Record numbers of people are gardening this spring and victory gardens are rapidly sprouting across the nation. Now is a better time than ever to learn how to save seeds.
People have saved plant seeds for millennia. Saving seeds from home grown vegetables is a connection to our ancestors, allowing future generations to enjoy the same varieties of tomatoes and great-tasting beans that great-grandma grew. Because successful plants reproduce, saving seeds can also increase one's gardening success over time. Plants successful in Chico will be adapted to the hot dry environment of the Central Valley, and their seeds will produce plants that tend to fare better in hot dry conditions than plants from seeds produced in a radically different environment such as the cool foggy coast. Saving seeds helps maintain the genetic diversity of our food supply, possibly helping adapt to new pests and diseases as well as changes in climate. Perhaps the biggest advantages of saving seeds are cost savings and self-sufficiency.
The process of saving seeds ranges from simple to complex, depending upon the vegetable. Seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to type. In other words, the offspring will not resemble the parent plant, but will instead revert to characteristics of one of the two plant varieties that were crossed to create the hybrid. For seed-saving choose “open-pollinated” varieties, which will produce seeds with characteristics identical to the parent plant. Save seeds from healthy plants that exhibit the qualities you wish to preserve--definitely plan to save seeds from the heirloom tomato plant that produces the biggest and best-tasting tomatoes.
Butternut squash, Jimmy Nardello peppers and fava beans, J Alosi
Some vegetables, like beans and peas, are self-pollinating. These are less likely to cross with other related varieties through insect pollination. Self-pollinating varieties are excellent choices for the beginning seed saver, as some pods can simply be left on the vine to dry out. Once completely dried, remove seeds from pods, place them in envelopes labelled with the variety and date and store them in an airtight container in a dry dark place. A mason jar placed in the refrigerator or freezer makes a good receptacle for seed packets. Properly stored bean and pea seeds should remain viable for three years.
Tomatoes are also largely self-pollinating, so with adequate separation between types (ten feet apart is recommended) several varieties can be grown for seed in the same garden. Harvest over-ripe fruit from several different plants of the same variety to maintain genetic diversity. Squeeze the pulp and seeds into a container and cover it, letting the seedy pulp ferment on your countertop for 3 days. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the liquid. Pour off the liquid, strain out these viable seeds, rinse and allow them to dry on a plate or paper towel. Once completely dried, they can be transferred to packets, and then labeled and stored as described above. Properly stored tomato seeds will remain viable for four or more years.
Seed saving, Jennifer Petersen
Peppers cross easily due to pollination. You may notice your sweet bell peppers suddenly take on a spicy hot pepper quality if you don't separate pepper varieties by at least 100 feet or plant barrier crops in between varieties. But pepper seeds are some of the easiest to save; just remove seeds from the fruit and dry them for two to three days on a plate or paper towel. Properly stored pepper seeds remain viable for up to two years.
Quickly growing lettuce is another ideal crop for the beginner gardener and seed saver. Lettuce can be harvested in the “cut and come again” method by harvesting outer leaves only and allowing the center to grow to maturity and set seed. They can also be grown as heads and harvested at once, but some plants will need to be reserved as seed producers. Use screens to separate mature seeds from the fluffy chaff which can harbor diseases, then label and store. Plant your saved lettuce seeds within three years.
Sunflower seeds, Jennifer Petersen
Some vegetables require much more care to ensure that seeds do not carry mixed or unexpected character traits. While corn is an American staple in the garden and whole cobs are easily dried, wind pollination leads to easy crossing between different varieties. If you want to save corn seed, grow only one variety in a large patch (or in patches of different varieties separated by 1,000 feet, if you have that much space). Members of the squash family within the same species readily cross and must be separated by a half mile or hand-pollinated to ensure a pure strain. Similarly, cole crops are all varieties of a single species, Brassica oleracea. Cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, turnips, collard and bok choy will all cross with one another; therefore, growing only one variety at a time is recommended if you plan to save the seed.
Whatever your level of expertise, saving seeds can be a rewarding pursuit for gardeners of all ages. Try your hand at saving seeds from your garden bounty this summer and enjoy the fruits of your labor for many more years to come.
Paradise Seed Lending Library, Jennifer Petersen
For more information on saving seeds of all types, consult The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by R. E. Gough and C. Moore-Gough, Seedsavers Exchange at www.seedsavers.org, your local seed lending library, or Beginner's Guide to Seed Saving” by Paul McCollum, UC Master Gardener of Monterey Bay.
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fava beans drying in pods, J Alosi