|Home Grown Tomatoes|
|Seed Saving: A Lesson in Sustainability|
September begins the seed-harvesting season for me, although I harvest seed for saving all through the growing season. Some of the garden plants mature at different times during the season and are collected for drying or replenishing the garden with fresh, short-season herbs like cilantro and dill.
Seed saving can be an educational lesson in sustainability as well as in plant biology. Seed saved from open-pollinated plants flourishing in your garden means they are most-likely well-suited for your climate and soil and should perform well year-after-year.
Only harvest seed from open-pollinating, non-hybrid annual plants. Hybrids are least likely to come back true to form from saved seed. When harvesting seed from year to year from one particular variety of plant, remember to buy fresh seed after a few years of planting from generations. Otherwise, seed can become contaminated with the worst traits in their gene pool, causing natural resistance to pathogens and insects to wane. An alternative to buying new seed every few years is to join a seed exchange, where like gardeners can share heirloom and open-pollinated seed across the country. Sharing seed in this manner helps Mother Nature keep the gene pool fresh and as pure as possible.
With cucurbits and other non-self-pollinating vegetables, there is a likelihood of cross-pollination unless care is taken to keep a minimum distance between plant types. Also, with these vegetables, the desired maturity for eating them is much earlier than the optimum seed harvest times. Fruit production slows or even stops when mature fruits are left on the plants for seed collection.
There are essentially two ways to harvest seed for saving. There is the dry method and the wet method.
Seed of fleshy fruits should be processed using the wet method. Although for melons, cucumbers, squashes, peppers (more on peppers later) and tomatoes, dry seed processing is possible, they are best processed using the wet method.
Scoop out the seed masses if you will be using the fruits for juice or adding to soups. Otherwise, gently crush fruits. Place the seed mass in a bucket or jar along with enough warm water to slightly cover the seed. Do not seal the bucket or jar, but cover it with a damp towel or non-sealing lid. Allow the mix to ferment for 48 to 96 hours, stirring every 24 hours. The fermentation process kills viruses and separates the good seed from the bad seed and the fruit pulp. After the fermentation process has finished working, you will notice the good seed have settled to the bottom of the mix, while the bad seed and fruit pulp are on top. Pour off the bad seed, fruit pulp mold and water. Spread the good seed in a single layer on a screen to dry. Seed must be dry to store…more on that later.
The dry process is required for legumes, alliums, carrots, most flowers and most herbs.
Allow the fruits (or flower heads) to mature and dry as much as possible on the plant. Harvest beans and peas when the pod becomes leathery or the seeds rattle inside the dried pods. Allow the pods to complete dry in a single layer on a screen in a well-ventilated, cool, dry area. Separate the seed by removing them from the dried pods or gently blowing the dried chaff (seed covering) away. Store beans and peas in a ventilated bag instead a sealed container.
Cucurbit seed can also be saved using a wet/dry process. Here are some techniques for specific fruits and flowers.
Cucumbers and summer squash: Harvest when they are mature and mushy. Cut long-wise and scrape out the seed and slimy pulp. Place seeds in sieve and wash under cool water until seeds no longer feel slimy. Rinse, dry and store.
Winter squash, pumpkins and cantaloupes: Harvest when beginning to turn mushy. Cut in half, exposing the seed chamber. Scrape seed from the chamber and place on newspaper in a single layer. Allow to dry for a day in a cool, well-ventilated area. Pick the drying pulp away, then place seeds in a bowl of warm water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid. Wash and rinse until seeds are no longer slimy. Dry and store.
Watermelon: Put seeds in a bowl, then wash with warm water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid to remove any sugar from the seeds. Strain, dry and store.
Peppers: Care should be taken when preparing pepper seeds for storing, especially the hot ones. Capsaicin (the stuff that makes peppers hot) can irritate the eyes, nose, mouth and skin. Always wear protective gloves, eye protection and, in some cases, a respirator. Always remember to avoid touching your face and scratching your nose or eyes when handling hot peppers. Select mature peppers that have turned to their final ripe color phase. Cut peppers open and scrape the seeds onto a plate or other drying surface. Allow the seeds to completely dry and remove chaff before storing.
Marigolds: Allow the seed heads to dry on the plants. Remove the seed heads, break open and separate seed from the head and petals. Allow to finish drying in a paper bag, then store.
Zinnias: After the flowers fade, remove the flower heads and place in a paper bag to dry. After they have completely dried, separate the seeds from the petals and flower heads. Store in a cool, dry location.
After drying all of your seeds, place in appropriately-labeled envelopes or other storage containers to keep until next season. Here at the Tomato Tower, we collect and dry the seeds, then place them in envelopes, canning jars or used medicine bottles. Each jar or bottle has a desiccant pack or canister inside to keep moisture away from the seed. Additionally, all of the small containers are placed inside a larger sealable storage container and a larger desiccant pack is then placed in with the group. The seed container is then stored in a 35°F refrigerator until needed. Start refrigeration dates are placed on the seed containers, like maple and oak tree seed, so we will know when the optimal stratification period is.
Desiccant packs are available online and contain activated clay or silica gel. I have been saving packs from electronics equipment purchases for years. Also, some over-the-counter medications come with a small canister in the bottle. All these can be reused and reactivated by allowing them to dry in a zero-humidity environment like a 225°F oven. You can make your own, too. Fill a small cloth bag with about a half cup of dry powdered milk. Place the bag in the bottom of your seed container.
Seed viability varies from one type to the next when storing for long periods of time. Onions and sweet corn should be used by the next year while other seeds can be stored from three to five years.
Save, share and use seed from your garden this year and enjoy saving money.
Become a fan of Home Grown Tomatoes on Facebook and keep up with the latest news.