Apr 8, 2013

How to Save Seeds - and Why You May Not Be Able To

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Seed saving is the talk of the gardening world. Just about every gardening source, from books and magazines to blogs and internet forums, is touting how great it is to save vegetable seeds so you never have to buy them again. Nobody that I've seen or heard has asked gardeners to calm down for a moment and consider whether this is actually, realistically true.

I don't want to discourage you from saving your own seed. If you can, you should. It will save you money and may help heirloom varieties last for future generations. However, if you've never saved vegetable seeds before, you may be in for a rude awakening:

#1 Not all seeds can be saved. This part, you may know, since it's mentioned often. GMO seeds (which are not yet available to home gardeners) can't be saved. It's illegal - and the seeds are sterile. Hybrid seeds also are no good for seed saving. Some are sterile and the rest will not reproduce the exact same plant. The latter might not be much of an issue, except that generally you end up with a plant that is far inferior. You need good quality heirlooms if you want to save your own seed. (Confused about hybrids vs. heirlooms vs. GMOs? Check out this post, or my free Starting Seeds ebook.)


#2 Saving seed means you must have the space to grow additional seed-saving plants, in most cases. With some exceptions (like squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers), vegetables must produce flower-heads, followed by seed-heads, in order for you to collect seeds. If you have a small garden, this cuts down on food production considerably.

#3 Saving seed means having enough space to separate plants of the same family. The first year I decided to save seed, I began with an incredible Brussels sprout plant. It seemed ideal: It grew early in the season (a desirable quality), was prolific, was healthy, and produced a huge crop. But then I learned I couldn't save the seed because I had plants of the same family (the Brassicaceae family, including cabbage, collards, and Kohlrabi) growing nearby, which would mean cross-pollination - which would mean the seeds wouldn't be true to the parent plant and might not even produce something edible.

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Now, if you have acreage with plenty of good gardening space, none of this may be a setback. But to the average urban or suburban dweller, it's a big deal, indeed. So before you set your heart on saving your own seed, be sure to do a little research. I highly recommend the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy. It's widely considered the best reference on seed saving and gives all the details about the right way to save seed for pretty much any edible you can imagine.

The good news is you probably can save at least some seed. Good choices include tomatoes, squash of all types, cucumbers, corn, peas, beans, watermelon, and muskmelon. Tomatoes, beans, peas, and peppers must be grown at least 20 and preferably 500 feet apart to avoid cross-pollination. Squash, melons, sunflower - 1/2 a mile. Corn, fava beans, okra - over a mile. There are ways around this, though. Many gardeners create little houses of very fine screening or mesh to go over their seed plants to prevent cross-pollination. However, because this will keep insect pollinators out, you should hand pollinate those plants.

Also, be sure to only remove seeds from fully mature produce. For example, don't collect seeds from unripe, green tomatoes.

Seeds from squash, cucumbers, corn, peas, beans, and (usually) watermelons can merely be removed and allowed to dry very thoroughly before storing. Seeds from tomatoes, cucumbers, and some watermelons take a little more effort:
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1. Scoop out the seeds and pulp and place in a jar/ Add enough water to cover them.

2. Place in a warm, out of the way location for two or three days. The mixture will ferment, which releases the seeds from the pulp. Once this occurs, rinse the seed mixture in a fine sieve until only the seeds remain.

3. Spread the seeds out and let them thoroughly dry before storing.


To store dry seeds, put them in an envelope, seal, label, and date. Keep in a cool, dark, dry location. Or for longer storage life, place them in an airtight jar in the refrigerator or freezer with silca gel, which will absorb excess moisture.
 

2 comments:

  1. This is such great information. Thank you for sharing! I would love to invite you to link this up to the HomeAcre Hop: http://blackfoxhomestead.com/the-homeacre-hop/the-homeacre-hop-14-and-a-few-little-tidbits/

    ~Jenny

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  2. Interesting article! I love saving seed, but yep, it takes extra space. I have started (this year) removing plants that are going to seed and allowing them to grow in large pots rather than in my garden. I think it's going to work out much better!

    Thank you so much for sharing at Homesteading Bloggers Network's Green Thumb Thursday at Let This Mind Be in You! :)

    ~Kristi@Let This Mind Be in You

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