13 March, 2018

Beginning Seed Saving - Easy Peasy!

We have all been “beginning” seed savers at one time or another. While some have been at it their whole lives, others have come to the party much later in life; others have saved one seed, for example, tomato seed, but haven't bothered with anything else. We can become intimidated by the seemingly endless bits of information from plant to plant and, overwhelmed, through up our hands in despair and put off learning it until next year.

I think I would have done that same thing as well, except I had already scheduled a seminar with me teaching seed saving to about 50 people in 3 months. I was kind of under the gun. I knew of some seed saving, after all, I knew my grandfather had saved seeds – I well remember the kitchen table covered with newsprint and tomato seeds spread out to dry before being  put into envelopes saving for next year.

I dove into several books (see bibliography below), reading them and comparing notes and tried putting what I was reading into action as best I could. I learned that reading about seed saving had it's limits. Doing seed saving taught me much faster, although a little theory up front was necessary. It's just you don't learn how to save seeds by reading everything the world has written about seed saving. We learn by doing it. And everything is easy if you know how!

You will make mistakes. Usually, the mistakes can be eaten and that's the end of it. Some mistakes end up in the compost pile. No big deal. Accept that making mistakes is your price for admission to the club of seed savers.

Start out simple and small. Do not overwhelm yourself. Choose a vegetable from the “easy to save seeds” list. If you already store dry beans, peas or other legumes to be hydrated and cooked in the off season, you are already saving those seeds! The only thing you might change is to look the plants over before you harvest from them, looking for the plant that had the most, or the biggest, maybe the earliest or the latest beans. Whatever you fancy as a good visible trait in your beans. Mark those plants you find to be “the best” and save seeds from those several plants to plant next year. By doing that over and over again, you are “selecting” for that trait and by golly one day you might have a variety that is bigger, better, earlier or later to call your own!

Chose your first seed saving activity from this list:
Garbanzo beans

Self pollination (seed savers often abbreviate that to just "self" or "selfing") is found in about 15% of all plants. It is really very predominate in the bean family, Fabacea, the grass family, Poacea – except for corn which is a plant unto its self. Some plants in the sunflower family, Asteraceae, do self-pollinate, others cross. Count on lettuce to always self and other sunflower-like plants to self only as a last resort.

Start with the self-pollinators as they are the easiest. You really have nothing to do but save the seeds! But what does that mean?

Black garbanzo beans are my current favorite thing in the
whole wide world! On the left, towards the top, the
very small flower and just to the right of center, the green pods.
These plants are slated to provide seeds for the Seed Library of Los Angeles
for next years cool season offerings.

Seeds always come after the plant has flowered – in fact, as far as the plant is concerned, producing flowers, which then produce the seeds, is what it's all about. There is a bevy of jokes of poor taste here, but I'll leave that to your imagination. You never see lettuce flowers because your whole gardening career is to eat it before it bolts. (Remember the term, “gone to seed?” Like a reference to a once prosperous town that has fallen on hard times, could be said “just went to seed” as a derisive comment – our 'job' as gardeners is to get rid of those plants before they've gone to seed.) Seed saving stands the traditional garden model on it's head.

(Working in my garden one day, in an area full of lettuce that had “gone to seed” - a man from the street called to me, “Is this your garden?” I said it was. Pointing to all the plants that were in various stages past prime eating time, “If this was my garden, I shoot myself!” because he was measuring it by a different metric. I saw seeds, he saw overgrown, spent plants.)

I have always believed that persistence and patience were the golden keys to gardening – and I think it's even more true for seed savers.
This lettuce is from some spilled seed so we
are unsure of its name, I think it's Merlot, but
name or no name, I'm saving the seeds. I'll
find out the name later.

I'll go into specifics in later posts, but for right now I would like you to do two things. I'd like you to buy a notebook – or create a Word document – in which to track your seed saving experiences. I want you to be able to track your seeds through a couple of generations to see how well you are doing – or if it's just not happening for you, and I'd like to you read part of ONE book listed below. Lettuce season for us is about over – if you have one variety of lettuce you love, let one or two plants go to seed – just by leaving them alone – if they are isolated to where you can cut down – or eliminate – the water, all the better. You will see the flowers fade and, as the plant becomes ever less attractive, you'll begin to see little cups – where the flowers once were – full of seeds – maybe 10 to 20 seeds in each one. Viola! You have saved seeds! You'll need to make sure they are completely dry and then store them – cool, dark and dry – for next season. More on that too!

If you have no lettuce left, get some beans in the ground and follow my advice above about saving the seeds that are more like what you want. I'll discuss how to store them in an upcoming blog (easy-peasy)! 


* observe your tomato flowers as they first open: do the inner parts of the tomato flower extend beyond the flower's tip? If so, you have a variety that can be pollinated by insects and is therefore not a “self-pollinating” tomato. This is more common in the old varieties of tomatoes, sadly, usually the ones you most want to save.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History,Weaver, William Woys ©1997, Henry Holt It is now out of print and getting a copy can be hellish (NEWSFLASH: IT IS BACK IN PRINT!!!) It is a wonderful book that needs to be put back in print because the research he put into the book makes this to be the most informative books on heirloom vegetables that has ever been published. Mother Earth News has the entire book on a CD – you can find it on their website – of course that's not a book, but you will have the data.

A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers, Organic Seed Alliance © 2010 OSA This publication is a free download from organicseedalliance.org. It is a succinct guide with few frills but a great deal of good data. A free publication that is worth paying for! Organic Seed Alliance is a non-profit relying on contributions to fight the invasion of hybrids and GMO seeds in our lives. I suggest throwing a donation their way as they deserve it.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Deppe, Carol © 2000, Chelsea Green Publishing The subtitle gets more to our point: The Gardeners' and Farmers Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving, I had bought this book about three years ago and, for whatever reason, I ignored it. In preparing to teach seed saving one more time,, the subtitle pulled me in: Suddenly, it was a different book. She is very, very funny and her stories of seed saving are heart warming; I felt I had met a kindred spirit – I want to drive to Oregon and 'shoot the compost' about seeds over a brew or tea or whatever she's having. 

These are the three I found the best.  Deppe's book (Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) starts out with stuff I still do not understand, but half way through, the whole book changes into the  best stuff written about saving seeds and it is easily assimilated.  

When I teach seed saving, the OSA guide is the one I recommend because it is free and, at 35 pages, it is always right on point.

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