Seed Saving

Seed savers taking  break.

Seed savers enjoying the fruits of their labor.

It’s Fall and our gardens are dying. You probably spent some time deadheading basil and mint flowers and getting upset when lettuce bolted. By the time herbs and plants start developing seeds and flowers, they’ve slowed down on producing the leaves we love to eat. They have one foot in the grave. Keep the life cycle cyclical and save their seeds for next year.

Why bother with saving seeds when you can buy a new random hardware store pack next spring?

Saving your own seeds gives you more control over which traits you’ll have growing in your garden. If you prefer delicious tomatoes over ones grown for uniform size for easier mechanized picking, then save the seeds of the delicious ones. The season after that, you can save the seeds of the best ones from that delicious batch, and the next year’s will be even better. Same goes for peppers, morning glories, beans, or even the basil and mint in your windowsill. There’s no need to take your chances with a new, potentially lame batch of seeds.

Be sure about what goes in your mouth. (Photo via chiotsrun.com)

Let the healthiest, juiciest plants go to seed to be sure that their tasty genes are around for next year. (Photo via chiotsrun.com)

Also, have a look at this depressing infographic. All that loss means fewer flavors and more of the same boring fruits and vegetables that are bred to be shipped from one end of the earth to the next, among other not necessarily tasty goals. Collecting seed from heirloom or heritage plants (read: the open pollinated, non-hybridized kind) helps preserve biodiversity. Also note that standard hybrid plants aren’t necessarily programmed to have a life cycle. Their seeds may not produce offspring similar to the parent plant — or any plants at all.

Biodiversity is the key to food security, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It’s an old idea corroborated by anyone who lived through the Irish potato blight.

Because seed saving is simple and free, it was a popular, even revered act for our ancestors (and current small-plot farmers). And for the same reason, the act has been marginalized (even criminalized) by certain parties that hope to monetize nature’s basic processes. Stick it to Monsanto and monoculture by saving some of your own seeds.

Cycle of morning glory seeds

The cycle of morning glory seeds, from fresh to bursting.

NOW FOR THE SEED SAVING

For most flowers and vegetables, wait until seed pods have formed, turned brown and dried out. If you normally deadhead your flowers, let a few go to seed. Allow some of your culinary herbs (like cilantro) to flower and go to seed too. Like magic, you’ll have coriander seeds for cooking or the makings of next season’s crop.

Catch the seeds before they naturally pop out or fall. To do this, stick a brown paper bag over the seedheads and snip.

Poppies have bulbous and easy-to-spot seedheads when ready: it sounds like a baby’s rattle when gently shaken. Clip and collect in a paper bag and shake the seeds loose.

Vintage photograph of a garden. (Photo via St. Croix Valley Landscaping)

Protecting their biodiversity. (Photo via St. Croix Valley Landscaping)

Let vegetables like squash and peppers fully ripen (beyond when you’d pick them for eating). Let beans get bloated and huge on the vine. For most vegetables (tomatoes are a little more complicated) simply scoop out the seeds, clean them and spread them out to dry completely.

Store collected seeds in paper envelopes (marked with variety and date) inside an airtight container, like a glass jar, and use it next season. Seeds may keep longer than a year, but viability will lessen as time goes on.

Always look for the best quality plants and most desirable fruits (in terms of color, size and taste) for harvesting seeds. Disease-free plants that produced well this year provide the best genes for next year’s harvest.

To ensure you save seeds from the brightest, healthiest flower, tie a ribbon around the stem when it’s in full glorious bloom; you’ll remember where to go once it’s an ugly brown stump.

Our agrarian ancestors would be turning in their plots if they saw us throwing away perfectly good seeds at the end of every season, only to buy seeds of unknown origin. Become a seed-saver and preserve our food heritage while making it easy to grow better, tastier, healthier plants at home.

*Image research by Michael Wojtas.

FURTHER READING

“My daddy saved seed. I saved seed,” says [Horman] McFarling, 62, and sued for tech piracy by Monsanto: Seed Saving is Latest Tech Piracy, Wired

Our Dwindling Food Variety, National Geographic

Basic Seed Saving: International Institute of Seed Saving.

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