Saving Seeds

Bananas, potatoes, and many herbs are reproduced by propagation rather than by planting seeds. Propagation means burying a piece of the progenitor plant. But most of the common garden vegetables are always planted from seed: seed that you buy, save from your own plants, or swap with other seed savers.

Books for Seed Savers: Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener by Suzanne Ashworth is a complete guide for saving the seeds of 160 vegetables. For each vegetable it gives the botanical classification, method of pollination, isolation distance, caging technique, seed harvest, and methods of drying, cleaning, and storage, plus a source list for seed-saving supplies and instructions in how to sell surplus seeds. Another good book on seed saving is Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure (Harper San Francisco, 1993).

Still another is Saving Seeds: The Gardener's Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds by Marc Rogers (1990). Peter Donelan's book Growing to Seed is a good one on home seed production (available from Bountiful Gardens). Also check out "Vegetable and Herb Seed Growing," a pamphlet by Douglas C. Miller (1977). Nancy Bubel's solid 1978 work, Seed Starter's Handbook, includes 84 pages on collecting and storing seed. And then there's Growing and Saving Vegetable Seeds by Marc Rogers.

For the history of plant extinctions and politics of genetic diversity, read Plant Extinction: A Global Crisis by Dr. Harold Koopowitz and Hilary Kaye (1983) and Seeds of the Earth: A Public or Private Resource? by Pat Roy Mooney (London: Canadian Council for International Co-operation, 1979). supplies: Bountiful Gardens, Abundant Life, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are companies that specialize in supplying open-pollinated seeds and also offer seed-saving supplies. Bountiful Gardens has a "Seed Saver's Kit" that includes silica gel to absorb moisture, data-keeping forms, and instructions. Abundant Life offers books on the subject and testing screens. For a hand thresher for seeds or grains, contact Alan Dong, I-Tech, P.O. Box 413, Veneta, OR 97487, (503) 935-6419. Seed Snaps

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). Send a long SASE to Seed Savers Exchange for free info about this nonprofit organization of more than 8,000 gardeners who search for endangered vegetable seeds (old-time varieties that are not being propagated by seed companies) and grow them; 563-3825990; 3076 N. Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101; [email protected] rconnect.com; www.seedsavers.org. Kent Whealy founded the SSE in 1975 after an elderly, terminally ill relative gave him seeds of 3 garden plants that the family had brought from Bavaria 4 generations earlier. Whealy started trying to locate other gardeners who were also keeping seeds their families had passed on from generation to generation. These "heirloom" garden seeds are still being kept by elderly gardeners in rural areas and ethnic enclaves; often they've been grown on the same farm by different generations of the same family for 100 years or more, but these days the new generation often quits gardening and leaves the land. SSE members find these precious seeds, save them, plant them, save them again, and share them.

You don't have to keep heirloom seeds to join SSE, though; the only requirement is that you want to try growing some of them. You obtain seeds by writing directly to the members, who list their varieties in Seed Savers Yearbook. Membership costs $30; $35 for Canada or Mexico; $45 for other countries. SSE also maintains a Preservation Garden, holds a Campout Convention each year for members, and teaches how to save all your own seeds and keep genetic lines pure. It also maintains a plant finder service to help people find specific varieties for which they are searching.

Plant Reproduction

Flowering. Seeds follow the flowering. A late frost is a risk with any flowering plant, such as nut and fruit trees; it kills the vulnerable flowers and ends all hope for a crop that year —either for fruit or the seeds within them. If the blossoms survive without freezing, the next critical step is pollination. Pollination. The pollen is carried to the plant's ovaries either by wind or by some variety of insects, depending on the variety of plant. Without the carrier, you will have no harvest. If the carrier is bees rather than wind, as with almonds, the trees can be planted farther apart. But if all the area's bees get killed by pesticides, there'll be no tree harvest that year for bee-pollinated plants. Annuals. Annuals flower and then, in every place where there was a flower, they make seed. They do this the same summer you plant them. Radishes and spinach are annuals. When an annual is ready to flower, it stops putting energy into the food part you would ordinarily grow it for; instead, it uses the food in the seed-making process and stores it in the seeds themselves. When saving seed from an annual, try to get seed from the last one to go to seed, because you want to select offspring that will make food as long as possible before making seeds—especially with leafy plants like lettuce and spinach.

Biennials. Root vegetables are generally biennials. A biennial takes 2 years instead of one to make seed. The first year a carrot grows, for example, it never makes a flower. Instead it makes a root and stores food in it. It's the next spring that things get exciting seedwise: That carrot sends up a long stalk, much longer and taller than most annuals could, because the carrot has all that stored food from the first summer's growth in its root to draw on. (The carrot becomes woody and inedible as the food is pulled back out of it.) The tall stalk flowers, and then seeds develop in each place where there was a flower.

SEED Saving: I'm just skimming it here. See each plant's individual entry for more on how to save its seeds, and see the books mentioned for the best and most complete info of all. It matters which plant you save seed from! Choose the best possible heredity for the offspring. (Same as when you choose a spouse!)

Volunteers. Some plants are "self-seeders," and from them you will get lots of "volunteers." A garden that has been gardened for years tends to contain lots of volunteers, or plants that grew because of their progenitors' efforts, not yours. Potatoes, squash, dill, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers often make up volunteers. Volunteer potatoes grow when you miss digging up some. The squash grows from the fruit you forgot to harvest. The dill and sunflower drop some seeds before you get there to harvest the seed heads. Volunteer spinach and radishes are common too. Whenever hardy plants get a chance, they'll go to seed in your garden. But for better management, you can practice seed selection and seed saving.

Patented Varieties. A new situation in the seed world is the development of patented varieties from which even amateurs are legally prohibited from saving seed. Packets of patented seed should be so marked. Hybrid vs. Open-Pollinated. If you're even considering saving your own seed, read the fine print on the seeds you buy to start with. Don't buy "hybrid" varieties. If they don't say "nonhybrid," they are probably a hybrid. Hybrids are famous for their vigor and productivity, but they don't usually breed true; rather, they will revert to one hereditary side or the other, thus losing some of their desirable qualities. Your "open-pollinated" variety (that means one not pollinated under artificially controlled conditions) probably won't be as big, colorful, or heavily producing as a hybrid. But learning how to save your own seeds is interesting for you and your children, it preserves old-fashioned varieties, and it can save you money. Serious seed savers are concerned that so many useful old plant (and animal) varieties are being lost while most of the varieties grown are hybrids. That genetic sameness in crops makes them more vulnerable to disease and insect afflictions.

Saving Seed from Fruits. Fruited plants such as melons, tomatoes, green peppers, and eggplant make their seed inside the fruit. First comes the flower and then the fruit! In this case, you let the seed-bearing fruit get fully ripe. Then scoop out the seeds and let them dry. Spreading them out on a newspaper works well.

Flower Seed. You can save the seeds from almost any flower that has a flower head—a zinnia is one example. Go out in the fall, when the flowers are dry. Remember the colors. Snip off flower heads with scissors and dry the heads. Store in a dry place for winter. In the spring, break apart the head. The zinnia has about 100 seeds to a pod. Coping with Weeds in Seed: It's absolutely essential that your seed be clean of weed seeds. You don't want to plant weeds with your new crop! This is most often a problem with seeds harvested in bulk, such as grain seeds. If you can see weed seeds in seed grain, there's a problem waiting to happen. Get rid of them before planting. In fact, you need to get the weeds out whether you're going to use the grain for seed or table.

Seed Cleaning. If you are saving seeds in bulk or have weedy seeds, you need a seed cleaner. It's a machine cleaner that literally shakes the grain over a sequence of wire mesh screens, which sift out all the objects too big or too small to match the specific grain size you're working with: weed seed, dirt, chaff, and undersized, weak grain or grass seeds.

You could buy an old-time one; they used to be common on farms. Or you could buy a new one. Models come in various sizes, according to how much seed grain you want to clean. But that costs money, a tight item for most of us. So for cleaning small quantities of seed, the cheapest way is to make your own.

Homemade Seed-Cleaning Sieves. Buy '/«-inch, 3/i6-inch, and VWnch wire mesh squares—18 inches square. Staple or nail the wire tightly onto a wooden side frame—in effect, onto the bottom of a wooden box. You can make the wooden box sides using wood strips that are 18 inches long, as high as you need (maybe 2 inches), and 1 inch wide.

You end up with 3 cleaners, each with a mesh of a different size. If the weed seeds are smaller than your grain

seed, what falls through the mesh when you shake the grain-weed mixture in the box will be the weeds. If the weed seeds are bigger than the type of grain seed you're saving, then you do the operation exactly in reverse. Screen onto a cloth and save what falls through for your seed crop and kitchen use. But save the weed seeds too. Cook them long enough to ensure they can't ever germinate. Then they're good pig and chicken feed! (Unless you've got poisonous plants to contend with.)

Bountiful Gardens, Abundant Life, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are companies that specialize in supplying open-pollinated seeds and also offer seed-saving supplies. Bountiful Gardens has a "Seed Saver's Kit" that includes silica gel to absorb moisture, date-keeping forms, and instructions. Abundant Life offers books on the subject and testing screens. For thresher designs for seeds or grains, contact Alan Dong, I-Tech, PO Box 413, Veneta, OR 97487; agronomy.ucdavis.edu/LTRAS/itech/. He also offers tool designs for a rice huller, seed storage, and weed burner. seed Storage: See Chapter 3 for much more on seed storage. In general, keep dry. Label each container with the plant name and the year the seeds were grown. Glass canning jars store seeds well. Don't dry your seeds with artificial heat; you'll kill the tiny life stored within them, and besides, too much dryness can kill them. But protect them from dampness in storage, because too much moisture is bad for them too. Get your seeds well dried, and then store them in glass or plastic sealed with freezer tape (freezer tape won't let moisture through in either direction, and that's just what you want). Store them under cool conditions, and then they will last as long as their individual ability allows. What I mean is that some seeds last better than others anyway: squash, radish, turnip, and lettuce seeds are very hardy, for instance, whereas onion, spinach, and corn seeds are less so.

Stratifying Home-Grown Seeds. Seeds from herbs grown in places other than your hometown often fail. The safest seeds for you are those grown in your own or your neighbors' gardens, since they are acclimated. You'll have better success with cold-climate seeds if you "stratify" them before planting. In fact, some seeds will not grow at all without this treatment. That means freezing and thawing them. Put them in your freezer in a paper or plastic package and leave them there at least overnight. Now take them out and let them thaw completely. Do this to the package at least 3 times. Germination Rates. Remember that no seed, wherever it's from—your garden or the professional seedsman—is going to germinate 100 percent. Fifty percent is more realistic, so save more than just the bare minimum. Seeds are living things and can have all kinds of troubles. They get old and die, and that affects germination rates too.

Testing Seed for Germination. If for some reason you're using old grain for seed, or grain that you lack confidence in, or if you just want to know what to expect, test the seed's germination rate. Put a sample of your grain seed on a cotton flannel cloth between 2 dinner plates, or between moist blotting papers. Keep the cloth or papers constantly moist and at a moderate temperature. The smaller your germination percentage, the thicker you'll have to plant that seed to get the stand you want in your garden or field.

Continue reading here: Vegetative Propagation

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