By Lois Hoffman
I have been working at putting the garden to bed for winter. Although this end of the season is sad, I remember all the bounty the garden gave us through the year. On top of that, I have found a way for it to give even more. This year, I will be saving my own seed for next year from the plants that produced so well this year.
Saving seed is fairly simple, if you follow a few guidelines. First of all, some plants lend themselves much better to this process than others. Tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas are good choices from which to save seed because they have flowers that are self-pollinating, which means that seeds from those plants require little to no special treatment before storage. On the other hand, plants like beets and carrots make it more difficult to save seed because they are biennial and need two growing seasons to set the seed.
Plants with separate male and female flowers, such as corn and vine crops, may cross-pollinate, which makes it hard to keep the seed strain pure. For example, if sweet corn and popcorn are planted too close they can pollinate each other, which means they will each pick up characteristics of the other. The sweet corn may not be sweet and the popcorn may not pop.
Vine crops such as cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, melons and gourds can all be cross-pollinated by insects. The quality of the current crop is not affected, but the seeds from these plants will produce vines that bear fruit unlike the parent plant. Often these second-year plants will produce fruit with little flavor, lessened disease resistance, and other inferior qualities.
Open-pollinated varieties are still the route to go instead of hybrids. Here is the tricky part, though. Open-pollinated plants must be self-pollinated or cross-pollinated by other plants of the same variety so that they set seed that grows into plants that are very similar to the parent plants. This is where we get our heirloom varieties that are passed from generation to generation.
Hybrid vegetable plants are in a category by themselves. They are produced by crossing two different varieties, which combines the traits of the parent plants. Sometimes a combination is particularly good, producing plants with vigor, disease resistance and greater productivity. However, there is just as much of a chance that things could go the other way and the new hybrid will be inferior in traits. Hybrid tomato plants like ‘Big Boy,’ ‘Beefmaster’ and ‘Early Girl’ have a good track record and produce viable seed. Usually though, when crossing plants, it is impossible to predict whether the new hybrid will carry the good or bad traits of the parent plants.
Some tomato varieties such as ‘Big Rainbow’ and ‘Brandywine’ are not hybrids, but rather are open-pollinated and will produce viable seed. ‘Kentucky Wonder,’ ‘Tender Crop’ and ‘Blue Lake’ are good bean choices for saving seed, as are Habanero and ‘California Wonder’ for peppers. ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Little Marvel’ and ‘Perfection’ will give good pea seeds.
After you have chosen the right varieties from which to save seed, the process is pretty simple. Naturally, you will want to choose the tastiest and ripest fruits for seeds. With tomatoes, allow the fruits to ripen fully then scoop out the seeds with the gel around them and put them in a jar with water. Stir or swirl them twice a day. The mixture will ferment and the seeds will sink to the bottom within five days. After this happens, pour off the liquid, rinse the seeds, and spread them out to dry on paper towels.
Allow peppers to remain on the plants until they are ripe and begin to wrinkle. After washing them, remove the seeds and lay them out to dry. Peas and beans need to remain on the plant until they start to turn brown. This is usually a month or so after you are done picking the fruit. Strip the pods from the plants and let them dry for two weeks. Then either shell or leave the seeds in the pods until it is time to plant.
After seeds are dry, storage is a breeze. Put them in a tightly-sealed glass container. Different varieties may be put in the same container, as long as they are in individual packets or envelopes and labeled. A small amount of silica gel desiccant may be added to absorb moisture. Powdered milk works well to keep seeds dry for short time periods. Keep the jar in a cool and dry place where the temperature is between 32 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Use the seeds within a year for best results.
A perfect place to keep them is in the freezer, which is more stable than a refrigerator. Just like in nature, this puts the seeds in a freeze like they would be going through a winter. This process actually improves the chances of germination instead of hurting it, as some folks believe. The Doomsday Vault in Svalbard, Norway, is located above the Arctic Circle and is dug into the side of a mountain several hundred feet down to keep the vault below 0 degrees.
The most important thing to remember when saving seed is to make sure they are completely dry before sealing them and putting them in a freezer. If they are not, the freezer will expand the moisture. Be sure and bring them to room temperature before planting.
Saving your own seed is beneficial in so many ways. For one thing, it is less expensive than buying new every year and it is there for the taking. It gives you a little more control because it is available when you want it and, if you find a good variety, you will be assured of having it year after year. I also like the idea of being self-sufficient. This is just a small part of the picture, but saving seed is just one more step toward sustainability instead of being a disposable society.
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