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Seed Saving

By Maggie McCormick, Phase I Fellow

Last week, Ira Wallace, co-manager of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, visited the farm to teach us about seed saving. Ira has been saving seeds for over 40 years, and has a lot of plant knowledge to share! This week, I’m going to write about what we learned from Ira’s workshop.

Why save seed?

Improve varieties for your garden: You can select for plant traits that are well suited to your specific climate. By saving seeds from plants that do well in your garden, you can increase production and be confident that you will have healthy, hardy plants in the future.

There are two options to select the plants from which you will save seed:

  • Rouging: removal of plants from the population before plants flower (often done with plants that aren’t doing well. Preferred method, but not always possible).
  • Selection: active choice to save seeds from the best performing plants and/or fruits after flowering has occurred.

Provide habitat for pollinators: By allowing your plants to produce seed, they first form flowers. This creates a great food source and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Secure seed supply: By saving your own seed, you are sure to have plenty of seeds for future planting!

Before beginning the process of seed saving, it is important to know the different pollination strategies of plants. There are open pollinated varieties (which include heirloom varieties) and hybrid (F1) varieties. Open pollinated varieties will breed true to their parent plant, whereas hybrids will produce random results for many generations. Some plants are self-pollinating, while others require cross pollination. Open, self-pollinating plants, such as tomatoes, peas, and peppers will be easiest for beginning seed savers.

How do you save seed?

There are two main ways to process seeds, depending on how the seed forms on the plant. Dry seed processing is used when seeds are formed in pods, and wet seed processing is used when seeds are produced inside of the fruit.

Dried collard green seeds.

Dry seed processing:

Used for Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips, rutabaga, mustard and collard greens), legumes (beans, peas), carrots, parsnips, lettuce, corn, okra, alliums (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks), and most flowers

Steps:

  • Let seed pods dry on plant.
  • Harvest seed pods when fully mature.
  • Remove chaff (use series of screens, wind, fan, etc.).

Screens can be used to separate seeds from unwanted plant material.

Wet seed processing:

Used for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, melon, etc.

Steps:

  • Ferment the seeds
    • Harvest fruit when fully ripe (in some cases, you actually want it over ripe).
    • Let crop cure (sit indoors or outdoors in the shade) (1-2 days for tomatoes, up to 2 months for squash) while seeds continue to absorb nutrients from the fruit.
    • For tomatoes and eggplant, mash whole fruit in a bucket or jar. For melon, squash, cucumbers, and peppers, scoop seeds into bucket or jar.
    • Add water, if necessary, and cover.
    • Let sit for 2-4 days for tomatoes, 1-2 days for peppers, cucumbers, and melons, and 1 day for eggplant.
  • After fermentation, put seeds in a jar, fill with water. The good seeds will settle to the bottom.

Fermented tomato seeds settling in a jar. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom.  

After removing seeds using either method, dry seeds on a rack or by hanging them in light cloth bags. Drying may take 1-4 weeks, depending on temperature and humidity. Store seeds in a cool, dry location. A good rule of thumb is the keep the sum of the temperature and relative humidity below 100. Most seeds will store for 2-4 years if they are kept in a clean, cool, dry, and dark location. For long term storage, store seed packets in a tightly sealed, airtight container (such as Tupperware or mason jar) in the refrigerator or freezer.

A few things to consider

Good plants to save seed from are those that are last in a patch to succumb to disease or pests, or plants that show disease or insect pressure but are still more productive than plants around them.

When planting seeds from which you plan to harvest, plant 5-10 seeds per pot for every seedling you want. Save the first healthy seedling to emerge, and pull the rest. After two generations of doing this, you will notice improvement in seedling vigor.

With summer crops just beginning to ripen, seeds are far from most of our thoughts. However, now is the time to start saving for future planting!

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