Category Archives: Seed Saving

Seed Saving for Beginners

Saving seed and heirloom varieties is extremely important work, whether on a large scale like at Southern Exposure or a smaller scale like a family’s backyard garden. Saving seed helps to preserve genetic diversity, provide people with secure food sources, and connect people to the earth and their local community.

Unfortunately saving seeds isn’t as simple as harvesting and cleaning your seeds. First you need to ensure you have the right kind of plants to start with.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

In order to save seed that will “breed true” or have the same characteristics as its parents you need to start with open pollinated or heirloom seeds or plants. All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open Pollinated

Open pollinated simply means that a variety has been bred and then maintained until it was genetically stable. This means that if you save seed from an open pollinated individual that seed will grow plants with the same characteristics as its parent plants.

Heirlooms

Heirlooms are just open pollinated varieties that have been passed down for many generations. While there are a few definitions, at SESE we describe heirlooms as varieties dating from before 1940. Unlike modern varieties that have been developed for use with modern industrial agriculture and our global food system these varieites were grown, saved, and cherished by small farmers and gardeners.

Hybrids

Hybrids on the other hand are not genetically stable. They are the seed from two seperate varieites being crossed. While their first generation traits are predictable they would not be if you were to again save seed. The second generation seed can have characteristics from one or both of the parents or entirely new characteristics altogether.

Hyrbrids are not GMO or inherently bad. In fact many people grow them for their “hybrid vigor” which can make them grow faster than their open pollinated counter parts.

Choosing a Variety

Obviously you’ll want to choose a variety you love and care about. Maybe you fell in love with an heirlooms story or your family just can’t eat enough of your a certain variety. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to stay motivated throughout the season and proccess if you’re really invested.

If you’re a first time seed saver you may also want to consider choosing from a few easy vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and peppers are all great choices for beginners.

Planting

If you want to grow plants to save seed there’s a couple things you need to consider. First many plants require other plants of the same variety to pollinate with and produce viable seed. Also for this reason seperate varieties should be kept a certain distance apart to avoid cross pollination. For more about how to plan a seed saving garden check out this post:

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

Selection

Even if you don’t have longterm goals for changing or creating a new variety selecting which seed to save is still important. You want to save seeds from healthy and productive plants that have desirable traits.

Harvesting the Seed

Tomatoes

Old German Tomato

To save seed from tomatoes you should harvest them when they’re fully ripe. Then the flesh can be seperated from the seeds and gel that surrounds them. The gel and seeds should be placed in a glass container with a bit of water and lightly covered. This mixture should be stirred twice a day unil the seeds sink to the bottom. The liquid can then be poured off and the seeds rinsed and spread on a towel to dry.

Peppers

Cayenne, Long Red Hot Pepper

Peppers are much easier to save seed from than tomatoes because their seeds lack that gelatinous coating. Wait until the pepper is over ripe, it should begin to wrinkle, and then harvest the seeds and spread them out to dry.

Cucumbers

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

A ripe cucumber for eating is not the same as a ripe cucumber for seed saving. Cucumbers you wish to save seed form should be allowed to ripen on the vine until they’re yellow or brown in color. Then they need to cure for an additional two weeks or until mold begins to appear. Then the seeds can be scooped out and fermented in a jar just like tomato seeds.

Peas & Beans

Creel Crowder Southern Pea (Cowpea)

Harvest your peas and beans when the pods have turned brown. Then dry them in a single layer for 1-2 weeks until they’re crisp and dry enough that you can here the seeds rattle in the pods. They can be threshed individually or stomped or beaten in a pillow case to remove the pods and then winnowed.

Squash

Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash

Winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins are all harvested in the same method. Wait until the fruit is hard and large to harvest. Then cure for 1 month at room temperature before removing the seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and lay out in a single layer to dry for 3 weeks.

Storage

All seeds should be stored in air tight containers in a cool dry place. Some people choose to add a small amount of silica desiccant in with their seeds to absorb moisture. It’s also important to note that different types of seeds have different lifespans.

 

Saving seed really isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with land and a bit of history. Start saving seeds this season or making a plan for next year’s garden! For more information check our Seed Saving Guides in our Growing Guides Library.

An organic no-till garden in South Carolina

Rodger Winn and his wife Karen grow seeds for Southern Exposure, as well as vegetables for themselves and for a local market, in their 1.25-acre garden in Little Mountain, South Carolina.  On our recent trip to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Greenville, SC, we stopped in to see their place.  The area had just had an unusually early frost and snowfall, so the summer crops were dead, but the fall garden was green and gorgeous.

Rodger showed us several seed crops, including Charleston Hot pepper and Charleston Gold rice.  (We haven’t gotten the rice seed from him yet; it’ll go up on our website after we do.) We also found his bean trellising quite interesting.  It uses thin fiberglass poles kept in place with wire from an old fence. The space under the poles is not very high, but it’s high enough for a person to crouch and pick beans in the shade.

But the most interesting part of seeing the Winn farm was Rodger’s description of how he uses clover and straw to smother out weeds so that he needs neither a tractor nor herbicides.  In fall, around the time of his first frost, he broadcasts Crimson Clover over his main garden area.

In spring, as he is getting ready to set out seedlings, he has 500 square bales of hay delivered, and spends one day covering the entire area with an 8-inch-thick layer of loose hay mulch.  He transplants most of his crops, including beans, melons, squash, and others that most gardeners and farmers would direct-sow.  However, he does direct sow some crops, including carrots, turnips, parsnips, and some greens, by raking back the hay to make a 6-inch-wide row, sprinkling compost, then sowing the seed and lightly raking over it. When the seed is up he pulls mulch up around the plants to limit weed growth.

Last year the Winns’ beans finished in August, drowned by a very wet summer, so he planted collards in the same row as the beans without pulling up the drip irrigation or the poles, as seen below to the left. That  January, he pulled up 40 of the best remaining collard plants and replanted them at the top of the garden, where they bloomed in late April of this year and produced seed, as seen below to the right.

For the Winns, going no-till is a great way to save time in the garden, as they don’t have to hoe or thin most of their crops, or ever bring a tractor into the garden.  They also don’t have to remove trellising and drip irrigation as often as farmers who till.  The method also builds great soil.  In 1998, the farm had hard red clay soil.  Now, while the subsoil is still hard red clay, the topsoil is a rich, dark loam created by sixteen years of nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops, ten years of thick, carbon-rich hay mulch, and three years holding nutrients in the soil by not tilling.

We’re excited to try out a system like Rodger’s on our own farm, but with many other projects on our plates, we’ll probably start it on a small section of our land, with hopes of expanding it to cover larger sections of our gardens in the future.

You can read more about Rodger and his love of heirloom seeds in Bill Best’s book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste.

Saving Lettuce Seed

We’ve been trying to grow and offer seed for Cosmo lettuce. But we have only a little bit of experience with saving lettuce seed on our own farm, so it’s challenging to get a good seed crop of a large enough size.

We let the lettuce head up, then bolt, becoming too bitter to eat, then flower, and finally make seed. (Lettuce plants become a lot bigger when they bolt and flower, so before they bolted we made more room by harvesting every other head for eating.)

Although it’s possible to save lettuce seed outside, even in our wet climate, growing it in our high tunnel keeps the rain off of the seedheads. This greatly increases our chances of getting a good germination rate and being able to sell the seed. We’ve put up a rope around the bed, tied at waist height to six posts, so that the lettuce stalks can lean on it and so that the seedheads won’t lie on the moist ground. Nonetheless, our first harvest looked terribly disappointing.

It’s been a wet spring, and this harvest came after a period of much rain and humidity. I thought we had a crop failure – too little seed to be worth the time it would take to separate it from the chaff. I almost gave up. I moved lettuce seed harvesting down on my list of priorities. But the next harvest, after a couple days of dry weather, gave me a pleasant surprise.

This time, when I shook and rubbed the seedheads over my tray, a significant amount of mature-looking seed fell out along with the chaff. However, it seems some of the seedheads dried up before producing good seed. Shaking old, dry seedheads still basically just gave me chaff, not seeds. A day later, there was rain in the forecast, so I collected a small, early harvest.

I was quite surprised that I got so little chaff and so much seed. Of course, even this seed will need to be winnowed and screened to clean off the chaff. Then its germination will need to be tested before we’ll know if we have enough good seed to list this variety.

For more on how to save seeds, see our Seed-Saving for Home Use handout. Later this year I’ll post more information on how to clean seed by winnowing with a box fan.