Garden Fresh Food
It is that time of year gardeners… Everything is ripening, and FAST in the garden right now. So right now is the time to start looking at your plants’ produce not just as food- but also as seed for next year’s garden crops. Time to start seed saving!
I started saving seeds because I got behind on picking my pole beans. When I found a few (ok, lots) of bean pods that were swollen and starting to yellow and a light bulb turned on. I didn’t have to toss these inedible beans into the compost- I could let these keep growing and save these to plant for more beans next year.
It was a sublimely empowering moment. One I want you to have too!
I got lucky starting with one of the easiest seeds to save. For the first few years I saved mostly bean varieties and native flowers. I’m still a novice when it comes to saving seeds. Which is why I’m the perfect person to pass the torch: if I can do it – you can too! I want you to feel that same kind of power that saving your own seeds invites.
Seed Savers Exchange
First- I want to give a shout out to the Seed Savers Exchange for their recent Summer Conference and Campout on Heritage Farm. I’m still buzzing with all the new information I brought home. I had to share some of what I learned with you all!
They’ve built a vibrant community of dedicated volunteers and staff, all starting with co-founders Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy in 1975. I was lucky enough to meander through Diane’s gardens with her at the beginning of the weekend.
Today, the 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa grows over 20,000 plant species and has 13,000 members. Meeting some of these wonderful members and staff at their annual conference and campout has increased both my understanding of seed saving and my excitement for it. I mean with an onsite Seed Swap with people from all over- how could I not get more excited!?!
I was also gifted a few pounds of cover crop from Carl at Albert Lea Seed for the White Bear area Food Shelf “Community Roots Garden” that I help out with. These are good people! The future of the wonderfully diverse world of seeds is in some very caring and competent hands indeed!
If you garden, you’ve likely already benefited from the work of Seed Savers Exchange staff, volunteers and members. There are treasure troves of information on their site and at the store- visit online or in person, often!
Heirloom vs Hybrid Seeds
You may have heard more about heirloom varieties lately. I think this is directly linked to more home gardeners digging a little deeper into growing their own. Along with not wanting to grow anything genetically modified in a lab, more gardeners are wanting to save their own seeds. One of the inherent values of an heirloom plant’s strength lies in its ability to reproduce itself. And to keep reproducing stronger plants that are better suited for the exact location they are grown in each season. Win/Win!
Save the Right Seeds
Start with seeds worth saving. Find out if the plants growing in your garden are heirloom or hybrids. Seeds from Hybrid plants will not grow the same plant. They will likely revert back to one of the two plants that were combined to make the hybrid. Heirloom varieties will grow the same plant again next year.
Of the heirloom plants, it also helps to find out if they are ‘open-pollinated’ or ‘self-pollinated’ plants as open pollinated plants may ‘cross-pollinate’ with other kinds of plants in the same family. Stick with me one more sentence. Think two kinds of cucumbers grown close together and a bee buzzing between them- those cucumbers will likely have a little of each plants pollen shared between them- so you’ll get a mix of the plants with seeds from those plants.
Save the Very Best Seeds
Save seeds from the best plants in your garden- selecting these ‘top performing’ plants will build seed and plants for next year. This is how us humans domesticated and increased our harvests from wild seeds over the centuries- but it is still worth doing over a few years. After 8 years of saving Pole Bean Seeds mine produce better than the original packet I bought – just saying.
Tricks to Save Tricky Seeds
I’ve got some old tulle (thank you sister’s wedding) that I use to wrap unsuspecting plants that are slowly setting seed to catch seeds as they fall. This is because I’m too lazy + forgetful to trust myself to get out and shake seeds into a collection bag every day many days in a row as seeds ripen.
Patience with Nature
One thing to keep in mind when starting to save seeds is theat we’re really just helping nature along. Waiting long enough for Mother Nature to do her work is a big part of the initial learning curve. …Both waiting for the seed to be ripe enough on the plant and waiting long enough for the seed to be dry enough to put into storage!
As Lee Butala, president and executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, told me, “Plants will tell you when their seeds are ready. They give you signs, like color changes or simply starting to fall off the plant. Lettuces for example are like dandelions with their seeds; it becomes obvious.” Lee knows what he’s talking about. He is after all the co-editor of our award-winning book “The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving”.
Not all seeds are as showy with their seed ripeness, which brings me to Heritage Farm Field crew Leader, Rochelle’s advice, “spend a little time learning about the plant you are saving seeds from. Each crop has some specific information on how to work with it- but don’t be afraid to mess up. There are so many easy plants to start with.”
So let’s start with…
EASY TO SAVE SEEDS
Beans + Peas + Lettuces + Tomatoes
Saving Pea + Bean Seeds
These two have such similar saving techniques- I’ve lumped them together 😊 You can save bean and pea seeds on the plant and let them mature rather than eat them.
Peas and Beans are self-pollinating plants. You don’t have to worry about them cross-pollinating and mixing the strains. To save your seed, wait until the peas/beans are ripe, and then wait some more- until they are brown and drying on the vine. The pods will become papery, turning a yellow to brown color. Ideally, you should be able to hear the dry seeds rattling inside. I’ve read this is usually about 4 weeks after the peas and beans are ready for eating- I’m not organized enough to keep track) but it sounds about right.
I usually leave them in their pods in a paper bag to dry further in a dry closet until I happen on them in winter and then shell them out, keeping them in paper envelopes or bags.… I am going to try to be more intentional this season- but if that’s all I’ve done has worked in the past you know you can handle this.
Saving Tomato Seeds
Tomatoes may cross-pollinate with each other, so if you are serious about saving these- plan on growing different varieties on opposite ends of your garden. The good news on saving these seeds is that you get to save your seeds and eat your tomatoes too! Tomato seeds are ripe the same time as their fruits– Yay!!
There are two main schools of thought on how to save tomato seeds. Fermenting then drying and just drying. Anyone who’s eaten a tomato probably knows about the little gelatin glob that encapsulates each seed. This gelatin helps the tomato seed to hold off on germinating by needing to break down and through the glob before germination begins. So, some people want to get rid of the gel by fermenting it away before drying, and some think that drying alone breaks it down enough. I *plan* on trying both methods as the season progresses and seeing if I find any difference. #nerdalert.
Saving Lettuce Seeds
I’ve never really saved these before; so lucky me, I’m learning this one as I write! You’ll need to let lettuce bolt and send up its flower and seed stalk before collecting those seeds. I do know that chickens love arugula seeds- part of why I didn’t get to save any last year- I’m such a softy!
Lettuce seeds send out showy little seed poof balls. You can roll/crush into a bowl or bucket- then blow away the chaff (extra plant material) Lee Butalla likened it to dandelion seed heads.
If you want a good visual, watch this video– it was the best I found about saving lettuce seeds.
This is one place I need to get MUCH better as I am saving way more seed varieties this year. It is recommended to store them in a glass jar or plastic bag. Air tight containers will hold seeds viable for longer, you just need to make sure they are fully dried out before sealing it to avoid growing mold instead of more food 😉 So far I mostly keep them in paper bags or paper envelopes in a cool dark area. I’m not suggesting that as a best practice- but so far so good!
Seed Saving Next Steps
I will suggest our checking out the Seed Savers Exchange website for more online tips. Our local White Bear Lake Seed Library, run by Pam, gives ‘seed saving talks’ quite frequently. The next ‘Seed Talk’ event is August 14th @ 6:30pm, in the downtown White Bear Lake public library. This is a great group of gardeners to get to know! PS- The White Bear Lake Seed Library is looking for Butterfly Weed flower seeds to replenish their stocks- save ’em if you’ve got ’em!
Once you get the hang of it, Lee Buttala of SSE suggested, “to grow a few plants dedicated for seeds. Many plants grow in such a way that you can’t use them for both eating and seed saving.” This way you really can have your salad and …eat it next year too!
I hope I’ve inspired you to start saving your own seeds! Like most things in life getting started is the hardest part- so please ask for help! Ask me- or find another local seed saver, there is such a great community of people working to ensure diversity in seeds. I mean you could meet somebody like Jim at a seed swap and learn SO MUCH!
Seed Libraries are starting to pop up all over too. And if you want to geek out on seed libraries like I have been- subscribing to the “Cool Beans” newsletter is well worth it!
Off to collect some calendula seeds… and dig into some of the amazing food ripening in my gardens!