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Jane Says: It's Seed-Saving Season

With summer winding down, it's time to think about next year's garden.

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Can I save seeds from my vegetable garden to plant next year?”

—Monica Taylor

You’d never know it by the avalanche of seed catalogs that land in our mailboxes every fall and winter, but people have been saving seeds for thousands of years. It’s not complicated, but to prevent disappointment during next year’s growing season, you should be sure to only save seeds from open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, not hybrids.

What’s the diff? According to the Seed Savers Exchange, open pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, human, or other natural mechanisms. Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between the individual plants, they’re more genetically diverse, allowing them to adapt to local growing conditions and climate throughout the years. As long as pollen isn’t shared between different varieties within the same species, the seed produced will remain true to type year after year.

An heirloom, SSE goes on to explain, is “a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture.” But there’s a distinction between such storied varieties and plants that are good candidates for seed saving: “An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms [italics mine].”

“While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed,” SSE continues. You can taste the past on your plate, in other words.

I’ve heard a number of people mention the “purity” of heirloom seeds, but it’s important to understand that they have been heavily influenced by  humans—we’ve been selecting and breeding plants for favorable characteristics for around 12,000 years. And when you save the seeds of your best-performing, most delicious tomatoes or pole beans, for instance, you’ll be doing your own selective breeding to suit your own particular soil and climate conditions. Over several growing seasons, seeds can develop very specific adaptability to your garden. Do not save seed from weak or “off-type” plants.

Although hybridization—a cross between two genetically different plants in the same species—can occur naturally through random crosses, commercially available hybridized seed (often labeled F1, meaning the variety is the first-generation offspring of a cross), which began in the 1920s, is deliberately bred to highlight a desired trait—a certain color, for instance, or flavor. According to the SSE, “The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor.’ However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years.” Seeds collected from F1 hybrids won’t grow plants that resemble your tomatoes or green beans, for example, from the year before. They’ll also lose that hybrid vigor. One of the most renowned tomato hybrids is Early Girl, a meaty ’mater that, when dry-farmed, develops outstanding flavor. One California farmer, however, is working to develop an open-pollinated version, dubbed the Dirty Girl.

Tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuce are all good choices for beginning seed savers: They produce seed the first season they’re planted (unlike carrots, for example) and are pretty much self-pollinating. I don’t have the space to write about each one in detail, but check out the individual entries for those plants in Bill McDorman’s Basic Seed Saving, and you’ll see that they’re processed in one of two ways.

Dry Processing

Beans are a good example of plants with seeds that are dry processed. Let the pods “dry brown” before harvesting, about six weeks after the eating stage, according to McDorman. “If frost threatens, pull entire plant, root first, and hang in cool, dry location until pods are brown.” If you’re working with a small amount of pods, simply open the pods by hand; larger amounts of pods should be flailed, or fractured, in order to free the seeds. That might mean rubbing the dried seedpods between your hands, or, as McDorman notes, “driving over bean vines with a car.”

The seeds of herbs such as cilantro, dill, and chervil are processed the same way. When the plants bolt, let them do their thing—their flowers will attract pollinators, after all—and when their shiny green seeds turn brown and dried and the plants are spent, cut off the seed heads and pull off the seeds. The leaves of most bolting herbs aren’t flavorful, so next year, try succession sowing (planting seeds every few weeks) so that you’ll always have a mix of edible plants and those going to seed.

Wet Processing

In plants like tomatoes, which produce seeds inside their fruits, the seeds must be fermented in water for a few days to separate them from the surrounding jellylike flesh, which inhibits germination. You’ll find helpful images and instructions in Andrea Heistinger’s Manual of Seed Saving, which is available online. One good tomato will often yield enough viable seeds for planting next season.

Storing Seeds

Protecting your seeds from heat and humidity is the key to successful storage. Tight-sealing jars are a good option, but a number of seed-saving gardeners I know prefer paper coin envelopes, available at office supply and crafts stores; they come in different sizes, take up next to no room, and are easy to write on (the kind of vegetable, the variety, where you originally bought or got the seed, and the date of harvest). For optimum longevity, put your completely dry seeds in (labeled) envelopes, then put the envelopes in a completely dry canning jar. Seal it tightly, and put it in the freezer.

Seed Swaps

Some of the best seeds and advice you’re going to get is likely from the gardener on the other side of your backyard fence. Seed-lending libraries, often set up in community public libraries, are also growing in popularity: You can “check out” seeds for the season, allow some of the crop to produce seed, then return some of that seed to the library for others to borrow. You wouldn’t think this sort of community-based initiative would be controversial, but you’d be wrong. Read what TakePart contributor Steve Holt has to say about the matter.

To Take You Further

• Fedco Seeds
• Hudson Valley Seed Library (in particular, this “Seeds and Salsa” outline by founder Ken Greene)
• Organic Seed Alliance Seed Saving Guide
• Seed Savers Exchange
• Basic Seed Saving, by Bill McDorman, cofounder of the groundbreaking (sorry) Seed School
• The Manual of Seed Saving: Harvesting, Storing, and Sowing Techniques for Vegetables, Herbs, and Fruit, by Andrea Heistinger
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardners (2nd ed.), by Suzanne Ashworth
• Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History, by William Woys Weaver, for more info on heirlooms 

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