INTRODUCTION TO SEED SAVING
Seed saving generally refers to the practice of growing a plant to full maturity and harvesting the seeds produced to plant again the next season. Farmers and Gardeners have been saving their own seeds since the dawn of agriculture. It is only over the course of the past century that saving seed has become a lost art. When you save seeds you are connecting to an ancient rhythm developed between humans and plants that is essential for preserving biodiversity and enhancing food security.
Getting started is easy, and once you have the hang of it you can delve into the fascinating world of plant reproduction and genetics to advance your skills, make better selections, and perhaps even breed your very own new variety.
Every time you grow a seed crop, it will be affected in sometimes intentional, but often imperceptible ways by the growing conditions of that particular season. If, for example, only a few of your tomato plants survive a disease, seed saved from the surviving plants may have a genetic trait that helps them resist that disease. Gardeners who save their own seeds are helping their favorite varieties adapt to their specific garden climate.
The easiest crops for beginning seed savers to start working with are tomatoes (Lycopersicon lycopersicum), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and peas (Pisum sativum). All of these crops are self-pollinating, inbreeding plants, so do not need to be isolated from other varieties to save seeds that will come true-to-type. The exception is potato-leaved tomato varieties (like Brandywine) and current tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium) which will cross pollinate.
Begin to familiarize yourself with the Latin names (written in italics above) for different crop species. Most species (except the three mentioned above) will cross pollinate via wind or insects between varieties of their same species, and will need to be grown at a distance from each other to keep each seed variety true. This is called isolation distance and ranges from 25 feet to over a mile or more. In most backyard gardens this usually means you can only grow one variety of a cross-pollinating species each year. Each species has different requirements for successful seed saving. We recommend the book Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, which provides comprehensive details and instructions for saving seed from most common species.
HOW TO SAVE BEAN AND PEA SEED (DRY SEED):
• Harvest the pods after they have dried and turned brown on the plants, but before they split and shatter on the ground.
• Place in a bucket or on a tarp and crush the plant material to free the seeds from their pods by jogging in place on top of the dried material.
• Winnow to separate the seeds from the chaff (the dry plant material that is not seed) by pouring the mixture between containers or on a tarp outside on a windy day. The heavy bean or pea seed will fall straight down, while the lighter weight chaff and immature seed will blow to the side. You can accomplish the same thing indoors by pouring the mixture in front of an elevated box fan on a tarp.
• Repeat this action until the seeds are fully clean and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place until you are ready to plant them again. Properly stored bean and pea seeds may remain viable for 3–4 years.
HOW TO SAVE TOMATO SEED (WET SEED):
• Harvest tomatoes when they are slightly overripe.
• Slice or crush the fruit into a bucket or small container to expose the seeds in their protective green gel. (You can also scoop out the seeds and reserve the fruit for sauce or salsa.)
• Allow the crushed mixture to ferment uncovered in a warm place for 1–3 days. A white or gray mold will form over the surface. The fermentation helps break down the green gel, and kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.
• Add water to the fermented mixture to separate the seeds from the pulp. The good, fully mature seeds are heavy and will sink to the bottom. Immature, non-viable seeds will float.
• Pour off the pulp and use a combination of rinsing with water and straining to finish cleaning the seeds.
• Lay seeds out to dry on a glass or ceramic dish. Do not dry on paper or cloth as the seeds will stick and be very difficult to separate. Dry in a warm place, out of direct sunlight. Do not dry in the sun or in the oven.
• Stir seeds a few times a day for even drying. Dry seeds fairly quickly (2–3 days) to prevent sprouting.
• Store seeds in a glass jar or airtight container, in a cool, dry, dark place. Properly stored tomato seeds can remain viable for 4–10 years.
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