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Basic Seed Saving Guide

Posted by Stacey Hubbs on

Save seeds! It’s where food comes from! 

If that isn’t enough reason for you, then I don’t know what is! I am going to try to provide you with some inspiration and basic direction to embark on your seed saving journey! I could go on an on about how there are so many terrible things happening in the seed industry, and our food system, and scare you into saving seeds....but I’d rather you think of seed saving as a really beautiful and inspiring experience that should be enjoyed season after season! Don’t get me wrong, it is a super important task to save seeds and keep our food system safe, but it can also be a therapeutic, rewarding and bountiful learning experience. When you save seeds you begin to really understand lifecycles, you realize that plants are just like humans! You can become better friends with them once you understand their entire life and what they go through in order to produce their offspring seed crops - a respect and friendship is created...and once you form these friendships with your plants...you’ll probably want to keep them around for others to have that same experience. The experience of real food. Okay folks, I’m going to break down seed saving into a basic written overview for you to gather a basic understanding of how things work. From there you can go on to develop your own methods, explore methods taught to you by other seed savers, or at the very least inspire you to one day save some seeds. Even  just one crop makes a difference! If you are already growing food for yourself and your family, then saving seeds will come naturally to you.  

Saving seed is just taking gardening a few steps farther in order to continue a lifecycle. 

Instead of growing these plants to eat at the end of the season, grow them with a future in mind.

Let's Talk About Lifecycles!

Each seed crop is different, and each crop takes a different amount of time to reproduce seed. 

Annuals- Plants that produce seed in their first season. You can collect seed from annuals in the same year that you plant them. (ex. Beans, Tomatoes, Peppers, Spinach, Cucumber, etc.)

Biennials- Plants that produce seed in their second season. Typically, you would collect and store specimens for the winter and replant them in the springtime for a summer seed crop. (ex. Carrots, Beets, Cabbage, Leeks, etc.)

Perennials- Plants that produce seed at least once (if not more) every year without having to replant.(ex. Sorrel, Asparagus, Thyme, Lavender, Various herbs, Various Flowers, etc.)

Vegetative- Plants that maintain their vegetative state all season and are best reproduced through cloning as opposed to using their seeds. (ex. Potato, Jerusalem Artichoke, Strawberries, Garlic, etc.)

Wet and Dry Seed Crops

Seed crops are referred to as either wet or dry, depending on the seed's surroundings. So just think of this in simple terms...When you save tomato seeds, they come from the inside of a juicy fruit...it's wet in there...so it's a “Wet Seed Crop.” When you save lettuce seeds, they come from the inside of a crisp brown pod...it's dry...so it's a “Dry Seed Crop.” 

 

Wet Seed Crops –  Some familiar wet seed crops to you would be things like Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Melons, and Squash. All of their seeds come from the inside of a fruit that is “wet.”  

Let's talk about saving seeds from wet seed crops!  

One thing that ALL wet seed crops have in common is that BEFORE you process their seed, you will need to leave your fruit on the plant for as long as possible to fully ripen. All specimens must be very ripe in order to collect “awesome” seeds from. Once you select your fully ripe specimens, you can then begin their “processing.” 

The 2 processes that are most commonly used for Wet Seed Crops are Decantation and Fermentation.  

Decantation

This is a process that separates your seed crop from your debris using a simple soaking and pouring method.This is best used for Eggplant, Peppers, Squash, Melons, etc. which do not need to be fermented. To start your decantation process you will want to take the seeds from inside of your fruit, (this will likely include some of their “guts” or debris) and place them into a large bucket of cool to room temperature water. 

Leave the seeds and debris in the water for about an hour. When you come back to your bucket, you will notice that there is debris, and possibly some light immature seeds floating on top of the water. We don't want this material. Carefully tilt your bucket and pour off the top layer of debris and “bad seeds.”

You should now be left with your “good seeds” which can then be poured through a fine kitchen sieve to drain off any remaining water. Then you will set these seeds out to dry on a Non-Stick surface at room temperature for several days until fully dry.

Fermentation

This is a process of removing a germination inhibiting layer from your seeds through a fermentation process. 

Typically, Tomatoes and Cucumbers are the only Wet Seed Crops that will benefit largely from fermentation due to the fact that they both have these germination inhibiting layers around their seed coat. (and also because it also destroys many seed borne diseases that are not visible to the human eye, but are very common in things like tomatoes and cucumbers)   

To begin the fermentation process, you will want to start by removing the seeds and “guts” (or debris) from your tomato or cucumber and place them in a large glass jar. You can do this by either cutting the fruit halfway through and scooping it out with a spoon, or you can just use your hands to squish it into the jar. 

Once your seeds and guts (debris) are in their respective jars, you will then add a lid because it's going to get smelly and gross over a few days...You will need to put these jars in a nice warm place for about 3 days, or until a nice thin layer of mold develops on top of the seedy mush. 

You should now be able to see the separation of good and bad seeds - just like you did in the Decantation process... “bad seeds” and debris will be on top, and “good seeds” will be on the bottom. You can now carefully pour off the debris and “bad seeds” from the top layer, leaving you with “good seeds” on the bottom of the jar. 

The “Good seeds” can then be rinsed off in a kitchen sieve and set out to dry at room temperature for several days. (just like in the decantation process!)

Let's talk about saving seed from Dry Seed Crops! 

One thing that ALL dry Seed Crops have in common is that they hold their seeds inside of a protective pod, husk, or umbrel. Once their pods are completely dry to the touch, their seeds are mature and ready to harvest! 

These pods, husks and umbrels from Dry Seed Crops come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, so the only way to tell when a seed crop is mature is by checking it's dryness level. This is simple and can be done with your very own fingers! 

Harvesting times are different for all dry seeded crops, but a nice rule of thumb is to “Follow the plant to the bitter end and pick up the pieces before they are about to fall.” So this means waiting until the end of your crops lifecycle, and watching closely for it to die off and spread its offspring. 

Most seed pods will change colour completely and become crispy just before they are about to shatter. They idea is to collect seed from these plants RIGHT before they try to shatter and spread the seed on their own. This requires close attention. Pods can be harvested one by one, or you can pull the entire plant up and lay out for further drying, or cut off the seed heads and put them in a bucket for processing later. 

There are many different ways to process your dry seeded crops, Today we'll talk about Threshing and Winnowing. 

Threshing

This is a process of using brute human force to remove your seeds from their protective layers and debris. This can be done in a variety of ways...

Hand Rubbing – this means that you just rub debris off the seed with your fingers. This works well for things like carrot seeds which have small barbed edges that need to be rubbed off, or for small amounts of beans, lettuce, etc. 

Stomping or Dancing – this means that you would place your seed crop (pods, stems and all) into a large grain bag and then proceed to stomp or dance on it. 

This process loosens the seeds from their protective layers in large amounts, as opposed to hand rubbing which would take much longer...

Beating – this is very similar to the stomping method. You would place your seed crop (pods, stems and all) into a large grain bag. 

This bag can be hung from a string (to create a pinata like effect) and beaten several times with a 2X4. Alternatively, you can also bash this grain bag against a sturdy wall or floor to have the same effect of loosening the seeds from their protective layers. 

So needless to say, Threshing your seeds by hand is quite satisfying, and is a great way to unleash some frustration too! SEED THERAPY AT IT'S FINEST! 

Winnowing  

This is a process of using air currents to separate seeds from debris. This can be done outdoors in the wind or indoors with a fan.  

Basically you are going to use the force of the air to blow away your debris but leave your seeds behind. This takes some experimentation and alteration...so be patient...your technique will come to you with practice and experience. 

Even after winnowing, there will likely still be some debris in your seed crop that can be removed with tweezers (or not, depending on how fussy you are...) If you are saving seeds for home use, cleanliness of the seed is at your discretion. It's up to you to decide how much debris matters to you....go at it for hours with tweezers, or leave some chafe in there-its up to you! 

Let's talk about Selection, Roguing and How to deal with the Variations involved! 

I'm sure that any of you who have grown open pollinated or heirloom varieties of vegetables have noticed that they have variations WITHIN their variety. These variations are part of what makes these varieties so special. 

For example, certain tomato varieties are meant to have variable blushings or stripes on them...This is just like how some humans have freckles...large ones AND small ones – on the SAME face. It's beauty. It's character. It's history. It is part of the DNA and needs to be respected during your “Selections”

When you are selecting your specimens, keeping this variability in mind is important in keeping that variety “true” to it's type.


So don't just select all of your most uniform and round tomatoes if this particular variety happens to be a bit lumpy – you need to represent that lumpyness as part of its genetic diversity! 

Respect the Variations!!! 

Now for example, if you are saving Merlot lettuce (which is a solid dark purple) and we see a few plants that are showing a lot of green in that group, then you will need to do some “Roguing.” 

Roguing means to seek out and remove undesirable traits among your group. Roguing out your “strays” means that Merlot will stay...Merlot. 

Now these “strays” are not all that bad, they are just different...they deserve respect as well, they just don't belong when you are trying to preserve a specific variety. These “strays” have either snuck their way into your seed packet from another variety completely...Or they have naturally “Adapted” to do something different than usual because their environment has been altered, as a result, their genetics have changed to show different traits...

These interesting “adaptations” do NOT always have to be “Rogued out” if you are interested in breeding new varieties for example. This is how some of our greatest heirloom varieties exist today, they have been repeatedly selected for one or more interesting traits, to form a new breed. 

So this is where “Selection” can get pretty interesting...

If you are interested in altering an heirloom, to create something a bit different (These are often referred to as “improvements” in the garden scene) Some good traits to select for, would be...cold or heat tolerance depending on your climate, various disease resistancies in comparison to other varieties, certain colour schemes or desired patterns such as stripes, spots, etc. Time of maturity, selecting for early fruit set in an area with a short growing season, overall vigour and production, uniformity, taste, etc, etc, etc. 

When you are thinking of creating something different, consider this...it takes MANY years to completely stabilize these traits, they must be grown out for years until stable. This takes a lot of work, research and patience that goes beyond standard preservation efforts. 

Creating or breeding these new varieties is also a way to make sure we have lots of different breeding lines to select from to produce even more great seed for the future. 

Im not by any means an expert plant breeder, I'm just beginning my mission down that road. (See White Calabash, Black Crick, and stay tuned for more on my new radishes!) So, If you are thinking about making some radical selections and stabilizing them then you might want to look into farmers who have been doing this for years such as Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds (Oregon) to find out more about breeding new varieties. (Or just experiment! It’s fun and you could come up with something amazing!)

 

 

Now that we've talked about Lifecycles, Wet and Dry Seed Crops, Processing your seed Crops,

Selection, RoguingAdaptations and Breeding......We can get into things like Pollination, Isolation, and Population!

Pollination

Each plant has a different way of being pollinated. Some do it themselves, Some need the wind, and some need insects or humans to help them. 

Selfers – These plants can pollinate themselves! They are hemaphrodites, which means that they have both male AND female sexual organs within each flower. So they can take care of their own pollination, they don't need any help. Although Selfers have the ability to “do it on their own” they can still be cross pollinated because their flowers are tasty and insects still like them. This is why Isolation methods are important. 

Crossers – These plants are either Monoceous or Dioceous and require the assistance of the wind, insects, or human hands to pollinate. 

Monoceous- means that they have both male and female flowers, but on separate stems.  

(they live in the same house but stay in separate rooms) ex. Squash, Cucumber, Melons 

Dioceous - means that each plant hosts either male or female flowers separately. ex. Spinach

What does “Open Pollinated” mean?

This term in no way refers to the way in which a plant is pollinated, but instead means that if you save seed from it, it will grow out true to type, like an heirloom. Basically it just means “You can save your own seed from this variety” This means that it can be enjoyed generation after generation!                   

Population

How many Plants it takes to Maintain Genetic Integrity of a species. Each species needs a different population size to survive without getting “inbreeding depression” or weakening its genetics in some form or another. 

Beans need only about 10 plants to select specimens from, Whereas Carrots or Corn need at least 200 specimens to select from in order to maintain their genetic integrity. Just like plants...our human population wouldn't be thriving either, if we tried forcing the same couple to populate the world over and over again...we would eventually die off. This is why population sizes are important! 

Isolation

When you are saving seeds from a certain variety, you need to make sure that there isn't another variety of the same species within a close distance or else it could result in Cross Pollination of your variety. Isolation methods and techniques are in place to ensure your varietal purity. Basically it's about keeping everyone's pollen to themselves! 

Don't worry! Your plants can still snuggle...just not within the same species...

This means that if you are growing on one acre...you can only grow one kind of hot pepper because it requires an isolation distance of 800ft between species. Sounds pretty limiting huh...? Well there are some different ways around these isolation requirements, such as isolation timing, and isolation containment/barriers...

Isolation Timing – means planting your crops based on the time when they are going to flower and not allowing any flowering overlaps between species. This means that their pollen is kept separate from one another so its still pure. 

Isolation Barriers/Containment – This means that you are controlling the pollen of your varieties by containing them using various methods. 

Using either cages or row covers that would cover the entire crop completely is a great idea for crops that require larger populations. If you are saving seed from a smaller population, then bagging single flowers with cotton, etc. also works to seal in that pollen. 

Keep in mind that if you are using containment or barrier methods on a Monoceous or Dioceous crop, you will need to assist the pollination of the crop by either introducing a pollinator to the environment, or using human hands to rub and spread the pollen amongst the contained crop. This is not a concern for Self Pollinating plants - They take care of their own pollen!

Alright, so now we know who can snuggle with who and how close they can get to each other without causing trouble!

Let's Talk About Labeling & Storage!

After doing all of the hard work to save these seeds, you will want to label them, (so that you know who they are, where they are from, and when they were grown.) 

You will also want to make sure that before you store them, that they are COMPLETELY dry. 

To do a dryness test, you can use your fingers, a hammer, etc. When you apply pressure or force to the seed it should break or shatter. If it bends or mushes, it is not dry yet. You can also use certain drying mediums such as silica gel packs, etc. 

Once seeds are “completely” dry, you can then store them in paper, glass jars, plastic containers, metal tins, etc. Your storage area needs to be dry. It needs to be dark. It needs to be cool. (these are the three most important things to consider when storing your seeds.) A place like a pantry or root cellar works great. Seeds can also be stored in the refrigerator or freezer with aluminum foil. 

Another thing that you will want to consider in storage is rodents...make sure that your seed storage is rodent proof. Rodents love seeds. Okay...so now that your seeds are packed up and rats aren't eating them...I guess that's it!

I really hope that this has been a small inspiration and enough information for you to get started with saving your own seeds! 

 

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