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S. O. S.!

October 17, 2008

SAVE OUR SEEDS!  Really it should be S.Y.S., SAVE YOUR SEEDS!  I worry about not having a enough seeds, and I worry there aren’t really enough seeds to go around, if everybody really starts gardening.  This seems like a timely subject.  Seed saving in my gardening scheme is as important as the actual gardening.  Food is getting more and more expensive and people are starting to garden more.  Saving seeds should be a part of every gardeners repertoire, as much as perfecting composting or crop rotation. 

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Cilantro when green, as a seed it is known as Coriander.  This plant is an annual, it easily goes to seed in a short time.

Seed saving is a skill to be learned gradually as you go, like canning.  Start with jam and move your way up to pressure canning low acid foods.  Don’t get overwhelmed thinking you need to save seed from everything you grow and like to eat.  Some seed saving techniques are hard to achieve in a the home garden, so those are best left to professionals.  Kind of like bottle feeding a baby calf, compared to riding a bull in a rodeo.  I’ve been saving seed for quite awhile, but I think I’m to the tame steer riding stage. 😉  I save quite a few different types of vegetable seeds, but if I had to really feed us, without buying seeds, we would be in a world of hurt, or have a pretty boring menu.

It may seem a little late to be talking about seed saving, because most gardens are gone, like the last warm summer night, but this is actually the best time.  You can get a few tips, and plan your seed saving with NEXT YEAR in mind.  Soon mailboxes will be stuffed with new seed catalogs, but if you’re like me you still have your old ones.  So you can study those, and hit the ground running and get your order in early.  There never is too many new varieties added, so from year to year, there isn’t much change.  I recycle my old ones, when I get the replacement for the new year.  There is so much information in a good catalog, planting tips, seed life information, and yield estimates.  All important if you are trying to feed your family from your garden.  I wrote a detailed post for this past years garden here

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Five Color Silverbeet, or Swiss Chard

This plant is a biennial, so you save seed from the second year.  Chard and beets are good survival garden plants, providing a considerable amount of food for humans and livestock on medium fertility soils.  But, they cross freely with each other, so you need to alternate years when you save seeds of each.  Beets one year, Chard the next.  Seed life is at least two years, and more if you save your own seed and take care of it.  I usually plan on a 4 year supply of seeds of each vegetable I save seeds from.  That allows for bad weather, and any other castasprophe that might befall the garden.  The chard plant pictured above was planted in spring 2007, overwintered, and allowed to set seed this year in 2008.  So I have lived with, and dealt with these plants for 18 months

To save seed, you need to allot enough space for seed plants and for eating.  That is why I have such large gardens.  The most important thing about seed saving that old timers knew, is that you have to rogue out the undesirable plants.  This is the same as culling my cattle herd, or maybe not saving the runt in a litter of pigs.  Not every bull calf should grow up to breed, not every heifer should get to become a cow,  and not every plant should be saved for seed production.  This means you really have to look at your plants, and observe and decide what desirable traits you want in your  vegetables.  If your chard, beets, or carrots bolt (send up their seed stalk) in the first growing season, you should pull them out, don’t be tempted to save that seed, because that plant is weak and diseased, and is trying to set seed to survive.  Feed them to the chickens or compost pile.

I also grow many plants of each vegetable I want to save seed from, giving the plants the same growing conditions, so I can see which plant really excels within my conditions.  I do not baby them, or subscribe to the NO PLANT LEFT BEHIND theory.  Some do well, some are in the middle and some fail or succumb to pests or disease.  Selecting from the best, ensures a viable crop for the future of your garden.  What makes the best?  You have to decide what your criteria is.  Productivity, flavor, early ripening, ripening all at once, are just a some things to look for.   A lot depends on your growing conditions and season. 

The criteria will vary with each type of vegetable and your use.  Do you want a lot of tomatoes at the same time to can?  Or do personal time constraints make that less important than a gradual ripening time so you will not be up all night canning for days.  You have to decide.

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Costoluto Genovese tomato.  Flavor and productivity are important to me with tomatoes.  And the most important – they must get ripe here in my cool maritime climate.

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Viking Purple potatoes.  Taste, texture, disease resistance, and long keeping attributes are important to us for our potatoes.  I save medium sized, disease free potatoes for seed.

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Pole Beans.  These are my purple pole beans that were handed down to me by my gardening/seed saving mentors.  (They also gifted me with their milking stool.)  I select poles that set beans all at once for my seed.  I mark these and don’t pick them throughout the season.  These are my canning beans, I love canned green beans with butter and honey, pure comfort food that transports me back to Veda’s kitchen.  Saving these seeds transports me back to their massive gardens.  I still have some of the original seeds in a the net bag they came in.  I couldn’t plant them all, and break that connection.   Our fall rains have come, these will finish drying on the vine in the greenhouse.  Our season was skewed by 3 weeks this year, normally my seed for these pole beans is dry in the garden by early September.  That is why I save more seeds than I need for one year.  Most seeds (except alliums) keep longer than stated in the seed catalogs.

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Uncle John beans.
Another local heirloom grown in this area for over a century.  To get these to dry properly is difficult.  I’m not counting this year, and I’m hoping the coming years will not be so wet.

Above you can see some of the stalks are dry, with dry pods attached.  That is what to save seed from if you want dry beans with early maturity.  I photographed these to show the difference in seed selection.  The plants were planted the same day, received exactly the same treatment, but I want dry beans, so I need to only save the dry pods for seed.  This will give me a larger percentage of dry beans each year if I continue to select for these traits.
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These are the beans from those stalks, the two pods on the left are almost completely dry.  The two on the right are suitable for fresh shelling beans only.

Here are some seed saving basics:

♥  Start out with OP (open pollinated) seed.  You can work your way back from hybrids, but it takes longer, and the results aren’t as predictable.  A good seed catalog should denote if the variety is a hybrid (F1) or not.

♥  Choose vegetables like beans or peas that don’t need much isolation and are productive anyway.
Other easy choices are squash, tomatoes, and melons.  For squash, the different types will not cross, pepo will not cross with maxima, or moschata, so plan accordingly.  This isn’t to say you can’t save seeds from these crosses.  I’m just saying you may not like the result.  Gardening takes a lot of time and with times getting harder, you need something to eat that tastes good, for all your efforts.  It’s easier to do the homework up front – and have a great outcome.

♥  Plants that need insects to pollinate them, should be planted in straight rows if possible.  Bees like to work in rows. 

♥  Plan your garden with seed saving in mind.  It takes longer than you think to get properly ripened seeds.  Irrigation is a biggie, you don’t want the seeds to get wet.  So the overhead sprinkler or even the drip irrigation should not be getting to plants you are trying to get to produce seed, after the seeds begin to ripen.

♥  Plan for a 4 year supply, and keep your seeds in a cool, dry, and  dark place, where, the sum of the humidity and temperature add up to 100*   You can freeze them, if you have the space.  I don’t. 
If you can’t quite duplicate those conditions, worry the most about humidity.  Humidity should be on the low side.

♥  Don’t plant all your seeds.  Plant 1/4 of your seeds, and if you need to replant, you will still have enough for the coming years.

♥  Label, with any pertinent information that you want to have access to the next year.  Variety, year, and date seed harvested are good for starters.  I save remittance envelopes and small paper sacks for seeds.

♥  Plan on this taking some time.  You know that lettuce that bolts way too soon?  When you want it to set seed it takes forever!

♥  Read as much as you can about seed saving.  Things you need to know are how many plants of each do you need to plant to maintain vigor?  Isolation distances, and what do the plants need for pollination, wind or insects?   If it is insects, you will need to be planting flowers and herbs in your garden to attract, and feed this group of overlooked “livestock.”  Good books on the subject which include good lists, and tables are:  Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, by Carol Deppe, and Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashmun.  Really pore over those seed catalogs, and maybe talk to the old timers in your area.  Somethings grow well in some areas and are frustrating at best in others.  I love the taste of Brandywine tomatoes, but I can barely get a ripe ONE, let alone enough to choose seeds from.  If I wanted to devote all my brain power (quit laughing, I know it is weak) to one thing I probably could spend ten years and get a early ripening Brandywine, but everything else would suffer, so my scope is broader, because my goal is to grow as much of our food as I can.  With as much variety as I can achieve in a home garden.

♥  Most of all, decide why you want to save seeds, and go from there.  Are you trying to save seeds important to you, are you trying to feed your family without dependence on corporations, or are you just interested in learning the art of seed saving.  All these factors will help you choose where to start.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2008 6:31 am

    I have been starting to save seeds. Last year I saves tomatoes and a few flowers. This year I’m saving many more varieties of tomatoes. I plan on joining Seed Saver’s Exchange to get some great heirlooms and starting saving away.

    Great post, thanks for the info.

  2. October 17, 2008 7:31 am

    Yeah for this post from you at this time, MOH! I have been saving a few seeds here and there for the last couple of years but really put my intention there this year. I’m by no means an expert and I have a friend who is just starting to experiment with saving as well. I will send her here for the info I don’t have.

    Sending you smiles and good seed saving energy!

    (P.S. I’m brewing a rant about Terminator seed technology. Any thoughts? 😉

  3. October 17, 2008 10:17 am

    Great post! Seed saving is one of the most important things I do in my garden. I have been saving my bean seed for four years now, and each generation seems to improve, sprouting and getting up out of the soil faster, and yeilding heavier. Every time we save seeds I think of it as imprinting information for the next crop. If we had a dry summer, then the plants that did well will pass that hardiness on.

    Out of curiosity, I went through last year’s seed catalogue and tallied up the prices for all the seeds we saved. Including seed potatoes and grain seeds it came up to $450!

    How do you overwinter you chard? I am going to try mulching over some, and also transplanting a few indoors, just in case the ones in the ground don’t make it.

  4. October 17, 2008 10:32 am

    This is such a great post! Hi, I came over from Achorn Farm. I have just started saving some seeds this year. I hope I did it right. Still have a lot to learn.

  5. October 17, 2008 10:56 am

    Great information as usual. What do you store your dried seeds in? I have marigold seeds that I kept 10 years ago and stored in a plastic ice cream pail that amaze me every spring by coming out of the ground faithfully. I’ll be out next fall so need to do this again.

  6. October 17, 2008 3:52 pm

    Yours is truly the best garden blog I’ve ever seen – so. much. information! I come here for my ‘MOH fix’. lol

  7. October 17, 2008 10:16 pm

    One of the most informative posts I have ever read!! Seed saving is somewhat new to me, only been doing it about 2 years now, and this infomation is the best I have read anywhere on the subject. I too belive this is as important a part of gardening and survival as is the soil we plant in. No seeds and there’s not much need to work the soil. Great post and Thank You !!!


  8. October 18, 2008 6:50 am

    Okay the one thing you failed to mention Nita is how addictive seed-saving becomes. 😉

    I’ve been doing lots of food research the last few years and the one thing that absolutely intrigued me is that in most old-world towns there was one person, usually an older woman, who was the town’s seed broker. What a thought! So perish the idea that “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” but instead, come see a crabby wrinkly me and I might exchange seeds with you.

  9. October 18, 2008 1:08 pm

    I learned lots from your post, thanks for sharing your seed saving knowledge. I will add seed saving to my goals for next year…first to read up and learn more about, grow some heirloom varieties, and start saving seeds.

  10. October 19, 2008 12:44 am

    What a great post! One way to ensure you start with open pollinated seeds is to get them from another gardener who is saving seeds. I encourage bloggers who save seeds to use their blog to offer what they can in trade. A loose, informal network of tech-savvy people who save and distribute seeds helps spread the knowlege we need to really feed ourselves.

  11. October 20, 2008 11:05 am

    I’m just starting my seed saving effort/collection in a serious way this year. I completely echo your concerns, especially in light of Monsanto’s terminator technology! Yikes, that freaks me right out. I don’t know about you, but last year when I struggled to get a zucchini to sprout, my mind wandered to Monsanto’s ‘technology’ (I can’t believe they even have the gall to call it that) and wondered if it had ‘broken loose’ into the gardens of seed saving companies…

  12. October 22, 2008 8:00 pm

    Susy, thanks it sounds like you are on your way. Seed Savers has some great varieties.

    Colleen, it takes a long time to be an expert at seed saving, I’m still trying 😉 I bet you have access to some great heirlooms in your area!

    You know better than to ask me about a rant, and get me all juiced up. :O

    Freija, isn’t amazing how much cash you can save by keeping your own seeds. Our seeds keep getting better and better too, with careful selection.

    I just learned this year that the Abenaki Calais Flint corn that I had been growing has hardier colors, red takes the cool and wet conditions better than the yellow, with orange being in the middle. I decided not to risk my seed this year and didn’t plant because of poor conditions overall. I’m glad I waited – no with this info. I can grow even hardier flint corn.

    The chard I save from seed is direct seeded in the greenhouse as early as I can get it to germinate. That way the root is larger than a mangel by fall and seems to overwinter just fine. The stalks usually die back, because the temperature is the same as outside. I’ve never mulched the chard, but it doesn’t get as cold here in the winter.

    YDavis, well you did the the most important step – you saved your seeds. It’s fairly easy to be right, congratulations on your first seed saving.

    Linda, my seed box is a nightmare. I finally just last year, bought some plastic shoe box size containers with lids, and I have tried to keep things separated. Plus Ruth Less keeps getting into my seeds, I had to get her, her own container.
    I have to watch her sometimes… 🙂 Seeds do keep along time, I’m still planting salad green seeds from ’95, and they seem fine.

    Sarah, you’re so nice. I have to come to your blog for your headers and cute kid pics!! 🙂

    Chris, I bet your hills are a gold mine full of seed savers!! Thanks for the nice comment. Heard any good songs lately? How about Copperhead Road? DH is itching to fire up his still, and he’s driving me crazy, always lurking around my big stockpot!!

    El, if I mentioned that, then I would have to mention what comes next… and I’m afraid it would do people harm.

    I think every town needs a seed broker just like a midwife, usually they are the same person! 🙂

    Kim, your schedule makes me tired Girl! You guys had a great garden this year, it won’t be long before you are selling seeds too, I bet.

    Steph, thanks, and that is great advice, getting seeds straight form the person who grew them is the best way to ensure they are vigorous and the right variety.

    HDR, sadly the seed trade is huge, with workers who are just doing a job. If you think how food is treated in an industrial setting, just think of sorting seeds for 8 hours a day, lots of room for mistakes, since so many seeds look so similar to the untrained eye.

  13. October 25, 2008 10:55 am

    Fantastic post full of very timely information!!

    It wasn’t until late spring that I decided I should try my hand at saving seeds, but then I noticed that not all of my seed purchases were of the open pollinated variety. Then I just got busy and overwhelmed.

    NEXT YEAR, I will do a better job, starting with buying only OP seeds.

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge!

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