Saving Seeds means Saving Life.
I know that sounds dramatic, but saving seeds is a big part of why humans hunkered down into communities and began our long march towards civilization (we’ve still got on our marching boots though, right!?). Variations of those seeds still sustain us today.
Until a few generations ago, most people planted what they had saved from the last harvest. With a few additions now and then from neighbors or travelers.
But for me and many home gardeners, saving seeds had fallen off our radars. It is making a bit of a comeback and I am encouraging as many people as I can to jump on this bandwagon with me!
To start saving seeds please remember:
Not all seeds are suited for saving!
There’s a simple trick to buying the right seeds so you can save + grow again.
Grow Heirloom varieties, or open pollinated varieties. Hybrid seeds will not produce the same vegetable that you took the seed from.
I love getting those seeds catalogs and will have larger than anticipated bills at a few seed companies once I finalize my orders, but I am proud to be able to skip over a few seed sections because I’ve saved my own seed stock from what I grew last year.
Saving seed is intuitive- if we stop to see the plants we nurture as part of Mother Nature. Everything has a cycle, and the whole reason tomatoes exists is to grow more tomatoes so they make it easy for us. Or as Michael Pollan suggests in a few books, like The Botany of Desire and TED talks, the plants have us working for them.
Back to the real world application of all of this-
We’re half way through one of the coldest Januaries on record across the northern US, so most of us are looking forward to those lazy days of summer even more than normal. Oh Summertime; being surrounded by lush green growth, the sounds of birds chirping and bees buzzing, smelling flowers, picking strawberries warmed by the sun… (the weeding, mosquitoes, heat and humidity have conveniently faded into the back of our memories.)
And this is the moment the seed catalogs begin storming in, right when they know we’re at our weakest, most desperate state. Well played seed companies, well played.
The colorful pages of these catalogs offer escape from the winter weather and promise sunny days filled with so much growth it overwhelms our senses, often including our common sense.
As much as I still revel in these catalogs and all they promise I’m able to skip over a few sections now because I’ve been saving seeds of plants grown in last year’s garden.
There is something so empowering about growing your own food AND saving your own seeds so that you can grow more food again next season- without the help of anyone except Mother Nature.
The simple act of bringing in a seed connects you to a 10,000 year-old heritage of saving the best seeds to better the food we eat. It also makes sense to this frugal mama because you save cold hard cash on your next seed. With both reasons, you get to play with Mother Nature and see what happens.
Luckily for us (and our ancestors), the process is pretty intuitive with most seeds. You pick a seed and save it. But like all the things worth doing, seed saving is worth doing well.
And I’ve found just the local lady to help us ALL learn to do it well!
I’d like to introduce Pam Larson Frink .
Pam started the White Bear Lake Seed Library in April of 2016 and has been gaining steam and seed stock ever since. She also holds a Masters in Environmental Education and a Horticultural degree, so she knows her stuff inside and out. For those of you that were able to attend the White Bear Lake Winter Farmers Market, Pam was there representing the seed library.
She also thinks a lot like me, “I think saving seeds connects you to the food you eat. It’s so easy to buy produce at the grocery store that you don’t understand that it’s more than just food. It’s soil and insects pollinating the plant and clean water and sun to grow the plant. And if you don’t take care of the soil and the water and the insects you soon will not have food.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself!
The following are all Pam’s suggestions to starting to save seeds. These produce seed the same season as planted and are mostly self-pollinating, minimizing the need to be mindful of preventing cross-pollination.
Beans and Peas- Both of these are some of the most widely (and easiest) grown garden veggies. You can let them ripen and then dry on the vine. Wait until the pods are yellow or brown and dry to the touch. Then pick them and shell them if you want. I tend to leave my pole beans in their pods for easy sorting. And my kids are more likely to help me plant if they get to pop them out of their pods as we go 🙂
Lettuces- Let the lettuce ‘bolt’ or send up its main flower stalk and wait for the flowers to fall and seeds to form on the heads. Gently knock the seeds into a paper bag. You’ll want to go out a few days in a row to get all the seeds as they ripen but before they fall off.
Sweet/Bell Peppers– Harvest when ripe, pull out seeds, careful not to break the seed coating and dry on a paper towel for a few days, store in a paper envelope once dry.
Tomatoes- Harvest when ripe, scoop seeds and pulp into a glass with water, let sit for couple days, seeds that float to the top aren’t viable and you can toss. The seeds that stay at the bottom are the best seeds. Strain, then dry on paper towels. Store in paper envelope once dry.
Pam also teaches classes on seed saving techniques that dive a little deeper than we’re getting into here.
Pam’s Next Local Seed Saving & Starting Events:
Seed Packing & Demo: Mon, January 29th from 4:30-8pm
@ the White Bear Lake library.
Class: Sat, March 3 @ the Maplewood Library, 10:30-11:30am
Class: Sat, March 3 @ the White Bear Lake Library, 1-2pm
I’d tried reading the highly regarded book, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, but felt overwhelmed by ALL THE INFO! Another book recommended that is on my library wait list is Seed Sowing And Saving by Carole Turner. But, after talking with Pam, I feel like I’m more than ready to save a few more varieties this fall.
And here’s where the planning comes in! It is easy to forget when you’re looking at all the glorious varieties in the seed catalogs that…
If you want to start saving seeds, you have to start with save-able seeds.
Look for seeds labeled ‘open pollinated seeds’. This also means NO HYBRIDS, often labeled as F1! These are NOT good options for seed saving. They will not ‘come true’ if the seeds are planted, they will often revert.
Pam had a perfect story from her early days of gardening that explains this “reverting”… She had grown a beautiful rainbow of colored snapdragon flowers. So she decided to save the seed to enjoy the color burst another season. Pam planted the next Spring, getting sturdy snapdragon plants. But every single flower bloomed pale yellow. This is nature saying nice try 😉 The seed of a hybridized plant most often does not “come true” and reverts to one of the gene pools it was hybridized from. In the case of the snapdragon seeds, this meant pale yellow.
Things get a bit more complicated with certain groups that cross pollinate; squash are the notorious for cross pollinating with each other. Some open pollinating plants will cross pollinate. Seed growers have tricks like growing inside greenhouses, growing miles apart or bagging seed heads to avoid cross pollination. I might try to bag a favorite zucchini after she’s pollinated this summer!
Before I understood that squash were ‘swingers’ I had already saved and dried a few butternut and acorn squash seeds. So, after talking it over with Pam, I’m going to do my own squash experiment, I might grow something delicious, or something horrible. Either way, I’ll be playing with Mother Nature which is a win for me!
The Seed Stacks
Seed Libraries are places where people can ‘check out’ seeds to grow on their own. The hope is that you can save some seed and replenish the seed stock the following Fall/Winter. They’re usually housed inside public libraries, but also co-ops and community centers. Checking out the seeds are free, but some ask for membership info or volunteer commitments.
Our WBL Seed Library asks for membership info, but as Pam quipped, “There are no seed Nazis around”. Started in April of 2016, the WBL branch is serving the community well, going through over 1,000 seed packets in 2017! They take both home saved and purchased seed. With a few necessary caveats.
Donating to the seed library? Please keep in mind:
Heirloom or open pollinated varieties only. If they are home saved seeds, a few choice vegetable varieties; Beans, Peas, Lettuce, Sweet Peppers and Tomatoes, and native flowers.
This year the White Bear Lake See Library is especially looking for some native pollinator plants like Milkweed, Liatrus/Blazing Star and Monarda /Bee Balm– but only the native non-hybridized varieties.
To save seeds of native flowering plants, wait until the flower forms a seed head, knock off seeds (or cut seed head) and bag.
I just went and ‘harvested some more bee balm and milk weed today, Jan 17th for the Seed Library once I knew they were low. Quite a few of the seeds had been knocked down by the wind or eaten by birds, but there were enough to make it worth my efforts.
So far, I’ve only ever saved enough seeds to use the following year, and keeping them in paper bags inside paper envelopes has worked well for me. But if you want to save for multiple years you’ll be better off storing in an airtight container- like a mason jar. Just make sure they are completely dry before you seal that jar!
I want to give a shout out to the people who have worked to secure our right to save and share our own seed, with a Minnesota bill being signed in May of 2015. The business of seeds is BIG business, and without the efforts of many groups working together to protect our rights to save and share seeds, thank you!
Do It Green!
A few more online resources that Pam suggested include:
- Seed Savers Exchange– One of the best nationwide sources for heirloom seeds, they have a stunning selection of seeds for sale (but don’t get sucked too far in!)
- They also have their actual “Exchange” program, outlined HERE
- The University of Minnesota, as always has gathered simple, accessible practicle information about saving Vegetable seeds grown in MN.
- If you’d like another online read about seed saving, The International Seed Saving Institute has some easy to read info as well.
- White Bear Lake area residents, be sure to check out the WBL Seed Library’s Blog site and sign up for their emails, its a great way to connect with other local gardeners!
There’s literally endless information out there. Like all things gardening, saving seeds is less daunting and way more fun when you get to talk to someone else who either knows what they’re doing, or is making the same mistakes as you are 🙂
I hope you can join one of the White Bear Lake Seed Library packing events, I’ll be there on January 29th at the WBL Library. It would be a fun and fruitful way to meet more of you in person!
A special thanks to Pam for taking her deep plant knowledge and vision to help the community and creating our local Seed Library- the ONE THOUSAND packets of seeds shared in 2017 is just the beginning!!
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
Will you try to save any seeds this year? Which ones? I’m determined to save my tomato and peppers this year!
Can’t wait to Dig into the Dirt again with all this talk of seeds!