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Winter Seed Saving

February 18, 2014

When we think of seed saving, most of us think of sunny days, and rushing to get the dry seeds harvested before the fall rains set in.  Most of the seeds we save here fall into that category, but some of our staples need to pass the tincture of time and perform in the kitchen to become worthy candidates for seed saving.  Farmstead seed savers have a luxury that seed sellers don’t.  Namely on the farmstead you can select for the characteristics you want in a variety and time is on your side in that regard.  It may be taste, cold hardiness, keeping qualities or productivity.

Sweet Meat winter squash

Sweet Meat winter squash

Winter squash is one of our staples.  We like it so because it tastes good and stores with no added energy.  One of my goals for our winter squash is that it tastes good and stores well.  It’s not unusual for me to feed out the previous years winter squash stash just before we bring in the current harvest.  Food that stores well for a year is definitely a plus for any homestead.  Always plan for abundance in the garden, it’s better to have enough than fall short.

All year-long as I garden I am “seed saving”, planning my garden for seed saving, working in isolation distances, growing varieties that won’t cross, and roguing out plants that don’t fit.  Diseased, odd-looking etc., to make sure my seed crop is as pure as I can muster.  Once the stores reach the pantry, I began roguing again.  With squash, each squash I cut open I save the seeds, making observations about flesh thickness, spoilage, seed number and appearance, and finally the most important is taste.  We grow Sweet Meat and they do develop more flavor in storage.  I go through the motions of drying down the seeds until the taste test is complete.  If it has the taste and texture we like, I continue with the seed drying, labeling with the date I “harvested” the seeds and any other particulars of note.  If not, they go in the scrap bucket for the chickens or we roast them and eat them.  You never know when you’re going to get that stupendous tasting squash that will blow your socks off.  (I really like winter squash…)


Sweet Meat winter squash – Cucurbita maxima

Other staple crops that we save seed from fall into the root crop category which are all biennials, meaning they have to grow a second season to bolt and send up a seed stalk.  Summer roguing of those crops are important too to remove any undesirable plants you may see.  Sometimes though that is how you find new varieties too, so you must pay attention, the plant may be different, but it may be worth keeping.  That’s the fun of farmstead plant “breeding.”

If you live in a colder climate than I do, you may need to select your roots for seed saving n the fall and store them in a dormant state until planting time.  I have the luxury of leaving mine in the ground, and can add cold hardiness to my selection criteria.  We have had two significant freezes this winter, one in December, and one in February.  There is a big difference in the what I am finding in the garden now in mid-February.  Many roots have succumbed to the cold.  Right next to a rotten root I will find solid hardy roots with growing crowns intact.  Those are the roots I want to grow on to save seed from as they fit my criteria.  They have survived my conditions in good form, and that is an important trait to consider.

Turga parnsip blooming

Turga parnsip blooming

Parsnips are a staple here for the milk cow, they are cold hardy, easy to grow and need no extra fussing for cold protection like the other roots we grow.  I can dig them all winter as needed, and a big bonus, the voles do not like them.  To get enough seed and to ensure good pollination I need to grow two dozen uniform roots out to seed stage.  Parsnip seeds lose vigor quickly so this is a yearly task in the garden.  Beets, and other roots are also biennial but the seeds keep for many years so I don’ t need to save seed from those vegetables each season.

By saving farmstead seeds with the traits you need and want, you can work resilience into your gardening activities.  Seed saving is a worthwhile skill to learn, I do this to continue the thread of gardeners that mentored me and passed on their seeds, and to have at my fingertips, seeds that are acclimated to my microclimate.

Plus it’s fun!

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth in Ky permalink
    February 18, 2014 6:44 am

    One thing I have wondered about feeding the roots to the milk cow….does it alter the taste of the milk? As a kid I remember drinking wild onion milk for weeks on end, so do beets & carrots sweeten the milk?

    • February 18, 2014 7:46 am

      Beth, I stay away from anything that tastes strong, any cole crops get fed to the chickens etc., beets tend to make the cow too loose, so parsnips and carrots are what I have settled on. I haven’t noticed a difference in the taste of the milk though.

  2. February 18, 2014 7:42 am

    Look at all the green in those pictures! Ugh. Spring can’t get here fast enough.

    • February 18, 2014 7:47 am

      I know, it’s greening up slightly but it’s sure a treat to go back through the archives for summer photos…the photos of boxes of tomatoes and peppers are killing me though 😦

  3. The Editors of Garden Variety permalink
    February 18, 2014 9:01 am

    Lovely pictures and a very informative article!

  4. February 18, 2014 10:55 am

    Talk to me about those Sweet Meat squashes. How do you use/keep th, given they’re so huge? I would love to grow them, but I’m intimidated by the size with only my husband and me to eat them!

    • February 18, 2014 11:59 am

      Amy, we use them for any recipe that calls for pumpkin, but actually we eat the bulk of them just steamed with butter added. I’m a sucker for squash, and you can’t ask for a better vitamin packed easy to keep food than a winter squash. We usually go through about one a week during the fall/winter/spring and then that’s about it for squash after eating it all winter 😦 They make great baby food, dog food etc., and the chickens devour them if I let them go. You might try a smaller squash like Red Kuri, or Gold Nugget, Johnny’s carries both – I like butternut too but it’s hard for me to ripen unless I devote greenhouse space, which I’m not willing to do when I can reliably grow these outside. Nothing goes to waste except the stem, we eat the flesh and seeds, and the dogs eat the cooked skin.

      • February 19, 2014 5:57 am

        I grew Sweet Meat for the first time last year after hearing so many recommendations. I only harvested 3 very small squash. But I can grow butternut squash like crazy. Any ideas where I could have gone wrong?

        • February 19, 2014 6:18 am

          Erika, I have no idea. It could be the seed, or transplanting, or ? They are heavy feeders although not anymore than any other squash. I’ve saved my seed for a long time, and I know mine has acclimated itself to our cool soils and now ripens much sooner than it used to. You might try Carol Deppe’s Homestead Sweet Meat from Adaptive Seeds or Nichols. I know friend got some Sweet Meat seeds from Territorial and Fedco and they didn’t perform for her…

          Sticking with butternut wouldn’t be a bad thing 🙂

  5. Tom Stewart permalink
    February 18, 2014 12:43 pm

    I have been a follower for quite some time and enjoy your posts and photos. I would like to try the “Sweet Meat” squash in my garden. Where would I get the seeds to start with? I’m looking to use them as worm food too!

  6. February 19, 2014 5:33 am

    what a fantastically informative and encouraging article! I’ve been saving tomato seeds for years and had good luck with collecting and propagating seeds from the weirdo volunteers – they are hardy and pretty self sufficient, found a big golden orange one and it’s going into it’s 3rd reincarnation this year.. After plunking down $400 for seeds this year already, I’ve resolved to focus on saving/breeding the most expensive/high quantity needed ones first. Have you had any open pollinated sweet corn success? Thank you for this!

    • February 19, 2014 6:11 am

      FK, it sounds like you’re on your way with seed saving! We’re not too into sweet corn here, but I’ve grown flint corn with success. We have very little heat units here in the summertime, so corn struggles to ripen and we don’t eat that much of it anyway. If I grow sweet corn I use a early hybrid, and don’t worry about seeds too much. Corn isn’t on our resilience list.

  7. February 19, 2014 7:05 am

    My sweetmeat grew a treat this year and we are enjoying the fruits now. Thanks for the heads up for their longevity

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    February 19, 2014 7:23 am

    Could you give me a rough estimate of how much food you grow for your house cow a year? We are (finally, maybe) going to make the plunge into a Jersey and I would like to supply her with some grain substitute. I have been able to successfully grow everything you suggest (parsnips, carrots…) on a large scale for our family but I’m not exactly sure how much more to expand to supply a cow. I’m sure that it will be a trial and error endeavor but it would be really helpful if you could give me a starting point. (I’m pretty sure you have already discussed these points on you blog. Maybe you could just refer me to the dates?)


    • February 19, 2014 11:43 am

      Elizabeth, I expanded a little this year and grew 300 row feet each of carrots and parsnips just for the cow. I always get 100% harvest on the parsnips since nothing tries to eat them. (and I wonder why I don’t like parsnips?) Carrots are less because if it’s not deer predation in the summer it’s voles in the winter. I plan on those rows to take me from mid-November through about mid-March roughly about 4 months of supplement. I’ve been toying with a post idea of just what does Jane eat? She does eat some grain so the roots are a supplement like the grain. I’m not a purist, so I’m happy with this level of gardening (read amount of work) for the house cow, if grain ended tomorrow, I would deal.

      • Elizabeth permalink
        February 20, 2014 3:41 am

        “What does Jane eat” is a great idea. Thank you so much for your detailed posts. I don’t really know anyone who cares for their house cow like you do. Most of us out here are flying by the seat of our pants.

  9. February 21, 2014 8:33 am

    Off the subject but i saw a post about your Columbia Ram pump. Am helping a friend set up same ram but we have no information on adjustment and leather replacement on impulse valve. Impulse valve does not seal and after taking it apart we can’t determine how a leather or rubber gasket would be installed. Any info appreciated, and if you have an owners manual we sure would like to get a copy somehow. Thanks, Al

    • February 21, 2014 9:36 am

      I replied to your other comment on the other post. Here it is again.

      Here you go from my husband:

      Cut a round piece of leather that just barely fits the casting (base). The hole in the center should be smaller than the the waste valve, you will really have to stretch it to get it on the valve, thickness is critical. The leather should be thick enough to make the valve parallel to the face plate or slightly thicker as the leather will compress a little bit as it seats in. Don’t glue it in, the leather will be held in place as you tighten down the face plate.

      Hope this helps.

  10. February 21, 2014 1:53 pm

    Oh yeah, that makes sense! Knew there had to be some mechanical way to hold the leather in place. Thankyou SOOOOOO MUCH! May have to consult on adjustments but we’ll fool around with it first. Every ram pump seems to have it’s own unique design – the one i made by walking thru the plumbing dept of the hardware store wasn’t working quite right so used a rubber band around a clothespin to get the proper adjustment. Thanks again, Al & Brian

    • February 21, 2014 2:23 pm

      Al, yes, monkeying around is the name of the game. Where are you located? I ask just because what works in high water season needs tweaking during low water times…but you can’t beat them and the Columbia rams seem to perform the best!

      • February 21, 2014 2:55 pm

        Located near Quilcene, Washington. Spring/stream friend is setting it up in is seasonal so figure it will take frequent tinkering – but that’s part of the fun! I’ve been a “ram fan” for years and this is the first Columbia ram i’ve run across, and it looks like a good unit. Thanks again for your help. Al

  11. February 22, 2014 12:38 am

    I don’t usually post comments, but I wanted to say how inspiring these posts on saving seed are. Yesterday I harvested my first crop of parsnip seed after reading your blog for the last couple of years.

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