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Saving Seed

by Rebecca Hansen

What are “heirloom” vegetables? An heirloom vegetable is a non-hybrid, open-pollinated variety that has been passed down from generation to generation and, in some cases, can be traced back hundreds of years.  These seed lines have been carefully selected to maintain uniformity and consistency for germination.  Heirloom seeds become ‘heirloom’ because they exhibit exceptional traits desired by the gardener.  Often this means the plants are more colorful, flavorful, unique, or have great germination and vigor.  Often the traits are location dependent.  Meaning, seeds planted in one garden will not produce in the same manner in another location.  We encourage you to try heirloom seeds, see which have the qualities for your area to become your favorites and make them into your own very special seed line.  Saving seeds is easy and fun.

Gardeners have found that as seeds are selected and saved over many years, production is increased and the quality is improved, creating plants that will produce best for that locale and will resist diseases and pests of that locale.  Contributing to genetic diversity strengthens the ecosystem. Historically farmers and local gardeners have created and sustained this rich genetic heritage by learning to save their own seeds from varieties that perform best in their own mini-ecosystems.  The current trend toward mono crops where only one seed type is used to produce a crop worldwide is eliminating the ability to be able to find genetic variations that will withstand emerging pathogens and climate changes.

Planting your crop:  Start with good Heirloom Seed varieties.  Keep in mind that to allow the plants to produce seed and to allow the seed to fully mature, you will have to allow for a longer growing season.  This can be done by starting plants indoors and arranging for protection from frost in the late season. You will be growing some for food or flower harvest and some for seed production.  Fully mature seeds will be viable (able to germinate) and produce vigorous plants.  You may want to do some research on the different flower types for proper pollination techniques and plant with row/species separation in mind, to prevent cross-pollination.  You may look into caging procedures to isolate species that are in flower at the same time.  By caging different plants on alternate days, you can take advantage of the pollinators to do the work without cross-pollinating your crop.  Cage one plant or group on one day and early the next day, before the bees wake, transfer your cage to a different plant or group.  Some crops are biennial and do not produce seed until the next year, so you will need to determine whether you should leave the roots in the ground over the winter or dig and store them.

There are many publications with detailed information on seed saving and growing techniques for each species.  “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, 2002 by Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. is a good way to get started. www.seedsavers.org.  Also, Easy instructions for seed saving, written by the International Seed Saving Institute, a non-profit established to teach seed saving, can be found at:http://www.seedsave.org/issi/issi_904.html

Harvesting and collecting seed:  When selecting plants for saving seeds, look for favorable characteristics such as; freeze and cold tolerance, heat tolerance, adaptability, winter hardiness, early maturation, vigor (strong germination and growth), flavor, color, size, texture, etc. Also, look for desirable traits such as; vine or plant type, seed type, specific disease resistance.  Plan to be ready to harvest the seed as they mature.  Often the pods will pop open when you are not around to collect the seed and it will be lost.

Allow the seed pods to remain on the plant in the ground for as long as possible.  Usually, the seed will not continue to mature after the pods are cut from the plant.  The process of cleaning and separating (thresh) the seeds from the chaff (pods and stems) is easy for a small home gardener.  Break apart the pods by crushing or breaking the pods and collecting the seed.  Sometimes the chaff can be blown away from the seed, by pouring the seed onto a pan in front of a small fan or by using cleaning screens that come with different sized openings.

Seed Hoarders

Chipmunk sitting on a sunflower head eating seeds.

photo courtesy of pixabay -evitaochel

Thank goodness that “Hoarders” TV show doesn’t ever focus on seed hoarders. Gardeners who are very tidy and organized and otherwise not people who collect or hoard things can secretly have boxes full of seed from years and years of saving.  Sometimes the seeds are gifts from friends, or seeds ordered because you forgot you has some left over and bought more or just surplus seeds from generous seed packages. I knew my seed habit was getting out of hand once I started collecting seed myself – now I have paper bags full of saved seeds and had to move from the tiny shoebox to a big box.

This year, I’ve come up with a way to use those old seeds without feeling too guilty…and I’ll save some money, too.  Early Fall is the traditional time to put in cover crops…seeds that will germinate and grow some but die back with a freeze or simply be chopped down and turned into the soil to replenish it in the Spring.  Cover crops get lots of organic matter into the soil without much trouble. But there’s no reason you have to use an official “cover crop.”  The idea is just young plants that get chopped up and mixed in with the soil. This year, I decided to turn some of my seed hoards to cover my garden soil this winter. (Let’s not be ridiculous and use all those good seeds.)

So as I have clear patches of the garden after harvesting, I’m going to remove the big debris, lightly rake the soil and sprinkle out old and gathered seed.  Many of the old seeds won’t germinate but there’s enough that will make a good protective cover.  And as long as you PROMISE to turn the cover crop in before perennials establish themselves, you can even include old packets of grass seed.

My cover crop won’t be as cute as when I put in just winter rye and get a nice even green lawn effect….but it will be great fun to guess what is what!

My hoarded cover crop this year includes:

Years of half-used radish seeds, hybrid tomato seeds from 1996, leftover lawn patch seeds that got wet in the bag, cabbage seeds I forgot about and never gave garden space too, dill, cilantro, caraway and fennel seeds collected from previous years gardens, hollyhocks collected from alleyways. Lots of black-eyed susans, marigolds and cosmos.  While I’m on the seed purge, I’m cleaning out the kitchen pantry and throwing in old spices (coriander, dill, mustard seed) and old whole wheat berries that have bugs, or old beans I’ll never like. Talk about recycling!

You can decide which seeds are iffy by checking out this list of lifespans of vegetable seeds:

http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/1999/4-2-1999/veggielife.html

Phew. Now that I understand which seeds will happily last until next year, I can order from the End of Year Seed Sale and have good viable fresh seed to save in my seed box for next Spring.

Too Many Seeds, Too Little Space.

I remember when I first started gardening. As I recall, I went to the hardware store and bought three packets of seeds which I planted that afternoon.  I’m not sure how I followed my lust for seeds until today when my saved and leftover seeds now require two shoe boxes….and that’s after I gave away many many seeds.  So I look at all those seeds…and the envelopes of newly arrived seeds I’ve gotten in the mail…and wonder how I’ll ever have enough room on windowsills one plant rack to get all those exquisite young plants going.

Winter Sowing of course!  As fun as it is to germinate seeds on the heat mat that creates new plants in a few days, that’s not very practical when it could be another three months until the soil is warm enough that it isn’t freezing at night.  I learned Winter Sowing back in the early days of the internet….and it is still the most effective method for starting winter seeds.

The basic idea is you have plastic containers (I used water jugs). You cut them in half. Put some soil in. Label the name of the seed. Water the soil. Sow the seed. Tape the container closed. Move the entire container OUTSIDE to the north side of the house where it’s protected from the wind.  And that’s it.  Now as the season warms, Nature will cause them to germinate at the right time when the temperatures are best suited for the seeds.  Monthly watering is all the maintenance that this needs….and of course planting out all those seedlings when the time is ready.

The phrase Winter Sowing was coined by our hero, Trudi Davidoff. For years she has tirelessly gathered info and shared her wisdom on Garden Web, then her own website http://www.wintersown.org, then Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/groups/102675420505/  There really isn’t much more to doing winter sowing than I’ve said….but there are dozens of web pages via her website and Facebook and Google, so enjoy learning.

You know all those seed failures you’ve had in the past? Probably won’t happen with Winter Sowing.  Seeds that need to be chilled get chilled.  Seeds that need a long time to germinate can sit there till they are ready. No leggy plants because they are outside in the bright light.  You’ll need to water every month or so….but that’s all you need to get 100s of plants going.  One plant I still start indoors is tomato because I want my tomato plants big sooner in my short season.  But otherwise….there is no end to what seeds you can try.  The biggest challenge will be getting them transplanted to the garden.

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

3 Easy Way to Get More Plants

by Sandy Swegel

No this isn’t about how to sneak into your neighbor’s yard at night with a shovel and bucket.  Although stopping by at your neighbor’s when she’s in full gardening mode can often score a few plants that she’s getting rid of.  But Spring is a time when plants are vigorously growing… so they easily transplant or divide or root.

Root in Water
The easiest new plants this week were the forsythia and viburnum blooms and curly willows I cut to put in vases in the house.  By the time they were finished being beautiful, little rootlets were forming at the bottom of the stems…so I’ll leave them in water another week or so and then plant them directly in the garden.

When I’m weeding out plants that are in places I don’t want them to be, but I don’t have time to save each little plant if I want to finish the cleanup, I keep a bucket of water with me and throw in stragglers that might survive till I have time to deal with them.  Got some nice yarrows, perennial geraniums and veronicas this week.

Annuals like geraniums root easily in water. I’ve also gotten fuschias and the wing begonias to root easily.

I’m not saying rooting in water is the best way to propagate plants….but before I knew much about gardening, I rooted lots of plants this way and it’s fun to watch the roots grow in the kitchen window while I wash dishes.

Cut off divisions
For plants one is traditionally taught to dig up, divide and transplant, (Shasta daisies, Veronica, salviaphlox, among many more) I’ve found great success just taking a shovel or my trusty soil knife and slicing through about a 3-inch piece on the edge.  I leave the mother plant undisturbed so its growth and bloom is normal.  The division transplants easily although it may bloom later.  This works great with hostas and I’ve gotten dozens of baby hosta plants this way.

Direct seed.
I was hanging out in the parking lot at the local garden center drooling over all the perfect annuals being unloaded.  And such a deal.  $2 or $3 for a four-pack…how can one resist?  However, by the time I get to the checkout stand, all those couple-of-dollars added up to a lot of money that wasn’t in my budget.  Then I remembered my first garden as an adult.  We sprinkled one pack of marigold seeds.  True, they didn’t look like much in early May….but come June, they were blooming and there were dozens and dozens of little marigold plants for less than the cost of that four pack. Come mid-summer the tiny field of marigolds were much prettier than that four-pack would have been.  PLANT MORE SEEDS.  :)

Seed-saving: Collecting Dry Seed

by Chris McLaughlin

It’s easy to save seeds from plants that produce pods, husks, and other dry casings such as peas, beans, and flowers. The technique is called “dry processing” and is faster than collecting seed from fleshy, pulpy fruits such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  Seeds that are dry-processed can be allowed to dry right on the plants unless there’s wet weather in the forecast.

Gardeners collect these seeds in different ways. Seeds often fall where they may, naturally, little by little. Some gardeners make collecting them easy and as the seeds begin to mature, they secure paper bags over the seed heads and attach them to the stems of the plants. Thus, catching any seeds that ripen early.

Once you have the seed, you’re actually left with a mixture of seeds and what’s called “chaff” as opposed to pure seed. Chaff is pod or husk coverings and other debris that fall in with the seeds.

Separating the seeds from the chaff is a technique called “threshing.” Threshing is used to remove the coverings from the seeds. Commercial threshing is done by multitasking machines that can harvest, thresh, and winnow the seeds all at once. For the home gardener, a bag, pillowcase, or small sack is all that’s necessary.

Simply put the collected seeds into the bag, secure the ends, and roll it around, lightly crushing the contents a bit. Don’t get all macho on me and break out a hammer for this — you don’t want to damage the seeds. For the tinier ones, there’s nothing wrong with using a flat board to gently press on the seeds to loosen the chaff.
The next step of dry harvesting is called “winnowing.” Winnowing is just a five-dollar word for getting the loosened chaff off of your seeds before you store them. In nature, this would be taken care of by the wind, but you can use the same idea by placing the seeds into a bowl and shaking the bowl around a bit. Most of the chaff is lighter than the seeds and it’ll rise to the top.

Be sure to have a large sheet underneath your workspace so if any seeds are blown away with the debris, you can retrieve them. Work outdoors only on a day without wind. Now, blow gently into the seeds to remove the lighter-weight chaff. Repeat this process until all (or most) of the chaff is gone.

Be sure all wayward seeds are removed from the sheet underneath before you do any winnowing with other varieties. Another option is to use a screen or sifter where the holes are smaller than the chaff to simply sift them apart. The size of the sifter holes will depend on the size of the seeds and the chaff.

Label the seeds with their name and the date they were collected immediately after you’ve finished dry harvesting each variety. Excellent record-keeping is your best friend when it comes to seed-saving. It’s amazing how easy it is to mix up seed varieties!