The following is an excerpt from Janisse Ray’s award-winning book about seeds and seed saving, The Seed Underground.
If you’ve ever thought saving your own seeds was too much to tackle, let Janisse provide some encouragement and inspiration.
BASIC SEED SAVING
by Janisse Ray
To save your own seeds and get plants that are photocopies of the parents, you must grow open-pollinated seeds.
If you believe in moon magic, plant between either the last quarter and the new moon in the signs of Gemini for multiplication; or in the earthy signs of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces—believed to be the most productive constellations for aboveground crops. In many cultures, seed harvested at full moon is thought to have the best germinating power.
Select plants in your garden that have done well and have adapted to your temperament, soil, climate, and desires. If you want early melons, select seed from the earliest. If you want tolerance to cold, pick the plant that lives through the coldest night. You may be interested in disease resistance, late maturation, drought tolerance, or productivity. Keep notes if necessary. Mark your plants with tie-on markers (pieces of torn cotton cloth). Then choose from them the fruit whose characteristics most appeal to you.
Gathering seeds at the right time is important. For fleshy fruits, the seed is ready when the fruit is completely ripe. Flowering heads are tricky in that you must get the seed after maturity but before wind and animals scatter them.
My best advice
If you want to elevate your seed-saving interest to a passion or a scholarship and do it correctly, is to get Suzanne Ashworth’s incredible book Seed to Seed, about which I once overheard someone say, “It seems so little to have all the answers.” Ashworth knows (almost) everything there is to know about seed saving (and I added the almost only in case some small tidbit of information has not yet been discovered). The Seed Savers Exchange also periodically prints a seed-saving guide, which is an invaluable resource. I have the one that appeared in the Seed Savers Summer Edition 1988, a Seed Savers Exchange publication that served as their journal.
Maintaining seed purity is a science. You need to know how many of each variety to plant, how far varieties should be planted from each other, whether a variety is an annual or a biennial, how long the seeds are viable, and many more facts. You won’t get many of those details from me here.
My goal is simply to plant a seed. In you.
Some vegetables produce seed in one season and by reason of their botanical structure generally do not cross with others of their kind. This reproduction, called self-pollination, is easiest for the seed saver, since the seeds remain reasonably pure genetically without added protection from bagging or separating plants a great distance. Lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beans, and eggplant contain both male and female parts on the same flower (called a perfect flower). Their ovules are fertilized by their own pollen.
Peas and Beans
In peas and beans, fertilization occurs before the flower opens. The anthers are snug against the stigma, ensuring pollination when the anthers release. These vegetables may be planted freely in the garden, although hard-core purists recommend separating beans by 150 feet or by another crop that will be flowering at the same time.
To Harvest Seeds: Let bean or pea pods dry on the plant until brown, then pick and shell. If cold weather looms, you can pull the entire plant and hang it upside down in a dry shelter. Label and store.
Lettuce flowers occur like fireworks, in a bunch of little sprays which open over three to four weeks. Each tiny flower generates one lettuce seed. In regards to purity, to not tempt fate you should separate varieties of lettuces that will flower at the same time by 20 feet.
To Harvest Seeds: Seed heads will ripen in stages parallel to the timeline of the flowers, the first about eleven to thirteen days after the first bloom. The rule of thumb with lettuces is to harvest when about half the flowers on each plant have gone to seed. Cut the stalks of the flowers and make a bouquet, which you cram head- first in a paper bag and hang upside down until it is fully dry. Then the seed can be shaken or rubbed from the chaff. Label and store.
[Note: In her book, Janisse also discusses saving tomato and eggplant seeds at length.]
Peppers and Okra
Although they have perfect flowers, these beauties are easily cross-pollinated by insects and should be kept 500 feet away from other varieties (a mile for okra) or, optionally, beneath screened cages—one variety to a cage. Okra flowers may easily be bagged.
To Harvest Seeds: Peppers turn red when they’re ripe. Scrape the seed from the pepper core and dry out of the sun. The seeds are dry when a folded seed breaks in your fingers. For okra, pick fully mature pods and let them dry until they split open like a banana peel. Knock out the seeds. Label and store.
[Note: In her book, Janisse also provides some detailed descriptions on seed saving with more difficult annuals, such as Squash, Cucumbers, Pumpkins, Cantaloupe, and Watermelons . For these, it’s important to learn how to hand-pollinate.]
These plants, which produce seeds in the second year of growth, include carrots, turnips, beets, kale, onions, parsnips, and salsify. The first year they produce a crop, which must be ignored (read: not eaten) and the plant must be maintained for a second year of growth. In northern climates biennials are dug up, overwintered in root cellars, and replanted the following spring. Firm types, like kohlrabi, are the easiest to overwinter; leafy types like collards tend to rot. If winters are mild, as ours are here in the subtropics of southern Georgia, biennials usually survive in the garden. For seed savers, most of these crops are self-sterile, require insects to pollinate, and cross-pollinate easily. All members of the brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, kale, collards, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) cross with each other. If you’re devoted to saving their seed, and I hope you are, you have to choose one cultivar from the entire family or isolate them by distance or screens.
To Harvest Seeds: Heading flowers are trickier to gather in that you must get the seed after maturity but before wind and animals scatter them.
Drying and Storing
Seeds must be thoroughly dry before storing. They should break, not bend. Life is triggered by moisture, and any droplet of water left in the seeds shortens their life span by keeping subtle life forces ticking away. A good rule is when you think seeds are dry, leave them another day. Temperatures over 110°F will damage seeds, so in hot climates they cannot be dried in direct sunlight. In humid conditions, subject them to a gentle heat—such as that from a solar dehydrator, a lightbulb, or a pilot light—kept around 90 degrees. Seeds that are prone to attack by weevils and other insect infestations also must be frozen in order to kill the eggs that have already been laid in the seeds. Store seeds under cool, dry conditions, since heat and humidity trigger germination and are enemies of viability. In general, seeds should be stored in airtight containers, such as envelopes in coffee cans with lids taped airtight. Silica gel packets are often used for moisture control. Seeds last longest in the freezer if they are completely dry. If not the freezer, keep them in the refrigerator, if possible.
I have mentioned only a small percentage of the vast kinds of edible botanicals in the world that we will want to keep growing, for the sake of survival and diversity and pleasure, when the biotechs fail or when civil society gets strong enough to crush the multinationals—whichever comes first. For other crops, I suggest again that you get the Ashworth book or check online.
Are you confused enough already? Don’t be. Seed saving is not hard. All you need is love.
Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.