting lids, or glass canisters with gasketed lids.
The refrigerator is generally the best place to store seeds. Keep your seed-storage containers well away from the freezer section of your refrigerator.
Store each year’s seeds together and date them. Most seeds last about 3 years so you can plan at a glance.
When you’re ready to plant, remove seed containers from the refrigerator and keep them closed until the seeds warm to room temperature. Otherwise, moisture in the air will condense on the seeds, causing them to clump together.
Bean, Lettuce, Pea, Pepper, Tomato
These vegetables offer the beginning seed saver the best chance for successful seed saving. They produce seed the same season as planted and are mostly self-pollinating, minimizing the need to be mindful of preventing cross-pollination.
Bean - Phaseolus vulgaris
PLANT: Although, ideally, different varieties should be separated by 150 feet or another crop flowering at the same time, cross-pollination is rarely found even when two varieties are grown next to each other.
HARVEST: Allow pods to dry brown before harvesting, about six weeks after eating stage. If frost threatens, pull entire plant, root first, and hang in cool, dry location until pods are brown.
Lettuce - Lactuca sativa
PLANT: Separate varieties flowering at the same time by at least 20 feet to ensure purity.
FLOWER: Lettuce produces perfect, self-pollinating flowers. Each flower produces one seed. Flowers are grouped in little heads of 10-25 flowers all of which open at once for as little as 30 minutes. Anthers are fused together into a little cone that completely surrounds stigma and style. Style is pushed up through anther cone and is coated with its own pollen. Note: Mature head lettuce may need a slit (two or three inches deep) across the top to encourage flowering.
HARVEST: Some outside leaves can be harvested for eating without harming seed production. Allow seed heads to dry 2-3 weeks after flowering. Individual heads will ripen at different times making the harvest of large amounts of seed at one time nearly impossible. Wait until half the flowers on each plant have gone to seed. Cut entire top of plant and allow to dry upside down in an open paper bag.
PROCESS: Small amounts of seed can be shaken daily from individual flowering heads. Rub with hands to remove remaining seeds. If necessary, separate seeds from chaff with screens.
Peas - Pisum sativum
PLANT: Ideally, different varieties need to be separated 50 feet or with another crop flowering at the same time. However, in the cool regions of the Rocky Moun tains, we rarely observe cross-pollination even when two varieties are grown next to each other.
FLOWER: Peas produce perfect, self-pollinating flowers. Cross-pollination by insects is possible but rare because pollination occurs before the flower opens. Because the stigma does open before pollen is ready crosses theoretically could occur.
HARVEST: Allow pods to dry brown before harvesting, about four weeks after eating stage. If frost threatens, pull entire plant, root first, and hang in cool, dry location until pods are brown.
Pepper - Capsicum annuum
PLANT: Most home gardeners will get satisfactory results if different varieties are separated by 50 feet and another tall, flowering crop. New studies from New Mexico State University show more crossing than was previously thought. We recommend at least 400 feet between varieties to ensure absolute purity.
FLOWER: Peppers produce perfect, mostly self-pollinating flowers.
HARVEST: Harvest mature, fully-ripe peppers for seed. (Most bell peppers turn red when fully mature.) If frost threatens before peppers mature, pull entire plant and hang in cool, dry location until peppers mature.
PROCESS: There are two methods, dry and wet, to process pepper seeds. The dry method is perfect for small amounts. Cut the bottom off the fruit and carefully reach in to strip the seeds surrounding central cone. In many cases, seeds need no further cleaning.
Tomato - Lycopersicon esculentum
Tomato is the most popular vegetable (or fruit as the scientists technally call it) in America so you will want to save seeds of the same variety. Saving these seeds takes a bit more time than other vegetables, but is not difficult.
HARVEST: If possible, allow tomatoes to completely ripen before harvesting for seed production. Unripe fruits, saved from the first frost, will ripen slowly if kept in a cool, dry location.
PROCESS: Cut the tomato into halves at its equator, opening the vertical cavities that contain the seeds. Gently squeeze out from the cavities the jelly-like substance that contains the seeds. If done carefully, the tomato itself can still be eaten or saved for canning, sun-drying or dehydrating.
Place the jelly and seeds into a small jar or glass. (Add a little water if you are processing only one or two small tomatoes.) Loosely cover the container and place in a warm location, 60-75° F. for about three days. Stir once a day.
A layer of fungus will begin to appear on the top of the mixture after a couple of days. This fungus not only eats the gelatinous coat that surrounds each seed and prevents germination, it also produces antibiotics that help to control seed-borne diseases like bacterial spot, canker and speck.
After three days fill the seed container with warm water. Let the contents settle and begin pouring out the water along with pieces of tomato pulp and immature seeds floating on top. Note: Viable seeds are heavier and settle to the bottom of the jar. Repeat this process until water being poured out is almost clear and clean seeds line the bottom of the container. Pour these clean seeds into a strainer that has holes smaller than the seeds. Let the excess water drip out and invert the strainer onto paper towel or piece of newspaper. Allow the seeds to dry completely (usually a day or two). Break up the clumps into individual seeds, label and store in a packet or plastic bag.
Note:Tomato seeds will germinate unless you dry them quickly. To speed drying, you can use a fan, but don’t put the seeds in sunlight or an oven.
Corn, Cucumber, Muskmelon, Radish, Spinach, Squash/Pumpkin.
The experienced seed saver's vegetables produce seed the season they are planted but require separation to keep unwanted cross-pollination from taking place. Cucurbits—such as squash, cucumbers, gourds, and melons—need even more personal space. All of these garden favorites must be pollinated by insects. So unless close relatives (of the same species) are separated by a half-mile or more, you’ll get a surprise if you grow the seeds.
For example, a zucchini and an acorn squash (both Cucurbita pepo) in the same garden will cross, thanks to pollinating insects. And the seeds probably won’t produce a replica of either parent plant. But if you’re growing zucchini and a butternut squash (C. moschata) in the same garden, you can save the seeds from each and expect to have your plants come up true to type when you plant them next year, since they are different species.
Beet/Swiss Chard, Cabbage Family, Carrot, Escarole/Frissee, Onion, Radicchio/Endive, Turnip/Chinese Cabbage
The expert gardener's vegetables normally require more than one year for seed production and mandate separation to prevent cross-pollination. Consult an in-depth resource.
Information credits: I n t e r n a t i o n a l S e e d S a v i n g I n s t i t u t e and Organic Gardening website