All of my greens have bolted in this heat. Yes, even up in the lovely Blue Ridge it’s been hotter than usual. But this year I let a few plants go to flower and seed. I’ve been reading Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, an excellent reference for seed savers. I don’t grow seeds for Sow True, I leave that to the professionals, but I like learning about it.
Here’s my Arugula. The leaves were tender, peppery and delicious about 6 weeks ago. Then the flower stalks shot up and branched out and the leaves got bitter. The flowers were small and white with dark reddish veins. I watched as the bees enjoyed them. The plant got surprisingly large.
Then little green pods grew out of the spent flowers. They plumped up and turned brown as the stalks flopped over and turned yellow. You can eat the pods but beware – they are spicy.
To keep it all contained during this period I bunched and tied it loosely with some twine. Once it was about 80% brown I pulled out the plant and cut off everything but the branches with the pods. I put these in an open cardboard box to finish drying.
According to Ashworth, Arugula will not cross with other members of the Brassica family, but it will cross with other Arugula varieties. If you want to keep your seed absolutely pure, grow only one type and keep it at least 1/2 mile from other varieties.
Clip off the pods when they are all brown and store in a paper bag (labeled) in a cool dark place until next spring.
Here is some red leaf lettuce flowering. These plants are a little better behaved when bolting, shooting straight up and flaring out at the top a bit. The flowers are fuzzy, made up of 10 to 25 florets that open all at once. They pollinate each other on the same plant, rarely crossing with other varieties.
Once the fluff balls are dry and brown at their bases, clip them off. You will have about 50% chaff and bits of stem mixed with seeds. Cleaning the seeds on a screen is useful but tricky since the seeds weigh about the same as the chaff. Rub the mass gently over the screen with your hand for best results. Or just save the whole thing and sow all of it next year, using twice as much per growing space.
Lettuce seeds remain viable for about 3 years when stored properly. I’ve had very good luck with the red leaf variety; it was my first attempt at seed saving a few years ago.
Here’s my Rainbow Chard. This one also grew quite large and floppy after bolting, blocking the path to the hose. I propped it up on a tomato cage while it was making it’s seeds. The Chenopodiacea family pollinates via the wind so it’s ready to cross with everyone and his brother. Beet pollen is so light it can travel 5 miles. Commercial growers use at least 2 miles as the isolation distance.
There are ways to keep the varieties pure on a small scale by bagging the flowers. I would like to try that sometime, but meanwhile I don’t mind if my chard makes some beet roots next year. We’ll see what happens. Where I’d really like try the bagging technique is on winter squash.
Once the flowers and stalks dried up I cut the plant down and put the stalks in another open cardboard box before processing. Getting the seeds off the stalks is easy – just run your thumb and forefinger down the stalk, popping off all the little rough seeds. Do this over a tray and then pour your bounty into a paper bag or envelope.
Each seed is actually a group of flowers fused together by the petals. This multigerm cluster contains 2 to 5 seeds.
It’s fun to collect and use your own seeds, grown for your exact garden conditions. It also gives one more respect for those who grow seeds professionally as well as for all those farmers, a thousand generations back, who developed and saved these wonderful heirlooms for us.
Written by Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, and Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project, follow him on Instagram at @blueandyellowmakes.