Thursday, September 1, 2011

Saving Seeds: An Ancient Practice

Saving Seeds:

I dearly love a variety of string bean called “Little White Greasy Beans”. I suppose they are called ‘greasy’ beans because the outside is shiny and appears to have been waxed. They are so tasty and good, but I have not been able to find a source anyplace to buy them. About 10 years ago, when I visited the county of my birth in southeastern Kentucky for a family reunion, I stopped and bought some of these delicacies at a local produce stand. I bought enough to eat a good ‘mess’ of them and enough to allow for drying out and shelling  so I could save the seeds. I recently dried some of this year’s crop so I can replant them again next year.

The art of saving seeds has been practiced for a very long time. . . long before commercial seed producers and sellers ever hit the market. In fact, many of the vegetables and flowers we have today owe their existence to the fact that early gardeners saved the seed of their best plants, sowed them the next year and so on . . . Many of the Europeans and other immigrants to this country saved and brought seeds with them to be planted in our New World.

In recent years, the responsibility for maintaining and improving vegetable seed has been assumed by seed companies; however, it is still possible for home gardeners to save their own seed. To do so successfully, they must be familiar with the basics.

Plants in the garden come from either seed or transplants. True seed possesses an embryo in a dormant state. Under the right conditions, it breaks dormancy and produces a plant based on its genetic makeup. Transplants, on the other hand, are living plants or plant parts that begin to grow under favorable conditions without benefit of an embryo. In this group are bulbs, tubers, corms, cuttings, slips and whole living plants.

It is still common practice for home gardeners in cold climates to dig dahlia and gladiolus before the ground freezes, however, it is not so common for gardeners to save the seed of flowers and vegetables. This is perhaps because seeds have been relatively inexpensive and seed producers have a reputation for selling seed that germinates well and is true to the variety named on the package. However, when I went to buy seeds this past spring I was surprised at how much the price has risen and I see it continuing to rise rather than falling in our near future.

Root Crops:

Not all garden plants produce their seed at the end of the growing season. The most noteworthy exception are the biennials. This group, which includes most of the root crops, grows vegetatively the first season. To obtain seed, the roots are dug in the fall and stored between 32 and 45 degrees F through the winter. As soon as the weather permits, replant the roots to produce seed stalks and seed. Examples of these are:
Brussels sprouts
Florence fennel
Kohlrabi Leeks
Radishes, winter
Swiss chard

Harvesting Seed:

Modern seed producers have developed some very ingenious equipment for harvesting, extracting and cleaning seed. The home gardener, however, will have to do with available equipment. Seed is extracted from fruit after it ripens and before it rots. Leave summer squash and cucumbers on the vine until after frost, just like winter squash and pumpkin. Separate the seed from its pulp and dry at room temperature.

Leave pod props on the vine until the pod dries. Harvest before the seed is dispersed. Similarly, harvest seed heads after they dry but before dispersal.
To dry the seeds, simply spread them out in a single layer on waxed paper, newspaper or an old dish, etc. Make sure they are completely dried before you seal them in an airtight container otherwise they will mold or rot and will be worthless.


Once the seed is dried, gently hand rub to rid it of any chaff, then store in an envelope, plastic sandwich bag, empty baby food or jelly jar, or any other airtight container. Be sure to label each container because I guarantee you won’t remember for sure what is what next spring if you save more than one variety of any vegetable or flower. Store in a cool, dry, rodent-free place. The seed will germinate best the following year. Thereafter, its germination percentage declines in accordance with the storage conditions, seed type and original seed quality. It is, therefore, best to replant every year and then select the best plants for seed. I have also stored seeds in the freezer successfully for a couple of years.

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