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Seed Saving Question Answered…Maybe

October 24, 2014

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A few weeks ago when I posted about getting the winter squash harvest in, Michael asked me to expand a bit on the criteria I used to select seeds for my Sweet Meat winter squash.  I have to say seed saving is a broad subject that sometimes becomes political or sometimes is just too froufrou for me.  On a farmstead if you want to save seeds, you have to get the idea out of your mind that you need to save the world, and all the seed varieties that are being lost, blah, blah, blah.  What you need to do is concentrate on you, your land and you and your land’s capabilities.  I won’t go into what you need to do to be a seed seller selling guaranteed pure strains, that’s entirely different than a home gardener who wants to save seed either to save money, play around with plant breeding, or just expand your gardening repertoire to include seed saving.

My criteria for seed saving usually has an emotional aspect, I know or knew the person who grew the original plants, or I like the color, or I like the name, things like that, that really make me think about the particular vegetable or flower all throughout the season.  It’s not just a bean, it’s a bean my surrogate grandparents grew.  You know, the warm, fuzzy stuff.

One thing that is bigger in most people’s minds is taste.  I cannot lie, that is a biggie.  I’ve grown my share of seed catalog wonders that taste like, well, let’s just say they didn’t meet expectations.  Many times too that comes down to terroir, I grew a much touted tomato this year and it did not live up to the hype, but part of me believes I need to save seed from those tomatoes I grew that tasted better and give that variety another chance.  Next year.  The constant agrarian lament.  On the flip side I grew another new-to-me tomato this year and it straightened out the false tongues on my boots.  Both came from Oregon, but different parts of the valley, so we’ll see.

That leaves economy.  Can you save the seeds without too much trouble, have them bear true to type and shorten your food supply chain?  Do you have the space for isolation if you’re wanting to save seeds from a vegetable that cross-pollinates?  Are there gardeners nearby growing things that can cross-pollinate with your crops?  Can you get by with just one kind of winter squash, or do you want to get all CSA-like and have a smorgasbord?  Sometimes it just makes more sense to buy the seeds.  Seeds are inexpensive when you see a crop mature and see just how much food you can grow with a handful of seeds.  And it doesn’t hurt to keep that seed company in business, you may need them someday.

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Sweet Meat winter squash, Cucurbita maxima

Seed saving is fun, and you can manipulate a variety a bit over time and make it more suitable for your growing conditions.  I have trouble at my location with getting enough heat units to mature some warm weather crops, so when I started with Sweet Meat I had a few years that some of the squash didn’t ripen.  Even though you see a pie at the top of the post, dessert fodder was not my reason for growing this many squash.  Here are some of my criteria and how it worked out.

♥  I wanted a squash that would be suitable for our house needs, tasty, thick flesh, that is sweet enough for desserts without a lot of added sugar and not so sweet it wouldn’t be suitable for savory dishes, and I wanted a lot of seeds for eating and seed saving.  We go through about one squash a week, maybe a pie once in a while, but usually as a vegetable side.  The dogs and hens share in this one squash a week scenario too.

♥  I wanted a winter squash that keeps for a long time.  Obviously my early efforts with some fruits green at harvest time didn’t sit well.  Those green squash quickly became hen feed.

♥  I wanted a winter squash that wasn’t too big nor too little.  A squash too large just becomes cumbersome during harvest and when you need to cook it, a squash too small is more handling than I wanted.

To that end, I grew no other squash that would cross-pollinate.  I grew a minimum of twenty-five plants to ensure a large gene pool.  Warning, this takes a lot of space.  Our Sweet Meat row takes up three of our dry garden rows, that sounds like a lot, but it also produces close to five-hundred pounds of food in that space without irrigation.  Food that keeps a year without any kind of processing except to eat?  That’s definitely on my list of things to grow.

For optimum keeping quality, the squash needs to be harvested before frost, and when ripe.  After harvest the squash needs to be cured in a warm place, in your house if you can stand it, and then after a week or two moved to cool, dry storage where there is no chance of freezing.  I store mine in an unheated bedroom in the house.  The barn where we store potatoes is too cold and damp, and our basement is too damp.  I learned those things the hard way.

As the squash cures it will develop more flavor.  I have heard that Sweet Meat will sweeten in storage for up to six months.  I don’t know that for a fact, but I do know that the squash tastes much better around Christmas and January than it does now.

I try to keep to my Guideline 52 and plan for a squash per week thereabouts.  Once fall is upon us we start adding the squash into our diet as the summer foods drop off.  We polished off the last zucchini this morning for breakfast…sniff.  Zukes, I will miss you.  To be truthful though, we really slow down the squash eating once greens besides kale start appearing in the spring.

So now the seed saving observations begin as you work through your winter squash stash.  Assuming you didn’t commit any culls to storage (we’re eating those now) you systematically start using up your squash.  I look for signs of spoilage, soft spots, weird color around the stem, etc.  That is not a keeper, but for sure suitable for eating.  When you cut the squash open you look at it.  Do the bad spots run through?  Is the flesh thick?  Is the seed cavity full of good seeds or duds?  At this point you may want to save some seeds if the flavor is just out of this world.  If you do, make note of what you liked and didn’t like about this particular squash.  As the eating season progresses you will find better candidates that meet all your criteria, save those seeds with accurate notes and dates.  Wash, dry completely until you can break a seed in half.  I dry my seeds on a platter and give them stir with my hands when I think about it.  In about a week or so, you can store them in a dark dry place or the freezer if you have space.  The seed life of a squash seed is at least 3 – 4 years, longer if kept in the freezer and taken care of.

So your efforts are not entirely wasted, save twice what you think you will need, and only plant half.  Crop failures, illness are any manner of happenings can throw a monkey wrench into your gardening plans.  Work out a plan in your mind what your criteria is, it may differ from mine.  The main thing is to make it easy on yourself to do.  Seed saving is about 99% observing throughout the growing and eating season and 1% saving the actual seed.  Let the seed saving begin!

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Allisa Imming permalink
    October 24, 2014 11:57 am

    Thank you for your insight and tips. Really informative!

  2. October 24, 2014 2:10 pm

    One of the better gardening posts/columns I’ve read. We’ve found, in 20 years of home gardening, that it’s not longer about diversity–trying 18 different tomatoes–so much as growing tomatoes that we’ll get to eat. We find the best plants are often volunteers–we’ve had some great tomatoes out of the compost pile that I’m sure came from throwbacks of grocery store hybrids bought in desperation at the height of winter, when even one of those pink tasteless softballs is better than nothing on a salad. My inlaws didn’t plant squash this year and still ended up with about 40 huge, tasty fruits from the seeds that survived over the winter in their compost.

  3. October 24, 2014 6:29 pm

    I’m still in the “try different varieties to see what works in my climate” stage. Found a great cherry tomato that’s wild and hardy as heck. Have watered it all of two times once I planted it out. It’s a jungle, though, and the plant takes up at least 20 sq feet. Produced tomatoes all through the hot summer, had to dig through all the vines to get to them…realized we are not really into cherry tomatoes. I think we’d be more into paste types. Lesson learned.
    I can’t wait to mess with winter squash next year. I will be attempting to get into a system like yours, only with moschata types. Will start with butternut, but Musquee de Provence is mighty hard to resist… lol

  4. Maggie permalink
    October 24, 2014 8:23 pm

    We grew Sweet Meat squash for the first time this year but have not yet eaten any of it. They look mostly like yours but some of them have developed these bumps/patches/warts on the skin kind of like a Galeux D’ Eysines squash, only not so pronounced…..do any of yours do that? Does that mean something is wrong with them?

    • October 24, 2014 9:59 pm

      Maggie, no they’re fine, some of mine are like that and some are smooth…I have no idea why.

      • Maggie permalink
        October 25, 2014 9:08 am

        Shucks….I was kind of hoping you would say that meant they were extra sweet/tasty/etc. 🙂

  5. October 24, 2014 9:09 pm

    Best, simplest, and most clear explanation of seed saving I’ve read in a long time.

  6. October 24, 2014 9:44 pm

    I take my hat off to you, you are far more organised than I am. My husband laments my lack of labelling at times – mind you, if he took over that bit then he wouldn’t have to worry 😀

  7. October 25, 2014 5:29 am

    I have such an issue with squash vine borers and squash bugs. Because of its thick stem at the base the only squash I can trust to harvest is Butternut. I usually harvest 2-3 little zucchini before the whole plant goes down. I haven’t found any other winter squash that survive except Butternut. While it is OK, it hasn’t got a lot of flavor. Last year was a dry year and off 8 plants I harvested 491 lbs. This year, a wet year, I harvested just 80 lbs off 4 plants, dozens rotted in the field. They were over come with squash bugs. Any suggestions?

    • October 25, 2014 5:49 am

      Luddene, we don’t have the vine borers here, and ironically Butternuts (C. moschata) are hard for me to ripen, usually a wasted season or something that needs to be raised in the greenhouse, which I’m not willing to do. I’ve heard to plant late or early to beat the bugs, whether that works or not I have no idea really 😦

      • Karen permalink
        October 25, 2014 9:31 am

        My experience is the same as Ludddene’s. The advice given to me included planting early as your best bet coupled with making sure you meticulously clean up plant debris. I grow sweet potatoes reliably, from slips provided by the previous year’s harvest. That satisfies side dishes and the pie cravings, which, btw, are only made worse by Matron’s photos!
        …”straightened out the false tongues on my boots”…That’s one I’ve never heard before. 🙂

  8. Chris permalink
    October 25, 2014 7:43 am

    There’s that beautiful pie again…Sooo, are you going to share your recipe with us? 🙂
    Pretty please?

  9. October 26, 2014 7:07 am

    I love seeing a realistic post of seed saving, instead of one that goes “You can save seed from almost anything! Never buy seeds again!”.

    Personally, I save seeds from:

    1 bell pepper, which means I can only grow that pepper. It’s a mini bell a friend gave me seeds for with no name for the variety, but it ripens faster and produces more than any other pepper I’ve tried to grow here, and is really tasty with just a tiny hint of heat/spice. I grow out 12 plants a year, and save the seeds from all of them (in theory I should probably grow more, but that’s what I’ve got space for, and I’m not trying to select for anything other than number of peppers produced).

    2 tomato varieties – Sungold I buy seeds for, since I haven’t found anything to match it, and it’s a hybrid. Red Currant and Igleheart are both heirloom varieties which I can’t find seeds for, so those I save year to year from the 2-6 plants of each variety I grow (again, I should theoretically be growing more to really save seed, but don’t have the space).

    4 bean varieties – 2 bush and 2 pole, which I use for green beans while letting some grow out to be dry beans, and save the best looking seeds for the next year.

    I’ve tried to save other seeds in the past, but it just wasn’t worth the garden space or effort (for me) to do squash, parsnips, lettuce, chard, spinach, broccoli, or peas. Isolation space is one of my biggest problems, and enough space to grow a reasonable number of plants out for some diversity is next.

  10. Chris permalink
    October 26, 2014 9:21 am

    🙂

  11. JP Swift permalink
    October 28, 2014 9:10 am

    To Luddene Perry,
    You could cover your squash with floating row cover. It will act as a barrier to insects and water permeable. You would just have to take it off for pollination. We use it for this purpose and growing greens in the spring and fall. You can bend hoop from metal electrical conduit to hold it off plants and it acts as a greenhouse. You can see pictures of this at the Johnny’s Seeds catalog web site.

  12. Michael permalink
    October 28, 2014 12:53 pm

    Thanks for your post regarding my comment. I am use to saving my own potatoes, garlic and bean seed, with the expectation that they remain stable.

    How quickly could your squash be selected for very different traits then the ones they have now? You talk about not wanting them sweeter. Do you think a few years of selecting you could achieve greater sweetness or other qualities?

    Land race selections seems to have great possibilities.

    Love reading your blog.
    Thanks,
    Michael

    • October 28, 2014 1:21 pm

      I have to say it’s pretty sweet, and when I say savory, I mean with butter…squash is the perfect vehicle for my second food group – butter! By the fourth year I had sweeter squash that kept until I brought the next year’s harvest in. The size is more variable and it’s seeming that is depending on my weather and when the squash get pollinated more than any selection I am doing. This year they were so uniform I couldn’t believe it. We had some hot spells at some critical bloom times and I think I missed the first and the last that would give me a ripe crop. Not complaining though.

  13. December 2, 2014 2:18 pm

    Hi there, I am a seed saver and farmer/veg seller. The best way to save squash or tomato seeds (and least messy way too) is to ferment them – scoop seeds into water, cover with paper towel, leave for 2 days until it is frothy on top and then drain, the seeds will be sterilized, put on a nonstick platter to dry for about 10 days. I work with a lot of rare seeds and it is a frou frou thing sort of, but it is important work at the same time considering varieties of medicinal plants are often endangered due to overharvesting in the wild or other reasons. We grow a lot of wild medicinal and endangered native plants on a few acres in order to allow them to replenish in the wild, because of invasive non-natives being often in competition with native plants.

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