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Seed Saving 101

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My first farming project of the year was collecting dried seed that I saved from some of the previous years plants.  I was tackling okra, peas and green beans. They are some of the easiest seeds to save!  One skill I find important to the growth of our farm is that of seed saving.  We had our seventh baby last fall, so I am a bit behind on some tasks such as this.

Normally I like to start my year off with planning the next garden, but due to still having seed to collect and package, I have no idea where my seed inventory stands.  Keeping an inventory keeps my dreaming goals in check.  I like to start my planning off knowing how much seed I have, so I can coordinate what I still need to buy with how much room I have left and ultimately what I want to grow (oh, and make sure I can actually afford the seeds I need to buy – otherwise I need to tweak my planning a little… I tend to dream big).  I have about a two acre garden right now – plenty of opportunity to over spend!  Having said that, seed saving helps reduce my yearly garden expense.

Seed Saving 101

The nice thing about saving seed is that when I successfully save seed from one or more varieties of a plant, I no longer have to buy that variety the next year – which means I can spend the money I saved on a different variety or type of plant all together.  Seed saving also allows me a sense of security, knowing that each year, with each variety I save, I am growing towards a self sufficient garden.  If my favorite varieties were no longer offered for sale, or I simply didn’t have any money to put toward my garden, it wouldn’t matter because I am in control of my seeds. I am frugal by nature, and my goal in gardening is to put healthy, cheap food on the table.  My garden isn’t completely self sufficient yet, but it is a goal I continue working on year after year.  Another benefit to seed saving is that you can be selective in your seed collection to improve the varieties you grow – which can include the ability to withstand drought, resist certain diseases, mature quicker, or tolerate unfavorable conditions longer.

A few words about saving seed from grocery store produce…

A lot of people think they can just save the seed from food as they eat it from a grocery store.  However, seed saving isn’t always that simple because you have no idea what variety of produce you are eating.  Why does this matter?  Most commercial growers use hybrid plants,  because a “mixed breed” type plant produces exactly what they want, reliably.  Their end goals in a plant may differ much more than the seed saver or backyard grower.  Grocery store produce is often also harvested before it is ripe, may be grown in greenhouses, won’t see store shelves for days after harvest, has traveled many miles and as a result has lost nutrients and doesn’t taste as good as fresh produce does.  The variety its self may also be lacking in the flavor department.   For best taste and nutrition, vegetables should stay on the vine as long as possible and harvested at the peak of ripeness – and for the few produce varieties that you can save seed from when you are ready to eat it, you want the same end goal (ripe and fresh off the vine).  Produce that was picked before being ripe will not have seeds that are mature and your attempts at seed saving may not be successful, even with heirloom varieties.  Any other produce used for seed saving must over-ripen on the vine or even dry on the vine before it’s seed is considered viable and ready to harvest – you’d never find that for sale in a grocery store.  Not to mention, some care may need to be taken to prevent cross pollination during the flowering phase of the plants growth – long before it produces fruit – and in a commercial growing operation, there is no reason to isolate anything that is grown to be eaten.

Whew.  So many variables to save seed!

What’s Involved in Saving Seed?

As a backyard grower, we can grow plants for flavor, texture, color and any other attributes that we want because we can grow many different varieties that may not work well in a commercial growing operation. Our options to save seed are huge when ordering seed from a reliable company, and when we are successful ourselves we can keep our favorites varieties from extinction.  There are plenty of hybrids that are excellent for the backyard grower, too, but if you plan to save seed you can’t reliably use hybrid seeds to start your plants from, because hybrid plants are essentially a crossbred plant, it takes two different parents to create that variety – your results of saving seed from hybrid produce will not grow true.  As a side note, hybrid plants are not GM (genetically modified).  To explain, that is another post.  There is  a lot of confusion surrounding hybrid and GMO seeds – you won’t find GMO seeds available to the backyard grower.  As well, hybrid and GMO plants are two completely different methods.

Saving seed can be a work of love with a lot of planning thrown in.  Not every type of fruit, vegetable or herb is easy to save and almost everything requires planning before you plant those seeds if you wish to save them!  If you start by planting a hybrid variety (mixed breed), or your plants cross-pollinate with another variety, your saved seed won’t be true.  You will have created, or continued, a hybrid variety of plant that cannot reliably produce the type of food you are expecting – if it even grows at all.  Sometimes, the plant will grow but won’t produce fruit. Luckily there are some pretty fool proof vegetables to save seed from and it doesn’t have to be complicated if you want to stay simple. Keeping the seed pure is pretty important though, so always use open pollinated or heirloom varieties of seeds if you wish to save seed from the plants you grow.  That is the first step to a foolproof seed saving experience.  If you want to produce your very own hybrids, that is certainly possible but beyond the scope of this article.

Tip: You can generally tell if a seed is a hybrid by it’s name – if it has an “F1” in front of it, it’s a hybrid.  The description on the front or back will also tell you.  If you’re still not sure, google has always been my friend when it comes to looking up varieties to see if they are hybrids or not!

So, how does one go about planting a garden with the intent to save some seed?  Well, to prevent cross pollination, some plants need to be a certain distance apart, require taller plants (that they cannot cross with) planted in between them to act as a barrier, or require fine mesh bags over their blossoms while in bloom.  Some plants don’t produce seed until the next growing season, so you will need to keep them through the winter. You may need to hand pollinate if you are using blossom bags to ensure purity.  Another option is to stagger planting times so two or more varieties in the same family that you wish to save are not in bloom at the same time. Keep an eye on days to maturity and your growing season so you don’t end up with some plants not being mature until after your first frost!  That is especially important if you are growing a warm weather crop that requires time to over ripen or dry on the vine.

Once you have figured out when and how to grow the plants, you need to learn when and how to save seed.  Some plants will need to dry on the vine, and you save their seed once you pluck them from the vine. Others need to over-ripen several weeks past the point of being edible but should not be allowed to completely dry on the vine (seed will rot), some plants won’t produce seed until the next year (so you will need to make plans to either keep them protected over the winter if you live in a cold winter climate), or pull them and over winter them in your home(and learn how to do that, as different veggies vary in proper procedure).  Seed saving procedures vary from plant to plant. Tomatoes seeds need to undergo a fermentation process to remove the gel covering, but the majority of seeds can easily be dried either in the pod (on the vine), or simply set out to air dry.

Finally you want to save seed only from healthy plants that are producing well. Your seeds, over time, can grow a type of immunity against disease and learn to grow – and grow well – in your soil conditions.  In order to keep growing healthy, vigorous plants you need to save seed only from the best. That may mean sacrificing your best vegetables if you have only grown a few plants.   Luckily with some plants, like tomatoes, you can save seed when you pull them off the vine and prepare to eat them. However with others, such as cucumbers, squash, beans and peas (and more), you will need to let them over-ripen (past the point of being edible), or dry right on the vine.

Having said all of that, my best advice to the new seed saver is this: Pick a single vegetable or two for starters. Pick the easiest vegetables that don’t require any fancy planning or techniques – tomatoes, beans and peas are the most popular.  Do your own research on which varieties to plant.  Then, do it.  The next year, plant those seeds (mark them somehow so you can tell which is saved, and which seed was purchased if you plant both).  Keep records through the growing season to track their performance.  Save seed from the best fruits. And do it all over again.  Each year, add one or two similar plants to the seed saving repertoire.  After a few years you will have the hang of the easy stuff.   Take it easy, go slow, and most importantly find the joy in growing more self sufficient.

If this seems like a daunting task, check out our class schedule on our Facebook page to see when our next seed saving class is!

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