If, like me, you are a gardener with a fetish for the weird and rare in the world of heirloom fruits and vegetables, you have probably already found reason to gripe about the high prices for unusual seed. Of course, it is understandable that the growers who have worked hard at cultivating and preserving these unique varieties should expect reasonable compensation. And yet….and yet….well, if you got into gardening to save or even make money (as well as for the fun, the exercise, the healthy food, etc) – then you are probably looking for a deal around every corner.
The very best method I have found for getting rare heirloom seed affordably is to save it myself. Yes, this may mean shelling out a bit more the initial year. But while eight bucks for forty kernels of “Glass Gem Corn” or five for ten “Indigo Rose” tomato seeds may seem outrageous, it’s really not bad when you think of it as a lifetime investment in a rare variety you’ll never find at even the most upscale grocery. All you have to do is put a little extra thought into saving your own seeds, and you won’t have to ever pay for that packet again.
When it comes to seed-saving, different crops require different techniques, and some are easier than others. Three main things to keep in mind:
1) Seed-saving only works with open-pollinated or heirloom varieties. Hybrid seed, while entirely different from GMOs (do not fear the friendly hybrid!), do not produce true to type. You can make sure to order open-pollinated seed from catalogues (look for the little “OP” designation – as distinct from “F1” which denotes a hybrid). Or you can get heirloom varieties from market gardeners or friends.
2) One constant for all produce varieties is that the fruit or vegetable must achieve maturity before you’re going to find any seeds. This means, in some cases (tomatoes and peppers) that the produce we eat is also good for seed. In other cases it means letting it pass its prime (corn, snap beans, lettuce).
3) Your seeds must be stored in a cool dry place over the winter. Don’t let them get wet and moldy; don’t kill them by leaving them near an oven or radiator. I usually pack mine into the fridge during the winter season.
Here are a few basic and instructions for some of the main produce families:
Tomatoes. These are some of the easiest seeds to save. If you want to keep it simple: pick a ripe tomato, squeeze out a bit of juice onto a napkin or a plastic Tupperware lid, and let it dry. However there are a few other techniques you can use that will help guarantee the healthiest seed possible: first of all, select fruit from several different plants, the healthier the better, and collect your seeds from them, not from a single fruit. This will keep your hereditary line good and diverse, not inbred. Secondly, when you go to save your seed, start by squeezing some juice into a shallow bowl, cover with plastic, and let it ferment. When it’s good and foamy and smelly (ew!!!) strain the seeds out of the juice, rinse, and place on a clean flat surface to dry. The fermentation process helps break down the outer surface of the seed which otherwise might inhibit germination. Saving seeds this way will give you the clean, white, almost downy-looking seeds you expect to get when you buy a packet. granted, it may also stink up your house.
Cucurbit family (cucumbers, zucchini, melons, gourds, and squash. These are probably the easiest seeds to save (as evidenced by the fact that so often they volunteer in the compost pile). You just need to make sure the fruit gets as large as possible – and, in the case of winter squash or pumpkins, fully ripe. Then just cut open, grab a handful of seeds, let them dry for a few days, and put them in storage for the next season.
Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, turnips). These all produce seed by sending up a flowering stalk. This we are accustomed to seeing on broccoli and cauliflower, since the part we eat is just a cluster of immature flower buds. Spring-planting turnips often will also bolt and send up a flower-head if the weather gets too warm. But with kale, collards, and cabbage, typically you have to wait until the next spring for the plant to go to seed. This happens easily with kale. Just leave a few plants to flower, and voila! In a few years you will have a whole self-sufficient crop of backyard green goodness. I actually have not planted kale for several years; I just keep letting it go to seed and plant itself. With cabbage, though, you have to let the whole head sit through the winter, and finally in the following spring it will begin to stretch upward in a weirdly elegant tower which eventually becomes a flower. With all brassicas, wait until the flowers have dried and produced seed-pods, and then you can harvest the itsy round dark seeds (they’re about the size of tiny fleas).
Lettuce. I always let this one reseed itself, too, but this was the first year I actually opted to save some of the seed, because every spring I like to plant Jericho romaine lettuce, and one does get tired of having to purchase it. Lettuce, like cabbage, will bolt upwards in lofty towers….but it does so much earlier, usually earlier than one would like. But instead of angrily whacking down the recalcitrant summer-shy stalks with your trusty garden-hoe, just leave a few. Eventually they will turn to pretty little flowers, which will then turn to something like dandelion-fluff. I took handfuls of the fluff and rubbed it back and forth over a large plastic bowl. Then I had to separate the seeds from the chaff in the time-honored way of sifting through my fingers and letting the wind blow the loose stuff away.
Beans. This is one of the easiest. Whether you’re dealing with snapping beans or shelling beans, it’s just a matter of letting the pods get as big and tough as possible. Since beans usually will continue to produce as long as you pick the pods early, go ahead and harvest all of the first and second pickings….but then leave the third to just get huge, dry, tough, and (often) colorful. As long as it doesn’t get too damp, they can hang out on the vines quite a while. In October or so, pick them and let them dry, preferably indoors (though be aware that this might attract mice!). The beans should be hard and dry and slippery, and ready to go into storage as seed.
Corn. This is another one which just involves leaving a few to get big and tough, just as the big factory farmers do with their genetically-modified sweet corn. Around the time of first frost, when the big combines are out harvesting field corn, bring in the few ears of corn you left to grow and harden on the stalk. You can save the whole ear, or, to save space, rub the large loose seeds off and put them into storage. Make sure the ones you save are not moldy or cracked!
Garlic. I have a whole post on garlic-growing, so here I will just say, as I have said before: once you start eating fresh-harvested local garlic, you will never want to go back to the bitter, dry, conventional grocery store stuff! And here seed-saving is easy, since the same cloves you use for eating can also be used for planting. Buy a few bulbs from your favorite local grower, break them up (right before you are ready to plant…not too early, or they’ll sprout too early) and give it a try.
Saving seed is an important way of participating in the community effort to keep heirloom and open-pollinated produce varieties healthy and diversified. If one grower loses a crop, he or she can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the same variety is available affordably from a grower nearby. It’s genuinely a matter of keeping history alive.
Also, if you save your own seed, you will eventually develop what’s called a “landrace” – a variety of species that has developed over time in accordance with a given environment and growing conditions. This means you will be growing the very best possible varieties for your unique micro-climate and soil culture. So, go for it!