If you are one of our customers, then chances are you are interested in preserving your personal power and choice when it comes to your food and your garden. Growing GMO-free, open-pollinated seed is a great way to begin. But, saving seed takes some planning and preparation. It is important to start small your first year or you may get overwhelmed.
We’ll begin with growing lettuce, beans and tomatoes for seed. Then you can pick several species each year to learn and broaden your collection, there are some great resources available about seed saving. In a few years you will be surprised at what you’ve collected. Seed swaps and fresh seed purchases will keep your garden diverse. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll be local seed saving extraordinaire before we know it.
Our website has information about our seeds which are exclusively open-pollinated varieties (non-hybrid, non-GMO seed) that are not treated with fungicides or pesticides of any kind. A variety is a specific strain of a species with distinct characteristics, for example a yellow pear tomato, that is so distinct that someone thought to name it.
When you properly save and replant them, seeds from open-pollinated varieties will reproduce “true” to the characteristics of the parent plants, linking growers to a sustainable and sovereign food system. Conversely, replanting seeds from F-1 hybrid and GMO varieties will reproduce unstable and unreliable characteristics that result in a seasonal dependence on the corporations that hold their patents. Each open-pollinated variety remains protected in the public domain as the common property of everyone.
Hybrid seed, which is not sold by Sow True Seed, is not genetically modified seed, but rather seed that is the result of a cross of two distinct parent plants; it will not be dealt with extensively here.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been in circulation since 1946 or earlier, prior to the commercial introduction of F1 hybrids and the changes in industrial agriculture that favored them. Many heirlooms are much older. For some, families and traditional cultures have passed them down for generations.
Why Save Seed?
People choose to save seed for a variety of reasons. One is a desire to grow a variety that is particularly important to you or that you would hate to lose from your seed catalog. Since the early 1900’s many varieties of seed have disappeared from seed catalogs. In one study between 1903 and 1983 as little as 3% of the original offerings of a plant species remained (see graphic). Growing your own seed in this case ensures your ability to keep the variety in your garden. Seed saving also promotes the selection of plants and genetics that have adapted to your garden’s micro-climate. Preserving genetic diversity may be of interest to a seed saver as well as developing characteristics like disease resistance, taste, storage ability, etc.
Where To Begin?
When you begin to save seeds it is a little easier to begin with self-pollinating species like lettuce, beans and tomatoes that are unlikely to cross with other varieties. They also make good beginning varieties for seed saving because these species are annuals and you can obtain a healthy crop of seed in one year as opposed to the two years required to obtain seed crops from biennials like chard or kale.
Seed Saving Logistics
Prior to saving your seed, locate a cool, dark place in your home where you can store them. Seeds prefer low humidity for long-term storage. While it depends on the type of plant, properly-stored seeds may last for 3 or more years. I would not recommend refrigerator storage unless you have humidity control or an airtight container for storage. Seed drying should occur in a dry place with high air circulation and low light.
Plan to keep good records for each seed batch. I suggest you include:
- variety name and species
- original source and contact information
- year grown, date of harvest and storage date
- variety description
- grow out location (perhaps with a map)
Label your storage containers well and keep a spreadsheet of this information. Believe me, you won’t remember!
Try Saving Seed From These Vegetables:
Tomatoes make a great first seed collecting endeavor. Collect disease free, ripe fruit (ideal specimens have the highest quality seed) from multiple plants. Cut the fruit and squeeze out the seeds/pulp into a clean container. Leave these seeds to ferment over 1 to 3 days. They are ready to rinse when a white mold develops on the surface of the liquid mixture. This fermentation process is important because it degrades the sheath surrounding the seed so that the seed can properly germinate when planted. Add water to your container and decant off the pulp until the seed is clean without any remaining tomato fruit debris. Strain seeds in a strainer and then spread on a labeled screen, coffee filter or parchement paper to dry completely. The seeds are dry when they break instead of bend when pressure is applied to them.
Beans should be left on the vine to dry until brown and crisp. Pods can then be placed in a cloth sack and thrashed piñata style or by running in place on top of the pods. The chaff is then separated from the seed by a process called winnowing. When winnowing a stiff breeze is used to get the chaff to fly off the seed, leaving the seed clean and ready for storage. A fan can be used if nature doesn’t provide a convenient wind. Place the seeds + chaff in a basket and pour it into another basket or container, letting the breeze hit the seed as it falls. Repeat the process until the seed is clean. Then the bean seeds are dried until they readily shatter when hit with a hammer. When they are dried they can be stored in envelopes or airtight containers under cool, dark and dry conditions. Place your beans in the freezer for at least 2 weeks before long-term storage to kill any bean pests that live in the seeds.
When lettuce bolts we usually get rid of it. Mostly, it ceases to taste very good at this point. However if you let it flower, obtaining seed is rather easy. For better seed quality, refrain from harvesting leaves from plants that are intended for seed production. Seed is ready 2 to 3 weeks after flowering. Over the course of a few days, visit the plants and shake ripened seed into a large paper bag or receptacle that will hold the very fine seed. Since lettuce does not lend itself to winnowing (the wind will carry away the precious seeds) use a fine mesh sieve to clean the seed. Dry the seed in a warm, dry spot. The seeds are ready for storage when they break but don’t bend under stress. To avoid cross pollination, grow varieties 12 to 25 feet apart. Crossing in lettuce is generally low (5% or less) but can be dependent on varietal inclination.
These few species are a place to get started in seed saving. If you plan on broadening your skills you should obtain a comprehensive seed saving guide. I’ve cross referenced most of this material with Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.
For many gardeners this becomes a passion. At the very least I hope you find that saving seed is interesting and rewarding. Knowing you are participating in the preservation of one of our most precious resources, our agricultural heritage and diversity is likely reward enough.