- Author: Margaret J O'Neill
There are so many expressions that are oriented around seeds: “seeds of change,” “seeds of hope,” “planting a seed in one's mind”….and one of my favorites, a proverb from Mexico (but with many other iterations from around the world and through the ages): “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas” which roughly translates to “They tried to bury us; they didn't know we were seeds.” I was even able to find a list of 75 expressions and proverbs that used seeds as their metaphor…..like the lesser known proverb from Japan “the miser and his persimmon seed (still trying to sort that one out).” What is it about seeds that speak to us so? I remember when we started our Master Gardener Seed Library at Chino Basin Water Conservation District linked to in-person classes on seeds with adults and families and I would talk about how to know if your seed was dry enough to store. I would use the pea seed as an example, telling people “you know that dried pea you get in the seed packets? Those dried peas you get in the store? That is how dry your seed needs to be!” It fascinated me that this little dried out ball, hard as a rock, still had life in it…..that you could plant it, and water it and from there would come food, and flowers and life. They represent hope, growth, life, food, change, regeneration and so much more.
While these proverbial seeds are a plenty, so are the seeds in your garden! When I took the time to look, I found them right under my nose! It is up to each individual to find the seeds of hope, change, happiness and growth in their lives, but I can help you find the seeds in your garden! Here are a few tips:
First and foremost, do not harvest seeds from the wild! Nature depends on these seeds to regenerate themselves and every time we have a fire, or unusually warm weather, or a late heavy freeze, nature dips into its seed bank to keep on going. Don't think you are the only one out there wanting to harvest wild seeds! You are not. If all of us actually did it we would make a dent in nature's seed bank that she cannot refill. Does that mean you can't seed save natives? No! There are lots of ways to save and grow native seeds. You can buy native plants from nurseries, or seed packets, and start your own native seed garden at your house. Fair warning: Nature doesn't make starting these seeds easy! That will actually be the topic of this month's seed saving class. If you are interested in the lengths you need to go to and the native plants that are easy to start join us using this link: http://mgsb.ucanr.edu/?calitem=492669&g=61974
- Some seeds are easier to harvest than others, some seeds are harder to start than others, and some seeds are harder to get to breed true than others (some resort to previous genetics and produce a different version than what you expected!). It is easy to get overwhelmed when you start seed saving and my advice is to start small…little by little. Pick one plant (a veggie, fruit, or flower) and learn about it. You can contact our Master Gardener helpline, join our online “Ask a Master Gardener” time or attend our free seed saving classes for help you with your questions.
- “Learn about that plant?” What does that mean? Ask these questions:
o Is this plant a hybrid or an open pollinated variety? Going back to school, when we learned about genetics and the purple and white pea, we need to know “are the parents of this plant the same variety or different varieties?” Many of the plants we have in our garden are hybrids to increase yield, hardiness, or disease resistance. While seeds can be saved from these hybrid plants, the only guarantee you will get is that there is no guarantee! You have no idea which genes will express themselves when you plant and grow them. Open pollinated seeds (when grown under the right pollination conditions) will give you reliable results and produce the plant that you are hoping for (breed true).
o Is this a plant I should seed save from? There are plants that we generally don't grow from seed, like succulents and fruit trees. With succulents we usually grow them from cuttings because they just do so well that way. There are several reasons we generally don't grow fruit trees from seed. One is that, due to all of the pollinators that visit those flowers and how easily they cross breed, you don't know what genetics you will get or if the tree will ever bear fruit. The other reason is that fruit trees are often grafted on a particular disease resistant root stock that will keep the plant healthy against common pests and diseases. When you plant a fruit tree from seed it gets none of the disease resistance you get from a grafted tree and it is common for them to die suddenly, even when cared for properly.
o How far does this plant need to be planted from others to “breed true” or does this plant need others to be properly pollinated (think “self-pollinated” vs needing “cross pollination”)? Some plants, like broccoli, need to be planted far apart from other plants in its family (Brassicas) to breed true. Other plants, like corn, need to be planted close, or in a zig zag pattern, to ensure proper pollination, but they also can be cross pollinated from other varieties of corn that are hundreds of feet away. One interesting way to handle spacing needs is to create “space” with time rather than distance. You can do that by spacing out the planting time of plants that might cross pollinate with negative results so that they are not flowering at the same time. This is one of tricky parts of seed saving and I recommend you start your journey with seeds that are self-pollinating and don't cross breed easily(or if they do, it has minimal impact on seeds) like tomatoes, peas and lettuce.
o Where do the seeds form on this plant? Seems obvious, out of the flower, but broccoli was a big surprise to me when I first started seed saving since seeds did not come from where I thought they were going to be coming from at all. Do a little research on that too, just so there are no surprises!
o How are the seeds naturally dispersed? There are five basic seed dispersal methods: wind, water, animals, ballistic (think: seeds shot through the air at high speed when the pod dries out enough!) and gravity. When we act as seed savers we are trying to step in just at the right moment in time: when the seeds are fully mature but before they fall (or are explosively shot!) to the earth. Ceanothus and lupine are examples of plants with seeds that are spread by explosive propulsion. Why does this matter to us? Because it will help us catch them at just the right time before they fly off into tiny seed space!
o When are the seeds ripe? On tomatoes it is when the fruit is ripe, but when we eat plants like cucumbers, or summer squash or peas we are eating immature fruits and those seeds are not viable yet. It is important to let seeds fully mature on the plant. There are some species that are viable before the seeds dry out (true of many weeds, unfortunately!) but for most plants the seeds need to fully form and at least begin to dry out on the plant.
o Was the plant that you want to seed save from diseased? The good news is that many diseases are not spread through seeds, but when in doubt don't save seeds from an unhealthy plant, or do some research to find out if the problem your plant has is transmissible through seeds.
o How do you clean them? Seeds fall into the category of “wet” or “dry” seeds. Seeds that are dry, plants like flowers, peas, and beans, need to have the chaff (plant material on the outside of the seed) removed. This helps keep the seeds mold and pest free and makes seeds easier to plant and store. Wet seeds come from plants like squashes, berries, tomatoes and cucumbers and the fleshy plant material needs to be removed from those seeds for storage. For some seeds it is just a matter or washing them off (like pumpkins) and for others, like tomatoes and cucumbers, they require a fermentation process to remove the gel like material on the outside. With “wet” seeds, make sure they are fully dry before you store them. I like to call it “snappable.” Think of how dry bean or tomato seeds are when you buy them in a packet at the nursery. That is how dry they should be, and it can take a few weeks, so be patient. Moisture is the enemy of successful seed storage and saving so taking the time to dry them will pay off. Both processes sound complicated but once you get the hang of it seed cleaning can be fun! It can be an engaging task to do with kids, and community, because you must get creative about how to get it done. You have to find the right size screen, or the setting on the fan that is just right to blow the chaff (plant material) away without blowing the seeds away. It is a great exercise in creative engineering!
- Store your seeds in a cool dry place. If they have any moisture inside them (which they probably will unless you dry them under climate-controlled conditions) they might crack if you put them in the freezer. Like a soda can blowing up, the shell of the seed can crack when the water inside expands. Storing them in the refrigerator is also not recommended. Store them in a cool dry place in your house and do not forget to label them! You might think you will never forget those special seeds you saved, but 7 months later you will wonder what in the world those are?!
- Have some great seeds? Don't save them for too many years! Plant them every year or every other year. Each year the chances that they will germinate decrease, so by planting them each year and growing new seeds to save you will keep that plant's genes alive and healthy.
- Don't give up! When I first learned about seed saving, I was so in love with the idea and philosophy behind it and wanted to learn all about it. Then, I started to learn all about it, and I freaked out! So many things to learn, each plant with their own set of needs, different sized seeds, different precautions to take to get them to breed true. I was overwhelmed and thought “how in the world can I do this on at home?!” Just like so many things in life, the answer was “little by little.” First, I learned about one plant (tomatoes) and then about another, and then about plant breeding, and little by little I am learning more each day. Every time I feel like it is too much, I think about how we, as humans, have been doing this for thousands of years and it is done every day around the world. This is an activity that we have been doing for generations and it's our job to keep on learning, keep on failing, keep on trying, and keep on teaching the next generation how to do it….and like always, Master Gardeners are here to help you with your journey! Call us on our helpline, send us an email, attend our free classes. You can become a part of our seed saving community so that you can create your own seed saving community at home, in your kiddo's school, your church, local farmers market, or community garden.
In these last few months, it is with that seed of hope that I carry on with optimism. The optimism that what I cannot see can still be in there; that despite all that is going on in our daily lives and around the world, a kind, safe and healthy world still lies beneath…just waiting for the right time to sprout.
Does seed saving speak to your soul, but still need more info on how to actually do it? Are you an avid seed saver but want to share with like-minded community members? Check out our free monthly Seed Saver Series classes! Right now, they are online, and they are always free. Each month we explore a topic related to seed saving and we would love to have you join us. If you are a beginning seed saver or seasoned seed saver, there is a place for you in our classes! Check out our website to find a list of upcoming classes and we hope to see(d) you there!
In closing, I would like to share a paragraph from a previous blog posting written by Master Gardener Debbie LeDoux that appeared in our May 2020 Master Gardener newsletter highlighting two of our ‘Seed Saver Experts' , Master Gardeners Jillian Kowalczuk and Adam Wagner. “Way to Go” Jillian and Adam!
“Adam and Jillian's pet project as part of theUCCE SanBernardino County Master Gardener program is theYucaipa seed library that they started as a satellite of the Chino Basin Water Conservation District seed library. They are proud of what they have accomplished through the seed library and have enjoyed making it the success that it has become. Though the seed library is temporarily shut down due toCOVID 19 restrictions, they are ensuring that the work they started at theYucaipa seed library continues through the support of the local community. Jillian received permission from theUCCE to donate the seeds to a group that she and Adam started called Seeds ofYucaipa. Seeds ofYucaipa was started with the Oasis Botanical Sanctuary inYucaipa and Unity Church ofYucaipa to help facilitate getting the donated seeds out to the local community WithCOVID 19 restrictions currently in place, they believe people need access to gardening resources such as seeds, soil, and pots now more than ever.”