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In the scheme of self-sufficiency, seed-saving is amongst the most important and overlooked items on the checklist. After all, there are no plants to produce tomatoes, squashes, and so on if there are no seeds from which to spark those plants.
However, much the same as we’ve become accustomed to supermarkets supplying most of our food, those of us who try to grow our own veggies have become accustomed to buying seeds year in and year out. Of course, we have to capacity to harvest those seeds ourselves, and for many of them, it’s really easy.
Truthfully, looking at the seed catalogs and daydreaming can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the early spring gardening, but it’s also often one of the most expensive. Saving seed for some of our yearly favorites just makes a lot of sense. Plus, it’ll leave a little extra funding for experimenting with new stuff!
Questions for Consideration
- Open-pollinated vs. hybrid: Are the original seeds open-pollinated? Open-pollinated seeds come from natural processes, as opposed to hybrid (F1) seeds which are created in labs. While F1 seeds from the packet will grow vigorously and produce a specific type of tomato or cucumber, the next generation of hybrid seeds will not perform the same.
- Is the crop self-pollinating? Crops, such as legumes, lettuces, and tomatoes provide their own pollination, which means they don’t need to be especially isolated to maintain the type, e.g. Cherokee tomatoes or Mr. Big peas. On the flip side of this, squashes, melons, and cucumbers are prone to cross-breeding, which means, if not isolated, the new seeds will produce mixed—literally—results.
- Is the “fruit” dry or wet? Crops with dry fruits, such as grains and legumes, are much easier to deal with than wet fruits, such as tomatoes or cucumbers. While seed-saving is possible and not so difficult in either case, dry seeds are generally just a matter of harvesting and storing them for next year. Wet seeds require a bit more processing.
Start with the Easy Stuff
There are some seeds that it just seems foolish not to harvest for next season. Open-pollinated, self-pollinating crops with dry seeds are very easy to deal with, and they alone can comprise the better part of a garden. Here are some of the easy options:
- Beans: Pick all you like until about a month before the last frost date. Then, choose you’re most productive couple of plants and allow them to provide a dozen or so fully mature, dried bean pods. This works for any type of bean.
- Peas: See beans. Same technique. This goes for sugar snap peas, snow peas, and whatever other varieties are eaten still in the pod. Just let those pods grow on until they dry on the vine.
- Greens: Collards, mustard, loose-leaf lettuces, chicory, arugula, spinach—there’s never enough greens. Just let the plant flower and reach maturity, at which time it will create tons of seed pods. These should stay on the plant until they become brittle. They can be harvested at this point, and they often seed themselves for next year in the process.
- Winter Squash/Pumpkins: Winter squashes and pumpkin are very easy for seed-saving because they are harvested at maturity. In other words, when cleaning them for cooking, those seeds we scoop are viable seeds. That said, squashes and pumpkins do cross-pollinate, so if the garden has multiple varieties, the seeds won’t stay true to the parent plants.
Continue with Some Easy Stuff
Wet seeds—tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squashes, peppers, etc.—are easy to deal with as well, but they require some extra steps, namely fermentation. These seeds often come out with goo on them, and that goo can cause problems when storing the seed. Luckily, fermentation not only removes the offending glop, but it also coats the seeds with protective probiotics and antibiotics. Here’s what you’ve got to do.
- Let the vegetable get overripe. Tomatoes should be beyond slicing nicely. Cucumbers should be bloated and should have kissed green goodbye long ago. Peppers might ooze of their stems.
- Remove the wet seed from the fruit and put it in a jar of water to ferment for a few days, until the fruit flies start to congregate or a significant other/roommate questions your sanity.
- Pour of the crude from the top of the jar and begin decanting the liquid until the water remaining is clear. This will take several rinses, and during those rinses, go ahead and remove any seeds that are floating. They aren’t viable. We want seeds that sink.
- Strain the clean, fermented seeds and keep them on a screen for several days to dry.
Beware of Biennials!
There are, however, some plants that are a little more difficult to deal with, and biennials are chief amongst this list. Biennial plants require two growing seasons to reach maturity. In other words, they grow one season, go dormant through the winter and grow again before providing seed. In many cases, saving these seeds can require digging the plants up, storing them safely, and replanting them in spring.
While doable, this might be better left for more experienced, inspired seed-savers. Some common biennials include carrots, swiss chard, cabbage, onions, and beets. For those who live in warmer USDA Zones (7 and up), these can probably stay in the ground over the winter and be fine. But, they can be problematic for seed saving.
Save Seeds, Save Money, Save the Planet
With genetic modification, seed patenting, and mass agriculture, the garden is being steered away from the wholesome, nourishing thing it should be. We can help to combat that by buying seeds from small suppliers that specialized in heirlooms, open-pollinated and organic seeds. We can also help maintain biodiversity by saving seeds at home. It’s yet one more great part of growing your own garden.
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