Anyone who has browsed the produce aisle, looking for their favorite type of apple or apricot or tomatoes—the ones that are the most flavorful or colorful—knows how disappointed they'd be if those favorites disappeared from your produce bin.
Most of the foods we eat today can trace their roots back to wild ancestors that were quite different—from looks to taste to nutrients. Corn, for example, didn't even have a cog or a husk. Instead it was a grass known as teosinte.
The sweet yellow corn we know today is a result of thousands of years of planting seeds, examining the results, and saving the seeds from plants we liked best. This assured that the traits we liked best—bigger, juicier, sweeter—would be kept intact for future sowing and crop yields.
Today we have thousands of corn varieties, developed over the centuries by local farmers and personal gardeners alike.
The same is true of nearly every other plant in our gardens. Hundreds of thousands of varieties exist, developed by individual growers, because of seed saving.
But variety isn't the only reason to save seeds. Sometimes our very survival depends on a plant's genetic diversity. If a crop were to be wiped out from disease or disaster, like what happened during the Irish Potato Famine
or the rice blight in India, a new variety that is resistant to the disease can restore the species.
In 1979 and 1980, for example, a region of India's entire rice crop was decimated by a blight. The affected region's rice crop was restored only after agronomists (soil and plant scientists who work on crops) found an obscure rice variety that was resistant to the disease.
Farmers and gardeners have only known about genetics or patterns of inheritance for about 100 years. Before then, they only knew that plants, like animals and human beings, can pass on traits to their offspring through reproduction.
In the twentieth century, as theories of inheritance unfolded and the structure and function of DNA became clearer, cross-breeding or hybridization
Soon, commercial farmers and agricultural scientists began using a more modern method for creating variety. Splicing desirable genes from one species into another, or, genetic modification, became widely practiced.
Today GMO plants are usually produced on a large scale by seed companies rather than by individual farmers or gardeners. Farmers and gardeners whose livelihoods rely on healthy, abundant crops buy these seeds because they have many beneficial qualities: They can better withstand drought or heat or freezing temperatures, or they yield larger fruit or may be easier to harvest.
The problem is, two things cannot occupy the same space at once. For every commercially developed variety that's planted, there's a homegrown or heirloom plant variety that isn't being planted.
As a result, the plant kingdom's gene pool is shrinking.
Seed saving helps insure diversity
and diversity can ensure continuation of a species. Diversity means that we can continue enjoying the plants we've grown, literally, to love and depend on for our sustenance long into the future.
Seed saving or 'brown bagging' can be fun and easy. There are several seed banks and even a seed school
around the country where dedicated staff gather, test, clean and catalog the seeds of native or ancient plants.
You can also learn to save your own seeds.
Save seeds from sample fruit/flowers from the earliest, healthiest and most vigorous plants. Select from various parts of the growing area so that you get a diverse selection which you can selectively narrow down over time.
Only a few seeds from each fruit is needed.
Below are general guidelines for gathering and treating the most commonly-saved garden seeds.
Tomatoes & Cucumbers
Tomato, cucumber and similar fruits (Yes, seeded plants are technically fruit.) have seeds that are coated with a gel that keeps them from sprouting inside the fruit. There are a couple of methods for removing this gel.
Cucumber and squash seeds can simply be picked out of very ripe fruit, placed in a mesh strainer, rinsed well and seeds dried on paper toweling. Or, you can remove the gel coating from seeds by fermenting them. It can get icky and smelly but it works!
- Squeeze or spoon the seed mass into a glass jar or plastic container.
- Add enough water to equal the volume of the seed mass. Place the container in a warm spot out of direct sunlight.
- Stir at least once a day.
- In 2-3 days, the viable seeds will sink to the bottom and dead seeds, debris and a whitish mold will float to the surface.
- Wait 5 days for all the good seeds to drop into the bottom of the container, then rinse away the waste at the top.
- Wash the seeds in several changes of water, and lay them out in a single layer on a plate, mesh screen or paper towel.
- Place your seeds in a warm place until they are fully dry. This can take several weeks.
Chile pepper and bell pepper seeds are a lot easier to save than gel-coated seeds.
- Simply cut peppers open and pull out the fleshy core that's filled with the seeds.
- Brush them off with your fingers or a small spoon onto a plate, screen or towel.
- Put seeds aside to dry.
Peas & Beans
- For watermelons, simply rinse the seeds under running water to remove any traces of flesh or membrane. For cantaloupe, honeydew and muskmelon, seeds will have more fibers and membrane attached to them. You can rub the seeds between your fingers under running water to remove as much of the flesh and debris as you can.
- Put the seeds in a container of water, and the good seeds will sink to the bottom.
- Remove what comes to the top, give the good seeds another rinse, and dry them on a plate, screen or paper towel.
Other Pod Plants
- Pick withered brown pea and bean pods from the vines and remove the seeds. One way is to put them in loosely woven baskets and stir them once a day.
- If frost or other inclement weather threatens legumes that are ripe but not dry, pull up the vines by the roots and hang the plants upside down in a warm area, such as your basement or shed. The pods will draw energy from the plants for another few days, which will increase the seed viability.
Radish, lettuce, and Chinese greens also produce seeds in pods after the plant has flowered. With these vegetables, too, it is best to let the pods dry on the plant.
These plants, however, tend to dry from the bottom up, a few pods at a time. Once dry, the seeds tend to scatter all over the ground. You can either bag the seed heads by putting a paper bag tied at the base over the plants to capture the seeds, or pick the dry pods on a daily basis.
Sunflower seeds are a great, nutritious addition to any dish. Sunflowers are known for their generous seed production and are just about the easiest seeds of all to collect and save. Each sunflower bloom may contain up to 2,000 seeds.
Unlike hybrids, heirloom varieties grow true to seed and are the best types to harvest for replanting. The key to your successful sunflower season next year is harvesting and storing your seeds correctly.
- Wait for the flower heads on your sunflower tp begin to wilt. It is ready to harvest when the back side of the head turns brown. While the seeds may actually be mature before that time, the flower head is still moist and needs time to dry out prior to harvest. Examine the seeds closely. They’ll look flat and a bit shrunken because they need more time to plump up.
- Cover the sunflower head with a brown paper bag to protect the seeds from scavenging birds. Also, tie it closed with a piece of string to keep ripening seeds from falling to the ground. Don’t use a plastic bag. Plastic won’t allow air circulation and will cause mold. Leave the paper bag in place while the sunflower dies completely.
- Check on the sunflower’s progress daily. The seeds are ready to harvest when the back of the flower head turns completely dark brown and the flower looks dead or dying. Most if not all of the petals will have fallen off.
- Cut the flower stalk about 12 to 18 inches below the bag. Turn it upside down and hang it from the stem in a well-ventilated spot in a warm, dry room until the flower head is completely dry, 1-5 days.
- Hold the flower head over a colander. Rub the palm of your hand briskly against the seeds, which will pop right out of the bloom. Rinse the seeds thoroughly with cool running water. Allow them to drain freely for 10 or 15 minutes.
- Immediately after rinsing, allow the seeds to dry at room temperature overnight.
- Layer some clean newspapers in the bottom of a shallow cardboard box. Cover the newspapers with paper towels. Spread the sunflower seeds out loosely in a single layer on the paper toweling. Leave plenty of space for air to circulate between them. Allow them to dry at room temperature overnight. Do this immediately after rinsing to prevent the seeds from molding.
- Sort through your sunflower seeds, choosing the plumpest ones. They’re the most likely to be viable.
Store your completely dry seeds in a carefully marked envelope noting the date, species, type of fruit or vegetable and any other characteristics of your plant. Then place your seed envelope in a glass jar or plastic container, tightly sealed.
To keeps seeds at their freshest, store them in the produce drawer in your refrigerator.
Remember, the germination capability of a seed declines with age—the freshest seeds are more likely to germinate. But, depending on the type, some seeds can remain viable for up to 15 years. Others, like sunflower seeds, you should consider them to be viable only for the next season.
You can extend seeds' viability by freezing them, especially if you have a zero-degree freezer. Properly dried and frozen seeds will remain viable for at least 40 years!
Have fun saving your seeds. May your family table be blessed with fresh fruits and vegetables for generations to come.