By Nino G. Cocchiarella – For us, one of the primary elements of a more resilient/sustainable lifestyle is growing and raising as much of our own food as possible. My grandmother, who always had a large garden, taught me a love for growing things when I was young. Throughout my adult life I have gardened off and on, but never at such a large scale as I do now. The process of self-sustaining living brought me to a realization that I needed to learn how to save seeds. I may not be an expert, but I have years of practical experience complete with successes and failures.
With the exception of the last 70-80 years of “modern society,” humans have saved seed. These skills were lovingly handed down from generation to generation. The knowledge and technique simply became second hand to those who cultivated our food. Today we have all the advancements of the modern industrial society just a click away, and for those who still garden, the magic of the hybrid seed is the default choice.
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Nino’s lettuce (a cross between Big Boston and Red Leaf) starting to flower.
To be sure, many tomatoes in my past gardens have been from these wonder seeds. Strong, fast-growing, good producers, hybrids are a magical cross of two or in some cases many varieties. One is chosen for large fruit and another for disease resistance. While this produces the desired result in our gardens, expecting seeds saved from these hybrids to repeat their performance has about the same odds as picking a winning lottery number. In some cases seeds from hybrid plants will not be viable at all. In others you’ll only get one variety’s characteristics.
Heirloom seeds are those with true genealogy. Although heirloom seeds may well be “developed” as crosses with other varieties, they faithfully produce seeds that are true to their parent. That is, if you do your homework. There is great personal reward to standing back and admiring a large, thriving garden knowing most of those seeds are ones you saved!
How to save seeds starts with your garden plan. With many crops, it is the very seed we cultivate. Grains and cereals, for example, are living viable seeds. Once harvested and properly dried you’re ready for next years planting. Pre-selecting specific, large, healthy-looking plants and setting those aside when drying is a smart idea. As a side note, I believe that grains and cereals are a very important crop to learn how to grow and process. Grains and cereals are said to be 60% of our dietary needs, yet many in the sustainable agriculture movement don’t consider them.
Other crops are biennial. They need two full growing seasons to produce seed: onion, kale, carrot and beet, to name a few. These will need to be nurtured throughout the year. Again, pre-selecting specific large healthy-looking plants is key. Not picking them in the tastiest prime may prove challenging but like not butchering the biggest rooster you’ll want the prize plants for seed production, not your table. If you’re in a cold climate the tubers will need to have their leaves and some roots trimmed and then stored in a damp, not wet, medium like sawdust in a root cellar to hibernate for the winter. Having a plan for where to put them the second year is important.
I’m only going to touch on cross pollination, but good planning on planting dates (when the crop will flower) and distance from potential problem cousins is critical for some varieties. Heirloom seed producers will actually isolate plants to avoid cross-pollination. I highly recommend studying up on what will cross with what and to avoid it. Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is the seed-saving Bible to many of us who are still mastering how to save seeds, but there are plenty of other good resources. Sometimes cross-pollination gives you a nice surprise. I grow a lettuce that was a happy accident between a Boston head-type and Red Leaf lettuce. Some crops, like legumes, do not cross-pollinate.
Kale plants that over-wintered in full bloom.
Some plants are self-pollinating while others need a little help, so don’t forget the bees! Bees are great to have around for all kinds of sweet reasons, but they do perform an invaluable service. This time of year I enjoy being in the garden picking things while my bees buzz from flower to flower. There are many other insects that help with pollination too, and a healthy living garden should be full of all kinds of insect life. Of course, there are some voracious insects I could live without, personally.
In an ideal garden designed just for seed saving, you’d only grow one variety of plant or construct elaborate containment systems. Hand pollination then becomes the only method. In the real world, we want several different kinds of tomatoes. And tomatoes continue to flower for a good long time—we hope. So unless you’re the really hard-core, scientific type expect some cross pollinating to occur. I’ve been interjecting new seed here and there in my garden each year. Although that’s partly to support the many great organizations that provide heirloom seeds, I also think it’s a wise thing to do.
Kale seed pods forming.
Drying is a very important part of learning how to save seeds. Many plants do a great job drying the seed right in place on the plant. But there are a few things to be concerned about. Damp weather coming is one. If you’ve had a dry week and your seedpods are looking mostly dry, it’s time to get them out of the weather. Even when the weather cooperates some plants, like the brassicas (kale, radish, many greens), produce seed pods that “shatter’ at the touch when dry. These will need to be bagged soon before they are all the way dry so you don’t lose half the seed crop. Paper bags work well for storing almost dry seeds from some of the smaller varieties such as lettuce, kale and many herbs. The kraft paper bag helps pull moisture out and keeps things organized (don’t forget to label it!) while the final drying occurs. I’ll cut entire seedpod laden branches and stick them in a bag and take it inside where it is dryer and a more constant temperature.
After a few more weeks, or even longer, I’ll carefully take the seedpod-covered branches out and rub them in my hands over a large bowl. After the pods are empty don’t forget all the seeds already fallen in the bag. Now you have a mess of seeds and dry pod particles. Some people winnow this mixture to clean it up. Others will invest in seed-cleaning equipment. Here in Indiana wind is hit and miss so I use various screens sizes and pour the mixture of seeds and pod chunks/particles through one of these screens. It may not result in perfectly clean seeds with no particles but that isn’t going to hurt anything.
Some veggies produce seeds that are encased in a gelatinous coating. This is nature’s way of protecting the seed while it passes through the digestive system of the lucky critter that ate it. This coating needs to be removed. Tomatoes and cucumbers fall into this category. These slippery tiny seeds need to be soaked in a glass of water for several days. Change the water daily, waiting until the smell is fairly bad but not really bad. This indicates that the gelatinous coating has rotted off and the seeds are ready to dry. I spread the wet slippery seeds out on a paper towel and allow to fully air-dry.
Swiss chard flowers forming.
Some friends save their seeds in the freezer. I’ve not done that but it is a way to increase longevity. You’ll need to be sure the moisture content is less than 14% (see below). I store seeds in kraft paper bags, and envelopes. Larger quantities, like grains and cereals, in various cans with air holes in the lids. While cooler, our root cellar is very moist. Our basement humidity fluctuates greatly, so I store my seeds upstairs in my office, where the temperature and humidity are slightly more controllable. I don’t seal any container unless I know the humidity is less than 20%, which never happens in southern Indiana.
Seed storage: Effects on temperature and moisture
- Each 1% reduction in seed moisture doubles seed life.
- Each 10ºF reduction in seed temperature doubles seed life.
- Above 30% seed moisture, non-dormant seeds will begin to germinate.
- 10-15% moisture content suppresses seed activity and fungus.
- At less than 14% seed moisture, no ice crystals will form, so you may store seeds below freezing.
- At below 10% moisture, few insects survive.
- At below 50ºF, few insects grow.
- 100ºF is the maximum temperature that should be used to dry seeds of most plants.
- 4-6% is ideal seed moisture content for long-term storage (more than a year). Can be higher if refrigerated.
- Seeds stored in refrigerator or freezer must be in sealed container, or they will imbibe moisture.
- Seeds dried to a low water content take a longer time to germinate.
Various seeds drying on screens, in bags and buckets inside.
The Bleak Mid-Winter
In all cases it’s a good wintertime activity to go through your seeds in a bright light and with your best close-up glasses on. Separate out cracked or misshapen seeds. Look for the cleanest, biggest, most true-to-type seeds. I often separate the good-looking seeds further into No. 1’s and No. 2’s, planting the biggest, best ones first in the spring, and holding the lesser but still good seed as a back up.
Sources & References for How to Save Seeds
While I’m sure there are many good top seed companies that carry heirloom seeds, these are companies I’ve had good luck working with:
If you’re an experienced seed saver, what tips would you share with someone learning how to save seeds?
Originally published in Countryside September / October 2012 and regularly vetted for accuracy.