Tempting though it may be to ignore everything else but the delicious flavor of our home produce, it is important to bear in mind that all living things – which means, to a greater or lesser extent, pretty much all of our food – follow a cycle in their growth patterns. With crops which are annuals, such as most commercial crops and many salads and vegetables, if we harvest the food but not the seed we are breaking this cycle.
In order to create an even more efficient system, we can harvest the seeds from our vegetable plots and re-seed them next year, ensuring prolonged biodiversity and more economically liable growing for us, as we don’t have to keep buying seeds.
When you save seeds for planting and legacy from year to year you should plant only heirloom seeds. There are some useful resources out there to help decide which vegetables will be most successful. I have researched many sources including universities. Here are some tips on seed saving from experienced gardeners and knowledgeable individuals and organizations.
However tempting it might be to fill your garden with a blossoming diversity of different types of vegetables, in terms of actually being able to save that diversity for coming generations it may be more helpful to grow just one variety of each different crop at a time.
A key part of garden design for me is to choose types of plant, zoning, etc., in a way which means that the garden will, at least to some extent, look after itself. When applying this to which seeds you will save you can choose which plants are doing well in your garden to collect seeds from, as their seeds will be more adapted to the climate, soil, etc. it is also key to choose the strongest and healthiest plants from which to gather your seeds. Remember which plants you wish to save seeds from mark it some way such as a piece of strong, brightly-colored string around those which you see is growing well. When you choose characteristics like this, if you keep marking the plants with the strongest tendencies of whatever it is you want more of with each successive generation, and then it only takes three generations for the characteristic to ‘fix’. This means that if you keep saving seeds from plants which exhibit the same desirable characteristic – be it early cropping, tall height or whatever you wish from your plants – then after three generations you will have effectively nurtured into existence a whole new strain which is stable in those. Then after three generations you will have effectively nurtured into existence a whole new strain which is stable in those characteristics.
There are a number of simple tips for harvesting and storing seeds, which if followed will greatly increase chances of viability.
Firstly, the best method with which to collect your seeds differs depending on the type of plant. There are three main ways to collect seeds: dry collection, wet collection and fermentation. With all techniques you need to make sure you have chosen from your best plants. When collecting from your garden, you will inevitably sacrifice some food crops in order to let your chosen plant go to seed so it is important that you choose a healthy one to do this.
Dry collection is for seeds which dry on the plant. This includes many flowers such as marigolds and poppies, most salads such as lettuce and rocket, and brassicas. To collect seeds in this way there are three steps:
1) Harvesting: cut the seeds from the stalk or stem.
2) Threshing: separate the seeds from the ‘chaff’ or seed pods, and from the stalks. This can be done by placing the seeds in their pods in a saucer and rubbing them between your fingers and thumbs to break away the encasing material.
When you have a larger amount of seeds to collect than can be practically threshed in this way, it is a good idea to use sieves with different sized holes for different species’ seed — such as the ones used by the Heritage Seed Library.
3) Winnowing: this is similar to threshing, in that you are continuing to separate the seeds from any other material present but doing it on a finer level. When harvesting seeds on a small scale this can be as simple as putting them on a saucer and blowing them gently, to lift the unwanted material away. Some seed savers use a simple machine with fans which do the blowing for you. This step is important as you want your seeds as clean as possible. If there are still bits of chaff left on the seeds this has the potential to rot and damage them.
This technique is for seeds which grow inside the fruit or vegetable they come from, and so have to be extracted from it. This includes fruit such as strawberries and raspberries (as well as cucumbers, pumpkins and squashes. In order to harvest these seeds, you need a sieve and (perhaps more importantly) to be prepared to get your hands gooey and messy.
- First, scoop out the seeds from your chosen fruit or vegetable into the sieve which is placed over a sink or bowl. Pour water into the sieve and give the seeds a good mix with your hands to separate them from the goo.
- Rinse and repeat. If the process begins getting too repetitive, you can try just leaving the seeds in a bowl of water for an hour or so, allowing the debris to float to the top and away from the seeds. If you are fermenting your seeds you will wish to do it this anyway.
This process is very similar to wet collection, but after you have washed the debris from the seeds you then leave them in a bowl or jar of water for two or three days in order to ferment.
The reason for this is that some seeds, in particular many from tomatoes and peppers contain a coating on the seeds which prevents them from germinating until they have been digested. In a wild situation the fruit would be eaten by an animal, such as a human for example, and the seeds excreted in a handy ball of fertilizer once they had been through the digestion process. With fermentation we can bypass the need to actually digest the seeds by placing the seeds in water which is open to the air, and thus will catch inside it bacteria similar to those present in many animals’ stomachs. This process is very similar to lacto-fermentation of food in that you are catching bacteria from the air in order for them to do a process for you.
After leaving the seeds for a couple of days in the water, you should notice a kind of milky residue in there with them. There may be green mold as well; this is all a good sign that the fermentation process is working.
Drying and storing the seeds
Once you have harvested your seeds it is very important that you dry them swiftly and thoroughly before storing them.
When your seeds are dry, make sure you label them correctly, and store them in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Ideally you want a faint current of air running through to keep the seeds fresh. Many people use paper envelopes to store seeds in, though the Heritage Seed Library recommend mason jars with hermetically sealing lids as the best storage containers.
Now you have the beginnings of a seed bank – and you are ready to plant and grow!